Municipal ethics reform in Pa.
The efforts of Councilwoman Olga Negron and Councilman Michael Colon to produce a strong comprehensive ethics ordinance for City of Bethlehem public officials have captured the attention of the League of Women Voters (LWV) throughout the Commonwealth.
During the League’s statewide conference, held at Pocono Manor from June 2 to 4, a workshop titled “Municipal Ethics Reform in PA: Tales from the Trenches,” featured Negron, Lehigh University Associate Professor Breena Holland, and City of Reading Ethics Commission solicitor Edward Stock. The session was facilitated by outgoing Northampton County LWV President Beverly Hernandez and attended by incoming president Margaret Skaarup.
In their presentation each touched on the different challenges of enacting ethics legislation to promote and ensure good government practices.
Holland focused on discussing the motivation, the process and the strategy for increasing transparency and accountability for public officials, noting recent FBI indictments and ongoing investigation into pay to play in Allentown city government. She cited “distrust of local government” in light of decisions and votes taken in Bethlehem that have the appearance of conflictbased on campaign contributions received by elected officials. “There is citizen distrust and cynicism when large campaign contributions result in favorable decisions,” Holland said.
Holland explained the key elements are to gather interested citizens; research, consult and draft an ordinance; and, then collaborate, educate and do community outreach, which are the steps that have been taken in the City of Bethlehem. “We needed something comprehensive, not just a vague resolution,” she said.
Councilwoman Negron discussed the presentation of the proposed ordinance to the entire Bethlehem City Council.
“It’s not a piece of cake when you’re proposing something to a body that will be affected by it,” she said, explaining how she came under “interrogation” by some of her peers on council.
Negron has said that she felt challenged to work on ethics legislation while running for office, ironically to fill the remaining two years of Councilwoman Karen Dolan’s term after her conduct on City Council had drawn the rebuke of a Northampton County Grand Jury. The Grand Jury’s scathing report cited Dolan’s use of political influence to benefit the non-profit Illick’s Mill Partnership, for whom she was executive director and from whom she received compensation. Dolan resigned from council.
Upon being elected to council, Negron said that she attended state ethics training and learned how weak the state ethics law is. She was told that you can make a local ordinance stronger and set about doing that with the assistance of a group of Bethlehem residents who had the same interest in good government.
Negron said she found it bothersome at a lengthy Council Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss the proposed Negron-Colon ethics ordinance, that interested residents grew frustrated and left early before they were allowed to speak at the end of the meeting, thereby sending the wrong message to the public that their input wasn’t valued.
Attorney Stock, who had been involved in writing the City of Reading’s home rule charter, explained that the new charter had required that Reading City Council update its code of ethics and that it led to the establishment of an independent board of ethics comprised of residents who were not political office holders or politically connected. City Council is also required to fund it to make it operational.
Stock said that the Board of Ethics must remain focused and that most complaints end up being dismissed or are ruled de minimus,or too minimal to merit consideration. He said that penalties include fines, firings, public sanctions and advisory opinions, and Stock said that the current elected officials are taking ethics quite seriously after the former Reading City Council President Francis Acosta pled guilty to bribery conspiracy and the FBI investigation of other Reading officials continues.
He sympathized with the pushback Negron has been receiving from some on council. Stock noted “more training would create a better atmosphere” as well as there being a need for “top level” officials to buy in so that other public officials would follow.
After a short question and answer period, Hernandez wrapped it up and emphasized that the League of Women Voters wants good government. “It would seem that ethical conduct in government is a no-brainer,” Hernandez said.
For more information on good government in Bethlehem and the proposed ethic ordinance visit https://goodlocalgovt.wordpress.com.