Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 2009-08
September 24, 2009
Issued By: City Attorney’s Office
May city staff solicit donations from city contractors for charitable or civic purposes?
Employees of a city department are members of a professional organization that is hosting an event related to the work of that department. Government employees from many public entities will be attending. The employees have inquired whether they may solicit donations from city contractors to assist in sponsoring the event.
III. The Ethics Code
Many city employees belong to professional organizations related to their work. Membership in these organizations offers opportunities for training and to network with others who have experience in their profession. The city encourages its employees to engage in professional development, and at times, part of that experience may require that city personnel take part in sponsoring or supporting the events of these organizations. Funding is usually necessary to put on these events. The department has inquired whether its employees may seek donations from city contractors.
The Ethics Code contains two rules which regulate the acceptance of gifts by city employees. The first restricts gifts given with the intent to influence or reward a city official or employee for official action:
A city official or employee shall not solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift or benefit for himself or herself or his or her business:
(A) that reasonably tends to influence or reward official conduct; or
(B) that the official or employee knows or should know is being offered with the intent to influence or reward official conduct.
Ethics Code, Section 2-45(a)(1).
The second rule restricts gifts from specific sources, regardless of the motivation for the gift:
A city official or employee shall not solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift or benefit, from:
(A) any individual or business entity doing or seeking to do business with the City; or
(B) any registered lobbyist or public relations firm; or
(C) any person seeking action or advocating on zoning or platting matters before a city body.
Ethics Code, Section 2-45(a)(2).
Subsection (b)(6), however, allows an exception to this second rule for solicitations for civic or chartable causes. The participation of city employees in programs that help them improve their work for the city qualifies as a civic cause. Accordingly, city employees may, under Subsection 2-45(b)(6) solicit contributions from outside sources, including city contractors.
The Office of the City Attorney, however, urges caution in seeking donations from city contractors. Under Section 2-44(b)(2) of the Ethics Code, a city official or employee may not enter into an understanding that official action will be rewarded or reciprocated by another person. This means that decisions made by city personnel should be on the merits and in the best interests of the city. In seeking solicitations from those who do business with the city, staff should make clear that the contractor’s support of an event for professional development would not be a factor in the selection of future contractors.
The Ethics Code permits city staff to solicit donations from city contractors to support events related to professional development. Staff, though, must not create any impression that the contractor’s support would be a factor in the selection of future contractors.