Article By: Michelle Meeh Speccial to the Bethlehem Press
What would a reasonable person do when faced with an ethical dilemma?
That seemed to be the question on the minds of the public and city council at the Aug. 15 meeting when council members approved an ordinance prohibiting acceptance of gifts by a 5-0 vote with one abstention. Council member Olga Negron abstained and Council member Shawn Martell was absent.
However, some changes may be proposed before the ordinance comes up for second reading at the Sept. 5 meeting. Council member Michael Colon said amendments are possible, given the input from members of the public.
Most of the input focused on the “reasonable person” standard in the gift ordinance, which had been proposed by Council member Bryan Callahan. The ordinance prohibits city employees and officials from accepting “gifts made when a reasonable person would infer there has been an actual or attempted effort to influence the employee in the discharge of that employee’s duties to benefit the donor or another party with treatment more favorable than accorded the public generally.”
Solicitor John F. “Jack” Spirk said the phrase is an accepted legal term.
Resident Barbara Diamond said the “reasonable person” standard was not defined and should be replaced by a specific dollar amount beyond which gifts would be prohibited. She also said that complimentary travel should also be prohibited. If travel is necessary for city employees or officials to do their jobs, then it should be a part of the budget. The ordinance also lacks an enforcement process, Diamond said. “This proposal falls far short. This does not inspire confidence. We need to do better.”
Recent events in Allentown have shown that “corruption is extremely costly to taxpayers,” she said. “If want higher standards we should enact them at the local level.”
Resident Steven Diamond said he used to sell medical equipment in Southeast Asia, where gifts were expected to get business done. “Why does anyone have to give you anything to do your duty?” he asked.
Another resident, Paige Van Wirt, said the ordinance was “not nearly strong enough.” She also suggested a flat ten dollar amount for any gifts.
Resident Bill Scheier said the reasonable person standard was a potential loophole, since it was too vague and “subject to abuse.” He also recommended an absolute cap on gifts. He also said the ordinance gives the city controller far too much power,” since it gives the controller the authority to investigate alleged violations. While he likes Controller George Yasso, Schreier said, in the future it is possible another controller might be an ally of an accused individual, making it difficult to be objective. “Whatever happened to the district attorney?” Scheier asked.
Yasso agreed, urging council to take steps to make the ordinance less ambiguous.
Council President J. William Reynolds the ordinance came from an administration policy put in place by Mayor Bob Donchez in 2015. He said the controller, working with the legal department, would always have opportunity to go to the District Attorney if necessary.
Resident Breena Holland said the ordinance “substantially a rewrite” of state standards and does not apply more stringent standards.
Negron suggested the ordinance be referred to a committee of the whole for more discussion. “Unless we have changes I can’t support it.”
Council member Eric Evans suggestions $100 cap on gifts. While Council member Adam Waldron said he agreed with adding a specific number value, he said the ordinance had some good points. “It does a lot to get us in the right direction.”