As we're finishing the process of stowing the Christmas lights, wrapping up the ornaments, and putting away the holiday presents, it's a good time to reflect on a kind of gift giving that can be problematic: gifts to public officials. This is an issue year-round, but during the holiday season the pressure is even greater to accept the well-meaning plate of cookies, box of chocolates, poinsettia plant, or the like. Not all these offerings are "de minimus," and gifts can include things like expensive wine, tickets to sporting events, gourmet dinners, or ski weekends.
What is a public servant to do? Just say no, thank you.
The State Fair Political Practices Commission has rules regulating the acceptance and disclosure of gifts and many cities and public agencies have policies. Most set a threshold, from $20 to $50 or more and exempt things such as flowers or balloons given on ceremonial occasions or wedding gifts from an individual other than a lobbyist.
But the monetary value of the gift is not the issue. A gift given to a public servant sends the wrong message to both the donor and recipient. From the public's perspective, the gift has the appearance of being given for one of two reasons: in exchange for a favor done or in anticipation of a favor.
Although many would argue that a plate of cookies, for example, couldn't influence a government employee, I offer the following scenario. You might think it would be highly unlikely that the children's librarian would engage in any quid pro quo over a batch of brownies, but that employee might have the authority to allocate tickets for a popular puppet show or story hour. If your child doesn't get a ticket but the child who brought the brownies does, you can assume that chocolate might have had some hand in the decision.
The stakes are a lot higher in the planning and inspection department, for example, where permits are granted (or denied). A city could develop a gifts policy that exempted the library but covered departments that deal with revenues, permits, or fines, but there is an inherent inequity in allowing only some city employees to accept gifts.
The Institute for Local Government offers a sample gift policy, which ranges from:
- absolute ban: no official or employee may accept any gift in connection with their service
- gift ban from those with business with the agency or anyone who is likely to have business with the agency
- exceptions could include edible gifts of a nominal value shared with a wide range of colleagues at the agency, flowers and the like that will be displayed in a public area, handmade items by and from children under 16 years of age
The Institute encourages local agencies to consider the ethical implications and adopt a clear policy. For those cities deciding to ban gifts, it offers a sample signs, which could be posted in prominent places: "It has been our pleasure to serve you throughout the year and your faith in our integrity is important to us. Please know that as part of our commitment to public trust and ethics, we have a strict no-gifts policy. Your support in helping us to honor this policy will be greatly appreciated."
One program that helps address the unsolicited gift dilemma is in effect at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles. Karen Gorman, chief ethics officer for Metro, says the program encourages employees to comply with the no-gifts policy through a simple program where the employee turns in a gift item to the ethics office. Upon receipt, the staff consults a list of acceptable charities and makes the donation. The employee receives a letter from the Ethics Department showing where the gift has been distributed and thanking the individual for the effort to "do the right thing."
So, if you're considering giving a present to a government employee, at Christmas or any other time, there are other ways to acknowledge a job well done. You can still express your thanks with a call, email or letter. Having a letter from a satisfied citizen in one's personnel file means much more than a box of chocolates.
Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. A version of this article was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News 12/21/2007.