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Gifts

This is the place to discuss limitations on gifts to officials and employees, and their family members. Probably no other aspect of ethics codes has so many different solutions. Please share your thoughts about and experiences with various attempts at solving this basic problem, and suggest language that you feel works well.

100(4). Gifts*

  1. An official or employee*, his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household*, may not solicit nor accept anything of value from any person or entity that the official or employee knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a financial benefit*, directly or through a relationship with another person or entity, from the city within the previous three years, or intends to seek a financial benefit in the future. Nor may an official or employee solicit or accept anything of value from anyone, including but not limited to a gift*, loan, political contribution, award, or promise of future employment, based on an understanding that a vote, official action, or decision would be or had been influenced thereby.


    If in doubt, the official or employee should refrain from soliciting or refuse a gift, and should first inquire into the person or entity's relationship with the city. [or: If the official or employee does not know whether a person or entity fits this description, he or she should inquire and, if it is discovered that the person or entity does fit this description, the gift should be returned (or its monetary value if it cannot be returned) and no further gifts accepted during the relevant period.]
  2. Gifts of property, money, or services given nominally to the city must be accepted by a resolution of the legislative body.

Comment: The first sentence of subsection 4a is difficult, even if the language itself is not. Here it is broken down and explained:

    Who cannot accept or solicit gifts: An official or employee, his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household*

    What a gift is: anything of value (see the definition at 113(5) and the exceptions in 102)

    Whom one cannot accept gifts from: any person or entity that has received or sought a financial benefit from the city within the previous three years, or that intends to seek a financial benefit in the future.

    Must the gift giver have directly received or sought a financial benefit from the city? No, it also counts if it sought a financial benefit through a relationship with someone or some entity

    What the official or employee must know about the gift giver's relationship with the city: he or she must know the gift giver's relationship with the city, or know enough that he or she has reason to believe that such a relationship may exist. If uncertain, the gift should be refused and questions asked.

With respect to higher officials and department heads, and for officials and employees who deal directly with contractors and permitees, a city might choose to prevent them from receiving any gifts at all, other than campaign contributions and gifts from close relatives.

Cities have taken a great variety of approaches to the gift problem. The approach here is to limit only gifts from people and entities that do business with or otherwise get financial benefits from the city, including permits, zoning approval, etc. Other common approaches are to limit the amount of gifts or to limit the type of gifts or the type of givers.

There are two principal goals here: (1) to give clear guidance to officials, employees, and potential gift givers; and (2) to ensure city residents that their public servants are not accepting gifts from people and businesses who might be trying to influence them, whether or not that is a purpose for the gift (since no one can ever know the purpose).

The choice of the above approach is intended to keep the process simple: if there is any question of the giver's relationship with the city, do not accept the gift. If there is any reason to believe there is an improper motive behind the gift, do not accept it. There are exceptions to this rule below (at 102), but they are few and essentially allow just a lunch or two each year.

Another approach to gift-giving is to require the annual disclosure of all gifts either by itself or in addition to prohibitions. This puts a great deal of pressure on the city's informal oversight resources (citizen and media), since such gifts would be out of the jurisdiction of official boards. Since party organizations provide the most effective informal oversight in most communities, depending on disclosure will politicize this part of the city's ethics process. Here is language for that approach:

Officials and employees must file with the Ethics Commission, on or before January 31, a list of all gifts received during the preceding calendar year by them or by their spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, parent, or member of their household, to the extent that the aggregate amount of gifts received from an individual or entity (including gifts from all employees, partners, or investors) during the year is $50 or greater. Information to be disclosed is as follows:

  1. the date the gift was received and who received it;
  2. a description of the gift;
  3. the fair market value of the gift;
  4. the name, address and employer of the person who provided the gift;
  5. the name of any organization or individual represented by the person or on whose behalf the person was acting in providing the gift.

Please provide language for alternative approaches, and provide arguments for and against approaches, as well as instances where certain approaches have worked or not worked, in terms of providing guidance as well as limiting questionable gift-giving.

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