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Watchdog fight? Seventy vs. Ethics Board over DROP

Heard in the Hall on Monday reported that the Board of Ethics has decided to rehire its general counsel, Evan Meyer, even though he is expected to retire March 13 and collect his DROP payment of $183,688*. Now the city's ethics watchdog has got another watchdog on its back.

Watchdog fight? Seventy vs. Ethics Board over DROP

Heard in the Hall on Monday reported that the Board of Ethics has decided to rehire its general counsel, Evan Meyer, even though he is expected to retire March 13 and collect his DROP payment of $183,688*. Now the city's ethics watchdog has got another watchdog on its back.

Today Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg, in a letter to Ethics Board Chairman Richard Glazer on Monday, wrote that "The Board’s decision raises questions about whether the Board holds itself to the same high standards as it demands of other parts of city government."

Stalberg asked the board to reverse its decision.

The deferred retirement option plan, or DROP, allows employees who commit to retire by a certain date to collect up to four years of pension payments in a fund to be paid out in a lump-sum when they retire. The commitment to retire is supposed to irrevocable, but a number of highly-valued employees -- Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson was the first -- have been rehired once they retired for a day to complete their DROP commitment. Elected officials have figured out that they can do the same thing if reelected.

"In our view, it is incumbent upon the Board to forgo conduct or decisions that, although legally permissible, could lead to the perception that it is taking advantage of a loophole in the law and, even unwittingly, encouraging others to do likewise," Stalberg wrote in the letter.
 

Glazer did not back off. "The relatively new and underfunded Ethics Board made the right call when it decided to retain a critical employee with 23 years of experience interpreting the City's ethics laws that we now oversee. The Board stands by its decision, which we will explain in a reply to Mr. Stalberg's letter," Glazer wrote in an e-mail.

Stalberg called the decision "a big mistake," and suggested it would give City Council, whose members have been on the wrong end of several Ethics Board investigations, an excuse to hold up outstanding board appointments and otherwise undermine the board.

"We've been supportive of the Board of Ethics and do not want to see its budget cut further," Stalberg said Monday afternoon, "and this will just strain relations further between the board and Council."

*NOTE:Meyer's payout was estimated at $200,000 based on his expected pension. The Pension Board provided exact figures today.

Here is the letter:


March 1, 2010

Richard Glazer, Esquire
Chairman, Philadelphia Board of Ethics
The Packard Building
1441 Sansom Street, 2nd Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Dear Richard:

We request that the Philadelphia Board of Ethics reverse its decision to allow its General Counsel, Evan Meyer, to retire from city government, accept his lump sum DROP payment of about $200,000 and to then rehire him to his former job.

The Board’s decision raises questions about whether the Board holds itself to the same high standards as it demands of other parts of city government. In our view, it is incumbent upon the Board to forgo conduct or decisions that, although legally permissible, could lead to the perception that it is taking advantage of a loophole in the law and, even unwittingly, encouraging others to do likewise.

We believe your intention to rehire Mr. Meyer, whose expertise we do not question, creates this unwelcome perception.

Mr. Meyer was enrolled in DROP when he was hired as the Board’s General Counsel. With the date of his retirement known years in advance, the Board has had more than enough time for succession planning, which is the key reason DROP was enacted in 1999. We find it hard to believe that only Mr. Meyer is capable of performing the General Counsel’s job.

An employee entering DROP makes an irrevocable commitment to retire within four years. Although the rules on permanently rehiring post-DROP employees are inadequate, allowing employees to break that commitment by taking their DROP benefits and then returning to their former jobs should be permitted only in highly unusual situations. Even a one-year extension beyond the four year DROP period requires a determination by the mayor that an “extraordinary circumstance exists which threatens public health, safety and welfare.”

The Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform has issued recommendations to expand the Board’s duties and resources. The Board’s personnel practices should be beyond reproach so that they are not used as an excuse for ignoring or rejecting those recommendations.

We appreciate your consideration of this letter.

Sincerely,


Zachary Stalberg
President and CEO

cc: Damone B. Jones, Sr.
Kenya Mann, Esquire
Sister Mary Scullion, Board of Ethics Nominee
Nolan N. Atkinson, Jr., Esquire, Board of Ethics Nominee
J. Shane Creamer, Jr., Esquire, Executive Director
Evan Meyer, Esquire, General Counsel

 

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