A Full Day’s Work

The trial and conviction of 6th District City Councilman Bobby Henon last month cast a light on a longstanding practice of city council members: having outside jobs that conflict with their employment as elected officials. We’ve known about the problem for years and it’s been written about in local newspapers and magazines. But in this one-party town, City Council is largely immune to pressure from anyone but the Democratic City Committee, and they don’t seem to have a problem with the practice.

Does Henon’s conviction change things? At least one member of City Council hopes so.

Last week, 7th District Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced legislation barring city lawmakers from making more than $25,000 from outside jobs and requiring more and better disclosure about what other employment they do have.

It’s not a new idea for Quiñones-Sánchez, who has been essentially Henon’s only critic on City Council, the only member to publicly demand the convicted crook’s resignation. (Henon, to the city’s shame, still sits as the member for the 6th district and plans to hold the seat until they physically drag him off to jail.) Quiñones-Sánchez has long disagreed with the idea of city council members dividing their time between representing constituents and working for some outside entity.

The bill would also tighten the ethics standards for conflicts of interests, which are theoretically strong but have effectively been watered down by the city’s Board of Ethics. A new section of the City Code would hold that “the fact that others may have similar financial interests by engaging in similar business activity, owning similar investments, or otherwise, shall not obviate a conflict of interest for a member of Council unless that similarity is so substantially widespread as to either substantially eliminate the concerns underlying this Section or make application of this Section impractical.”

This would be a big step toward honest government in Philadelphia. The proposed rule change was endorsed by the Committee of Seventy, Philly’s venerable good-government non-profit. In a recent email, they also called for “a fully-funded Ethics Board to enforce” such rules. (Read Ben Mannes’s piece in this week’s PW to learn more about ethics violations the Board is too weak and underfunded to enforce.)

The problem is not just restricted to Democrats. While Henon was among the most egregious offenders, 10th District Republican Brian O’Neill joins at-large Democrats Derek Green and Allan Domb on the known list of council members who devote a substantial portion of their working lives to representing someone besides the voters.

In some settings, this moonlighting would be unobjectionable, as long as the conflict of interest laws were followed. Many smaller cities and towns, and even some state legislatures, are part-time jobs. But in Philadelphia, we long ago decided that being one of 17 members of the city’s legislature was demanding enough to require a full-time salary — currently $136,000 per year, with more for council members in leadership positions.

For full-time pay, they owe us full-time work.

It’s not wrong that a member of City Council should make a decent living. Indeed, it may be the only way to make sure regular people can afford to do the job — without a good paycheck, only the very rich could afford to work in public office. (Domb, for example, donates his whole city paycheck and has, for what it’s worth, been active in working with the Board of Ethics in clearing up any possible conflicts of interest from his real estate business.)

Most cities choose either to pay council members well or to allow outside employment. Philadelphia is one of the few that does both. It is time for that to end. If members of City Council cannot make ends meet on $136,000 a year — a salary far greater than that of most of their constituents — they should quit, and leave the job to someone with a less-lavish lifestyle.

Henon’s criminal conviction should have awakened all of us to this problem. If it hasn’t, we will have 2nd District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s upcoming corruption trial to drive the message home even harder. Elected office in Philadelphia provides many opportunities for corruption. City Council should have the courage and the decency to close one of them off by passing Quiñones-Sánchez’s bill and banning outside employment and obvious conflicts of interest.

    • Kyle Sammin is the senior editor of the Philadelphia Weekly. He is also a senior contributor to The Federalist and the co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast. Follow him on Twitter @kylesammin.

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