A few of the commonwealth’s communities have the power to restrict political contributors from getting government contracts.
And almost none exercise it.
The reasons are rooted in political scandal, court rulings and Pennsylvania’s labyrinthine municipal laws.
Allentown is the latest addition to the short list of cities — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are others — to ban political contributors at a certain level from bidding on contracts. In Allentown’s case, that level is $250. It’s one of the city’s moves to save face amidstan FBI investigation (another move is City Council’s recent no-confidence vote against the mayor). The investigation also includes City Hall in Reading, where the case’s first guilty plea stemmed from former City Council President Francis G. Acosta trying to loosen similar rules in place in Reading since 2008.
Similar ordinances are on the table elsewhere, including Allentown-adjacent Whitehall Township and Lehigh County.
PA municipalities with home rule charter
Home rule allows municipalities to make changes and additions to codes and laws within their local governments as long as it’s not prohibited by the state.
Officials in Erie also were thinking about it, along with several communities in Berks and Northumberland counties, according to Common Cause Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman.
Whether anything official happens is a matter of momentum, Kauffman says.
“A lot of these government efforts tend to be scandal-driven,” Kauffman says. “There’s a flurry of reform activity as the scandal unfolds. But the further away we get, [the more likely it is that] people forget and move on to other things.”
Business as usual?
The scandal’s inspired some chatter in Harrisburg about pay-to-play, too.
It started after City Councilwoman Sandra Reid publicly demanded Mayor Eric Papenfuse return a $1,000 contribution he received from The Efficiency Network (TEN) Vice President Patrick Regan, just after TEN got a $3.7 million contract for the city’s LED streetlight project.
Neither Regan nor TEN have been accused of wrongdoing in the FBI probe focused in places over an hour from the capital city, but they are named in subpoenas.
Regan has donated $4,000 to Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski since 2010, according to Pennsylvania Department of State records, and TEN was in line to upgrade that city’s streetlights until after the subpoenas were issued last summer.
In the absence of pay-to-play laws, there’s no reason to withhold political support, says former Gov. Ed Rendell, whose list of government affairs and public relations consulting gigs includes one at TEN (unpaid, he says).
“You have every right to contribute to the mayor’s campaign, but you have no right to expect you’re going to get the contract,” Rendell says. “It can help, but it’s not a guarantee.”
Rendell says his consulting roles typically involve making introductions to public officials and advising clients on how to approach them. But he says he “doesn’t have a bloody clue what (TEN) did in Allentown or Reading.”
He says he didn’t know about the donations to Pawlowski, whom he’s also supported. Rendell says he also didn’t know Regan and the company appear on the FBI subpoena. Although he expects they’re on the list because investigators want to interview, not charge, them. He says TEN’s leadership — including CEO Troy Geanopulos — was “clean as a whistle” during Rendell’s dealings with them while he was governor and they worked for state contractor Constellation Energy.
Rendell says he didn’t know about Regan donating to Harrisburg Mayor Papenfuse after securing the Harrisburg contract while the FBI probe’s still unfolding in Allentown and Reading. In general, though, Rendell says he wouldn’t advise clients to shy away from political contributions.
If a community’s apprehensive about prospective quid pro quos, he says, its local leaders “should pass a law, if that’s what they want.”
Harrisburg environmental lawyer Bill Cluck, a Capitol Region Water board member and local government watchdog, has criticized Papenfuse and his refusal to return the money. Cluck says he doesn’t believe there’s any quid pro quo going on. But even if a mayor’s not doing favors, campaign-supporting contractors give incumbents an edge over challengers, Cluck says.
He says it’s a matter of fairness, and limiting excessive power of government officials and accompanying dysfunction, along the lines of what basically bankrupted Harrisburg just a few short years ago.
Cluck says Harrisburg should consider pay-to-play legislation. But the capital city doesn’t have a home rule charter like other cities with such laws on the books.
“Home rule” municipalities can do anything not explicitly denied by the state constitution, the General Assembly, or its own charter. The charter essentially amounts to a local constitution that’s drafted by voters, setting up the government structure and outlining its authority and limitations.
Other, non-home-rule municipalities can act only on matters specifically authorized by state law in municipal code.
Seventy-two of Pennsylvania’s 2,500+ local governments, and seven of its 67 counties, have home rule. Allentown, Reading, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are among them. So are Whitehall and Lehigh County, which are only considering banning contributors from bidding at this point.
“It’s clear now that if you have home rule, you can establish campaign contribution limits,” says Kauffman, based on existing ordinances and related court rulings. It’s less clear whether non-home rule communities can, he says.
Case law notes there aren’t any campaign finance limits in Pennsylvania (one of a dozen states without them). So one might argue there’s nothing to conflict with stricter ordinances in non-home-rule municipalities, which can’t do anything that’s not explicitly authorized by Pennsylvania code for local governments. Or one might argue the absence of limits is the state regulation. It’s “a huge gray area,” Kauffman says.
“We need to have statewide standards regardless of scandal or not,” he says, “to protect government officials and protect voters.”
Emily Previti is WITF’s reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media collaboration focused on issues facing Pennsylvania’s cities. WITF and Keystone Crossroads are both PublicSource content partners.
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