BETHLEHEM, PA – Bethlehem City Council passed a conflict of interest regulation governing public officials during a meeting of the entire committee Wednesday night at City Hall.
The ordinance, offered by Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt, would require “compulsory expulsion” from public officials where a financial interest exists. The bill does not prevent city councilors and officials from performing or participating in the formulation of an official act “to the extent that his or her participation is required by law”. The bill further indicates that if a bill ends in a draw, a rejected city official is not allowed to break a draw.
The legislation stipulates what is an “economic interest”. First, any promotional contribution of $ 250 or more received during the immediate 24-month period prior to the date on which official action is to be taken is prohibited. It includes money paid to a public servant’s spouse, parent, children, siblings or agent is not allowed. A public official’s direct or indirect investment or ownership interest in any business, property, intellectual property, personal property or any other business that is 10 percent or greater is also prohibited.
However, economic interests are received from organized and registered trade unions and political action committees except in Van Wirt’s bill.
“The impression of a conflict of interest is important to our citizens,” Van Wirt said of the legislation. “It is not as important to us up here, it is not as important to the administration, but it is important that our citizens understand that we vote freely and without interest outside.”
“I think there is a lot of profit behind any government body adopting something like this,” said President Michael Colon. “… There is a perception, whether perceived or genuine, with profit or without profit, that when people take on money … to help influence the outcome of elections … My interpretation of this regulation is It’s not about keeping money for candidates from office, it’s about limiting influence. “
Colon added that he thought the amount of $ 250 over four years was too low.
“My mother gives me gifts that are bigger than that, and I never listen to her when she asks me to do anything,” Colon added.
The President also noted that withdrawing from voting in a case can be considered “extreme”.
Other topics discussed that involved “rejection” were whether a council member could share his views on the matter, but then withdraw from the vote on the same matter.
“The intention was not to stifle the discussion, but rather official action as in a vote,” Van Wirt said.
Councilwoman Rachel Leon supported the bill, but said that “if there is this perception of a conflict of interest, we can only vote someone out,” Leon said. “But in a city with basically one-party control, with limited involvement in a primary election, can we really just ‘vote someone out’ if there is no alternative?”
Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith said she was “flexible” on the bill. She questioned the “family” provision in the proposal.
“Fortunately, and sometimes unfortunately, I come from a large family,” said Crampsie Smith. “… I wrap my head around it, like when I have to give up myself … I guess it’s just a matter of how we want to define family.”
Crampsie Smith also talked about the nuances associated with funding political campaigns. She cited examples.
“With campaigns, you have support,” Crampsie Smith said. “An individual or an entity can support you but not give you money. But are you then dependent on them because they support you?”
Councilwoman Wandalyn Enix also discussed the family provision of the bill.
“I may be naive, but how do we find out about the financial interests of relatives?” in Enix. “I mean it’s a very difficult thing to know.”
The municipality did not make a decision on the bill on Wednesday night. The Council planned a second committee for the whole meeting on the matter on a date not yet decided.