The conviction of Councilmember Bobby Henon and Local 98 business manager John Dougherty marks a historic break from business as usual in Philadelphia politics. This culture of pay-to-play and transactional politics is costly to our city government’s ability to support a better quality of life for our residents. In light of these egregious crimes, now is the time to reignite the effort to close these glaring loopholes and vulnerabilities in our public integrity laws and oversight. If we can do this, Philadelphia will take yet another big step away from its reputation as “corrupt and contented.”
Three areas of reform ought to be enacted:
Strengthen Disclosure and Restrictions for Outside Jobs
If outside employment for City Council members will not be banned outright, then substantially more disclosure and restriction is needed on these types of jobs. For one paying $70,000 per year, Councilmember Henon has needed only to disclose to the public the name of his employer, its address and his position: “Electrician.” This is woefully inadequate. For officials with paid, non-city jobs, the public deserves to know, at a minimum, the nature of the work, the amount of time spent on it, and who that city official reports to other than the general public. Due to legislation passed earlier this year, sources of income including outside jobs, if greater than $5,000, will have to be disclosed by city officials starting in January 2022.
But simply knowing who has an outside job is not enough. The city’s rules around conflicts of interest and representation should also be expanded to guard against a public official acting so explicitly on behalf of an outside actor. This should include a ban on employment with any entity that lobbies the city.
Expand the Scope of the Inspector General
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) was created in 1984 by Mayor Wilson Goode with a mission to prevent and root out fraud, abuse and misconduct in city government. Continuing through successive administrations with an evolving set of duties and powers, Inspectors General especially in recent years have been remarkably successful, bolstering trust in efficient and ethical government and more than paying for the costs of the office. Over the last five years, the OIG has recorded nearly $41 million in savings and recovery on an annual budget of roughly $1.5 million. But having only existed via mayoral orders, the authority of the Inspector General is limited to the executive and administrative branch. Enshrining the Office of Inspector General in the Home Rule Charter with purview over all of city government including City Council and the several row offices—Sheriff, Register of Wills and City Commissioners—is a long overdue reform.
Consider the Public Financing of City Elections
The use of taxpayer dollars as a means to amplify the influence of small-dollar donors and level the playing field against well-heeled special interests has continued to gain ground in other parts of the country. New York City has the largest such finance system, which allows for a $10 contribution from a city resident to be leveraged to as much as $90 (an 8-1 match) for a campaign, diversifying the funding base of every participating candidate while also subjecting them to additional rules and reporting requirements. In a city with so many needs, a democracy reform requiring millions of dollars warrants all the more discussion and debate, but with no end in sight for the torrent of money from super PACs in local elections (not to mention state and federal), every option should be on the table.
City government cannot serve the people of Philadelphia when there is a culture of fear and retribution; meanwhile, Philadelphians are in urgent need of critical services and resources to be safe, healthy and to raise their families. To meet these needs, the overwhelming majority of our city officials and employees, ethical and hardworking public servants, have been stretched to—and at times, past—the brink throughout this pandemic. To honor their service and to close these exposed vulnerabilities in our politics and governance, we urge Philadelphia City Council to take up debate around the reforms that will rebuild trust and confidence in the integrity of city government.