Game Over

City Council passes sweeping measures aimed at curbing pay-to-play.

By Gwen Shaffer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 1, 2005

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Even if it took five federal court convictions to compel City Council to act, Philadelphia is now poised to implement some of the toughest contract requirements in the nation.

Last week a nearly unanimous City Council passed a package of ethics reforms intended to stamp out Philadelphia's century-old reputation as a city where money buys political access. But before the far-reaching proposals can become law, Philadelphians must approve an amendment to the Home Rule Charter.

If voters approve the ballot initiative in November-as they're almost certain to do-the measures passed last week will bar the city from awarding no-bid contracts of $10,000 or more to individuals who contribute more than $2,500 annually to a candidate vying for local office. Businesses that give more than $10,000 will also be barred from receiving noncompetitive city contracts valued at $25,000 and higher.

Mayor Street characterizes the reforms as "a giant step forward," adding that they're "only the beginning" of needed ethics reforms in Philadelphia. He's expected to sign the bills when they hit his desk.

Passage of the legislation signals a major victory for Councilman Michael Nutter, who first floated a series of ethics reforms last September. Many of those original measures-which compete with proposals backed by Mayor Street-are stuck in the Law and Government Committee.

Two months ago it appeared that contract reforms could wither and die on the vine. Just 11 Council members voted in favor of the original bill March 17. At the time Councilwoman Marian Tasco opposed language she contended would hurt social service providers. Nutter amended that provision after negotiating with Tasco and human service agencies.

Back in March several other reform opponents argued that their constituents failed to see a need for tough city ethics laws. Apparently Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's position hasn't budged.

She cast the lone vote against the bills last week. She justified her position on the grounds that the measures aren't "tight enough." She says they discriminate against candidates who depend on fundraising, while favoring candidates who are independently wealthy.

"I want legislation that makes a difference, not some reaction to a federal probe," Blackwell says. She has no suggestions for strengthening contract reforms, arguing instead that laws now on the books suffice.

"I believe in the American system and that people have a right to contribute to whomever and to whatever they choose," Blackwell says.

In response, Nutter asserts that contract awards shouldn't be influenced by fat checks. "If people want to do business with us, we have the authority to set the terms and establish rules. If people don't want to do business with the city, they can give money to whomever they want."

Zack Stalberg, who heads up the good-government group Committee of Seventy, characterizes the bills passed last week as "useful, but not nearly enough."

"In order to remove the dark cloud over City Hall, we need a code of ethics and lobbying regulations," he says. "I would feel short-shrifted if, after 18 months of debate, all we got was contract reforms."

The Street administration has floated various proposals that would establish an independent Board of Ethics, require lobbyists to disclose campaign contributions and ban city employees from hiring relatives. Stalberg says the summer "will be a great time" to scrutinize these proposals.

Gwen Shaffer (gshaffer@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about Philly Neighborhood Networks, an effort to reform local politics.

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