Philadelphians march for outside City Hall in 2016

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Philadelphia has long been criticized as a political corruption industrial complex.

But strides have been made in recent years, and now voters are being asked whether the city should roll back a 70-year-old ban on political activity for city employees.

What you’ll see on the ballot

Shall the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to revise rules pertaining to prohibited activities of appointed City officers and employees, to generally allow such officers and employees to volunteer for state and federal political campaigns outside of work time and without using City resources; to continue to prohibit participation in any political campaign for a City office or Philadelphia-based state office; and to revise penalty provisions pertaining to such restrictions and prohibited activities generally?

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What’s it mean?

Government workers caught dabbling in campaign activity have long been a source of scandal in Philly. Politicos and government bureacrats were so once so incestuous that, in the reform-minded 1950s, leaders re-wrote the city charter in an attempt to keep partisian politics out of City Hall.

Most municipalities in the U.S. allow public employees and officials to do political work in their free time. In Philly, that’s a no go.

As it stands, city officials can’t volunteer for any partisan campaign in their free time — not state, not local, not federal. They can express support for a candidate publicly, but can’t leverage their job status as a volunteer or adviser.

Should we revise the Philadelphia City Charter to allow for a little more wiggle room?

If voters say yes, officials and employees would be allowed to volunteer for campaigns in non-local races.

That means they could work on federal campaigns (like president and congress) and certain state-level offices (governor, attorney general, etc.). State-level offices with districts in Philly proper (think your local Pa. representative) would still be off limits. Same goes for all local county races.

Pat Christmas, policy director at good government group Committee of 70, said there’s still real concern that public employees would be pressured to use their time and resources to influence an election. Such flagrant violations have happened even under the current charter ban.

The proposed charter amendment is not meant to be a panacea for all of City Hall’s ethical quandaries, as city government is vulnerable to corruption in myriad other ways.

But overall, Christmas said major strides in transparency have been made under the last two mayors. His watchdog group supports relaxing the rules around some political work.

“This is a striking example of the fact that Philadelphia is one of the most challenged cities in the country in terms of public corruption, but we’ve made incredible strides in the last 70 years since the charter went into place,” Christmas said.

There will be some important exceptions, if the amendment is passed.

It would not allow city employees to use public resources or their official titles while engaged in political activity. That means no campaigning on the clock, and no campaigning while flaunting your job status.

Secondly, the new amendment will not apply to employees in five “politically sensitive” offices, who still must refrain from all political volunteering:

  • City Commissioners
  • District Attorney’s Office
  • Board of Ethics
  • Police Department
  • Sheriff’s Department

The existing prohibition on fundraising will also remain in place. So while a city official could volunteer for a federal or statewide race, they still would be barred from raising money for a campaign.

Who’s for it and who’s against it?

Philadelphia City Council voted unanimously to pass the charter proposal in February, and Mayor Jim Kenney gave his blessing as well. Lawmakers hashed out some of the details with watchdog groups about the final charter amendment proposal. Both the Committee of 70 and the city’s Board of Ethics eventually signed off and agreed the question should be put to the voters.

Christmas said that if passed, Philadelphia would still have “among the strongest, if not the strongest” barriers against political interference.

Philly voters, however, have been historically averse to amending these anti-corruption measures. Most ballot questions pass with surprising ease, but voters twice struck down a question to repeal the city’s “resign to run” rule — once in 2007 and again in 2014.

Codified in the same mid-century charter, the law prevents politicians from running for one office while campaigning for another. It was designed as a bulwark against one-party rule, but repeal advocates argue it actually does the opposite. The issue is back on the debate table in City Council this year.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...