December 2, 2019
Committee of Seventy
Written Testimony on Bill 190861 and Resolution 190874
City Council Committee on Law and Government
My name is Pat Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, and I appreciate the opportunity to share testimony today around Bill 190861 and Resolution 190874, which propose to amend the City of Philadelphia’s political activity rules in the Home Rule Charter, section 10-107.
The provisions in Article X, including §10-107, have been essential to guarding against corruption and abuse of public office and resources since they were adopted with the 1951 Charter. At the time, divorcing Philadelphia’s political machinery from city government and services was of paramount concern. Keeping these separate has required not only strict laws but increasingly robust training and enforcement. Over the past 15 years, in particular, the City has taken enormous leaps forward in government integrity by passing strong campaign finance, ethics and lobbying rules, and standing up an independent Board of Ethics to enforce them. Given this history, any potential changes to Article X must be made with great care and a full understanding their implications.
If passed by Council and approved by the voters, the proposed Charter amendment would allow City officers and employees to engage directly in partisan campaigns for all federal offices (Presidency, U.S. Senate and House), state-level offices elected on a statewide basis (Governor, Auditor General, Attorney General, Treasurer, state appellate courts) and any other office in the state on which Philadelphia voters would not vote (e.g., County Commissioners, judgeships or General Assembly seats outside the city limits). Considering the political activity rules in other jurisdictions, evaluating a possible change to §10-107 is a legitimate issue for City Council to consider. But in evaluating the amendment, Seventy has questions and concerns both with the substance of the proposed change and in how it might be implemented.
First, with regard to the merits of opening up permissible political activity for City officers and employees to include partisan campaigning:
Second, we believe there must be greater certainty around how the new policy would be implemented and enforced before amending the Charter.
If the substantive issues can be thoroughly addressed, the new rules would be put into effect in the lead up to the November 2020 general election and undoubtedly create additional challenges. We are interested in hearing the perspective of the Board of Ethics with regard to implementation, enforcement and whether additional resources would be needed.
It should also be noted that an underlying problem has been an interpretation of the City’s political activity rules that was inconsistent, ambiguous and overly-restrictive. The Board of Ethics’ most recent version of Regulation 8, however, clarifies the broad degree of political expression currently allowable under the Charter for public employees. This includes, for example: campaigning around ballot questions; supporting voter registration drives not organized by a political party, candidate or campaign; signing nominating petitions; attending political rallies, fundraisers or other events; making political contributions; and participating in political activities through certain groups as long as the activities have not been coordinated with a political party, candidate or campaign.
Public employees do have opportunities to participate in politics on their own time and resources. The proposed amendment, however, is significant in how it would expand these opportunities further to engage directly in the partisan campaigns of candidates and parties. Given our concerns, Seventy cannot support the proposed Charter amendment at this time; but, we welcome continued discussion and debate around this issue.
With the very short timeline to vet in public this legislation before the end 2019, Seventy recommends, at a minimum, that this issue be brought back up for discussion by the next City Council. This additional time would be valuable for the Council, the administration, the Board of Ethics, Seventy and other stakeholders to determine with certainty the implications of the proposal for City government and our public employees.
Pat Christmas, Policy Director
Committee of Seventy