Less politics, not more

There's an unseemly rush by the city Board of Ethics - with ample prodding from City Council - to get new rules in place that would free city workers from the decades-old ban on political activity.

No matter what the timing, it's a bad idea that risks even more politics in the day-to-day operations of City Hall.

Even with the city's ban on politicking in place, elections official Renee Tartaglione ran afoul of the rules and had to quit her city job.

With his passion for ridding the city of its pay-to-play political culture, Mayor Nutter should be in the forefront opposing such a backward step. With no credible opposition to his own reelection, it's even more troubling that the mayor is just going along.

By contrast, the likely beneficiaries of this radical reversal of the 60-year-old prohibition could include Council members who face increasingly unruly voters for reelection this year.

For incumbents - especially three on Council who are caught up in the DROP early-retirement controversy - the prospect of recruiting more foot soldiers may be enticing. But that's not to set public policy.

To be sure, elected officials seeking to pocket six-figure lump-sum retirement checks - while vying for yet another term in office - will need all the help they can get to pull off that gambit. That list on Council includes Democratic Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco, Democrat Frank DiCicco and Republican Frank Rizzo.

But no one's political advantage should be any excuse to risk politicizing city services. Those risks were regarded as real enough when Philadelphia voters approved the 1951 City Charter, which provides for the ban on political activity. Despite claims that the charter-imposed ban couldn't withstand a court challenge, its legal underpinnings established in court rulings have been in place for years.

As for the argument that city workers deserve the same rights as other citizens, that ignores the fact that the city workforce - from building inspectors to records clerks - have broad authority that must be seen as nonpartisan.

Council members came in for justifiably heated criticism last year when they hatched the plan to weaken the politicking ban. The main proponents - Tasco and freshmen Council Democrats Bill Green and Maria Quiñones Sánchez - eventually backed away from the proposal. But that was only after the Ethics Board offered to review the regulation that enforces the charter's politicking ban.

The Ethics Board has been boxed into trying to make the best of a bad situation - in effect, heading off more regressive proposals from Council. After a hearing last week, the board is poised to loosen the ban but with safeguards it hopes will avoid abuses.

Yet, under the proposed rules most city workers could attend political rallies, fund-raisers, and advocate for political causes on their own time. That's bound to blur the public's perception of city workers in doing their jobs. (The darker, flip-side of these privileges is that municipal employees could find themselves expected to give to candidates, like it or not.)

In fact, the only clear reforms would be new limits on political activity enacted at the same time for Council staffers who are now free to serve as elected party officials and even campaign treasurers. But that's hardly worth politicizing all of City Hall.

The ban on politicking by most City Hall workers should stay.