Committee of Seventy
Written Testimony on Bill 200015 and Resolution 200056
Proposed Changes to Political Activity Rules
City Council Committee on Law and Government
February 3, 2020
My name is Pat Christmas, Policy Director for the Committee of Seventy, and I appreciate the opportunity to share testimony today around Bill 200015 and Resolution 200056, which propose to amend the City of Philadelphia’s political activity rules in the Home Rule Charter, Section 10-107, and penalties in Section 10-109.
We testified in December 2019 expressing several questions and concerns regarding the earlier version of this proposal (Bill 190861 and Resolution 190874) and are pleased to see the changes in this newest iteration.
The fundamental question in considering this amendment is whether there has been enough progress in the integrity of city government over the past 70 years to allow some loosening of our political activity restrictions. These were set as part of the 1951 Charter when concern was widely shared that municipal resources and employees would be put directly to use in the party machinery.
Today, Philadelphia has yet to rid itself of corruption and there remain substantial vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. But these particular changes to Section 10-107 we believe would be acceptable to move forward to the voters for their consideration.
Philadelphia has the strictest political activity rules among major U.S. cities, and even if voters were to approve these changes, that would continue to be true. Whereas most localities allow public employees and officials to volunteer directly with any partisan campaigns on their own time, Philadelphia city employees are currently prohibited from working with a candidate’s campaign regardless of the office being sought – local, state or federal. Such a blanket restriction most resembles the prohibitions on “Further Restricted” federal employees under the Hatch Act, which generally include those who work in intelligence or enforcement agencies.
This legislation would allow Philadelphia officials and employees to volunteer directly with partisan campaigns for federal office (U.S. president, U.S. Senate, U.S House), certain state-level offices (Governor, Auditor General, Attorney General, Treasurer, and state Senator and Representative districts outside the city) and any local office outside the city (e.g., County Commissioner, Common Pleas Court). City employees would continue to be barred from participating in campaigns for any municipal office, General Assembly seats in the city, and local judgeships. Given how closely entwined these campaigns are with our local politics, a prohibition on this set of offices should stay in place.
Three notable improvements to this proposed amendment are the limitation of partisan participation to "non-managerial volunteer activity,” that the exemption does not extend to certain politically sensitive offices, and its modernized penalties provisions.
Non-managerial volunteer activity only. An earlier concern raised by Seventy was that public officials might be allowed to work in high-level positions on a partisan campaign or enlisted in campaign work that directly leverages expertise or experience from their city jobs. It would be problematic, for example, to have department heads or mayoral aides – those with public profiles and who supervise numerous other employees – play leading roles in electoral politics in and around the city. This would create, at best, a perception problem for the public; and at worst, real temptation to mix partisan activity with nonpartisan duties.
The condition in this amendment that any partisan campaigning be “non-managerial” should help ensure sufficient distance between the campaign work and a public employee’s nonpartisan day job. Canvassing and phone-banking, for example, are relatively anonymous activities and presumably could be performed in off hours without issue.
Carveouts for politically sensitive offices. This legislation also will not extend the option to participate in partisan campaigns to several of the city’s politically sensitive offices. Employees in the Office of the City Commissioners and District Attorney’s Office, officers and members of the Police Department, and members and employees of the Board of Ethics will continue to work under the full ban on any partisan activity. Overseeing elections, ensuring compliance with ethics rules, enforcing the law and maintaining public safety, require the utmost public trust. These carveouts are appropriate.
Modernized penalty provisions. Finally, Section 10-109 regarding penalties for political activity violations would, if this amendment were to pass, receive a long overdue modernization. The serious concern of the Charter’s drafters is evident in sanctions that could include not only fines of up to $300 per violation (approximately $3,000 when adjusted for inflation) but imprisonment of up to 90 days. The proposed amendment eliminates the prospect of jail time – an unnecessarily draconian punishment – and allows for fines “up to the maximum of the City’s authority to establish fines by statute.” If made law, this could allow for a fine structure similar to that used for campaign finance violations with aggravating and mitigating factors to be considered for each individual case.
Given the time to consider further over the past several months the prospect of loosening these political activity rules and to review the conditions in other jurisdictions, it is Seventy’s assessment that the specific changes in this amendment are appropriate. Philadelphia’s municipal ethics infrastructure and norms have progressed since the mid-twentieth century, and this type of amendment reflects that reality.