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Delaware County council chairman John McBlain and council member Kevin Madden discuss a proposed measure on new ethics requirements at the Thornberry Township building in Cheyney, Pa. on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

(Cheney) — Charging that the Delaware County Republican organization imposes a “corruption tax” on citizens, Democrats on the County Council proposed a package of ethics reforms for county government at a Council meeting Wednesday night. Republicans called it a stunt.

Democrat Brian Zidek said residents’ don’t get their money’s worth from the county because of “no-bid contracts going to people and companies that contribute to politicians and political parties.”

Zidek and fellow Democrat Kevin Madden distributed a detailed proposal to limit gifts to high-level county employees, restrict their political activity, and require bidders on county contracts to disclose their political contributions.

The Democrats called the proposal a starting point for discussion, and asked the Council to schedule hearings to discuss strengthening ethics provisions.

Republicans weren’t buying it.

GOP Council Chairman John McBlain and Vice Chair Colleen Morrone said they weren’t opposed to ethics reform, but weren’t prepared to respond to the Democrats’ seven-page proposal they saw for the first time at the meeting.

“I’m not going to be bullied into making a recommendation on this, this evening,” Morrone said. “We deserve the consideration and respect to be able to have the time to review this.”

Democrats countered that they weren’t asking the Council to approve their ethics proposal, just to commit to a series of hearings on the issue.

The skirmish foreshadows an intense political battle expected this fall, when Democrats hope to capture three of the five seats on Council and win control of county government for the first time ever.

The Republican Party has dominated Delaware County since the Civil War. Zidek and Madden were elected to four-year terms to the Council in 2017, the first Democrats ever to win seats on the Council.

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Delaware County council member Brian Zidek listens to discussion on a proposed measure on new ethics requirements at the Thornberry Township building in Cheyney, Pa. on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Time for change?

Currently, elected officials in Delaware County are bound by state ethics rules, which are far weaker than the ones included in the Democratic Council members’ proposal.

State law permits officials to accept unlimited gifts, including gifts from those seeking state business, provided officials disclose gifts worth $250 or more from a single source within a year.

The Delaware County Democrats’ proposal would ban gifts to county employees from anyone seeking legislative or administrative action from the county. It would ban the solicitation of gifts, and the receipt of any cash gifts.

State law imposes no requirement that someone seeking public contracts disclose their campaign contributions to the public entity they’re seeking business from. Such “pay-to-play” laws are in force in many states and local governments.

In Pennsylvania, contributions are disclosed by candidates in periodic reports, but someone seeking to connect bidders with their contributions would have to go through countless individual candidate reports.

The Democrats’ proposal would require anyone bidding on a county contract worth $25,000 or more to disclose contributions to any Pennsylvania candidates within the previous two years, as well as any gifts, travel or hospitality given to elected officials in the same period.

There is an ethics code in the county’s administrative code. “But it doesn’t really say anything,” said Adam Bonin, an attorney who helped the Democrats craft their proposal.

Bonin said the county code is “a general, ‘please don’t be corrupt,’ without any teeth in it.”

County Council Chairman McBlain said he would be willing to consider the Democrats’ proposals, given time to review them.

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Delaware County council vice chairman Colleen Morrone participates in discussion on a proposed measure on new ethics requirements at the Thornberry Township building in Cheyney, Pa. on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

All politics?

In a heated exchange after Republicans declined to support the hearings Democrats proposed, Zidek told them “the citizens of Delaware County will read loud and clear who’s against reforming ethics from your actions tonight.”

He said Democrats would hold hearings on their own if necessary.

“We will conduct the hearings,” he told McBlain. “If you want to attend, you can attend. We will put the public on notice that hearings are occurring, and we will put a placard with your name in front of the seat.”

McBlain responded by suggesting the ethics initiative was really a political stunt to give an issue to the three Democrats seeking County Council posts in November.

“It’s not lost on me the time of year in the election calendar,” McBlain said, “and so if you want to grandstand and have meetings, you’re certainly free to do that. I’m just not buying into your show tonight.”

The Democratic candidates for Council are Christine Reuther, an attorney and former Nether Providence commissioner; Upper Darby school board member Monica Taylor, and Elaine Schaefer, former president of Radnor’s board of commissioners.

Shaefer attended Wednesday’s meeting and spoke in favor of the ethics hearings in the public comment portion of the gathering.

None of the three current Republican members of Council is seeking re-election. Two are prohibited from running by term limits.

The GOP candidates seeking their seats are Jim Raith, a businessman and chairman of the Thornbury Township supervisors; Kelly Colvin of Drexel Hill, who’s worked for several GOP elected officials and the U.S. Education Department; and Mike Morgan of Newtown Square, who chairs the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Last week the Republican candidates released a “transparency and progress” plan which among other things calls for more frequent and accessible Council meetings.

County Republican spokesman Cody Bright said in a statement that the Democrat’s ethics initiative was “clearly in response” to the GOP transparency plan. “Nonetheless, we will review their proposal in good faith with an open mind,” he said.

WHYY.org.