Thursday, December 18, 2014

DRPA fails to reform itself, but what rules apply to Philly's boards and commissions?

Just how bad are things at the Delaware River Port Authority? Last night, the board of the troubled agency failed to vote on a proposal to remove embattled executive director John Matheussen and cut the pay of top management officials.

DRPA fails to reform itself, but what rules apply to Philly's boards and commissions?

Just how bad are things at the Delaware River Port Authority? Last night, the board of the troubled agency failed to vote on a proposal to remove embattled executive director John Matheussen and cut the pay of top management officials.

It did manage to vote on a weakened version of an ethics proposal made by NJ Gov. Chris Christie. Originally, the DRPA was considering banning vendors that do business with the agency from making political contributions. Instead, companies will simply be required to follow campaign finance laws in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Of course, very few people expect the DRPA board -- which has come under fire for allowing free tolls for employees, overuse of corporate credit cards, and improper relationships between agency officials and vendors -- to reform itself.

That's why state lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have offered complementary legislation that would significantly strengthen ethics guidelines for the DRPA. The proposal -- which has already passed the Pennsylvania State Senate -- would require that the DRPA conform to ethics rules that apply to other boards and agencies.

This made us curious about what sorts of ethics rules apply to boards and commissions affiliated with the City of Philadelphia. To find out, we caught up with Nedda Massar, the Deputy Director of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics. She explained that people appointed to city-related boards with power to spend public funds, like the Zoning Board of Adjustment or City Planning Commission, are required to provide extensive financial disclosure.

“People have to list amount and type of income,” said Massar. “That includes real estate holdings, creditors, and all sources of income. Then there are gifts, honorariums, or business interests. You also have to list your spouse and children, with income amounts.”

This allows the public to see potential conflicts of interest, especially for board members involved with firms that do business with the city. You can request this information from the Department of Records.

The city also has rules that prevent the so-called “revolving door” that allows former employees to work for vendors that have done business with the city.

“There are post-employment restrictions that apply to employees,” said Massar. “If I am working with a vendor for a city contract, I can't go work for that company after I leave the city.”

The same rule, which is part of the city's ethics code and state ethics law, applies to board members of public agencies, who are also prohibited from benefiting financially from decisions made with tax dollars.

“It goes to the accountability and transparency of the board,” said Massar. “No one should think that board members are making decisions that benefit them financially, and making the information public is a safeguard to keep that from happening. It's not a gotcha thing, it's a transparency thing.”

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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