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Limit gifts from Denver city departments to elected officials

Denver residents should be able to trust that their elected officials aren’t being swayed by lobbyists bearing gifts, but what if the gifts are coming from within city government? A dispute between the City Council and the city’s ethics division highlights the question.

We stand with those calling for clear limits and transparency when Denver elected officials accept gifts, travel, tickets and meals, even when the goodies come from city departments.

These departments, including Denver International Airport, often lobby the City Council and the mayor for everything from funding and resources to policy changes and approval of multimillion-dollar contracts with outside companies.

Councilman Rafael Espinoza is right that elected officials should reject or at the very least disclose free trips and expensive gifts they receive from city departments.

But what’s less clear is whether the city’s current ethics code covers such departmental transactions, requiring public disclosure and limiting the values of gifts to $25 or $300 for food and tickets. As reported by The Denver Post’s Jon Murray, City Council members have received puffy jackets from DIA and growlers and swag from other city departments.

Under the code of ethics, elected officials and city employees may not accept gifts worth more than $25 if the giver of the gift has “an existing, ongoing or pending contract, business, or regulatory relationship” with the city and the person receiving the gift is in a “position to take direct official action.”

Michael Henry, executive director of the Denver Board of Ethics, says that language would clearly apply the gift limits and disclosure requirements to city departments. Assistant City Attorney Tracy Davis urged Henry and the ethics board to reconsider that position, given that it is “not legally possible” for the city to have one of those listed relationships with itself. In other words, the city can’t give a gift to itself.

While we see logic in Davis’ interpretation of the code, we think the language is ambiguous enough to require clarification by City Council members, and we hope they choose to impose restrictions on such gifts rather than open the floodgates.

Such a move could also clear up potential unintended consequences. Councilman Kevin Flynn pointed out the ethics board’s interpretation could apply to city employees. No one wants our civil servants in city government afraid to attend a holiday party or travel to an out-of-state conference because it might be an ethics violation.

“I think it leads to a bizarre result, but one which is not an issue when it is understood that city doesn’t have such relationships with itself, but only with outside parties,” Flynn wrote in an email to the board.

Such small gifts likely can’t buy the votes of our elected officials, but there does need to be a line in the sand to protect integrity and taxpayer dollars. The current gift limits seem to be reasonable restrictions. City Council members make roughly $90,000 a year and have budgets to hire their own staff and for other expenses. While small perks might be nice, they are not necessary.

We hope the City Council can resolve this dispute in a way that continues the admirable march its members have been making toward an independent and ethical city government.

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