Ethics Board eases political restrictions

Citizens of Philadelphia, get used to the phrase “testing the waters”.  You’re likely to be hearing it a lot more from local political candidates, the result of a ­decision Wednesday by the city’s Board of Ethics.

One of the board’s responsibilities is enforcement of a provision in the City Charter, limiting the political activity of city employees.  The Charter says that except for city officials seeking re-election, no city employee “shall be a candidate for nomination or election to any public office unless he shall have first resigned from his then office or employment.”

The Board of Ethics tackled the Charter’s broad restrictions on political activity a couple years ago, spelling out what’s permissible for city employees and what isn’t ­ -- no politicking in city buildings, for instance, or during working hours on city time.  On the so-called resign-to-run provision, the board decided that an individual became a candidate with either a public announcement of his candidacy, or the filing of nominating petitions, with the requisite number of voter signatures to secure a spot on election ballots. 

In a formal legal opinion, the board said other people could circulate nominating petitions on the employee’s behalf without forcing the employee to give up his city job. At that time, the board did not address the issue of the employee circulating petitions on his own.

That issue came up Wednesday.

Shoshana Bricklin, a lawyer working in the office of City Councilman Curtis Jones, said she was interested in running for a city judgeship and wanted to circulate her own petitions.   The ethics board’s attorney, Evan Meyer, drafted an opinion suggesting that this activity could be construed as part of the process of deciding whether to run  ­– that is, “testing the waters” – and should be permitted.  The board voted 4-0 to adopt Meyer’s opinion ­ -- though the board’s newest member, Brian McCormick, cautioned that city employees taking advantage of the loosened rules would have to be careful what they say about their “potential” candidacies.