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Why Do Council Side Gigs Matter?

Councilman Bobby Henon is arguing that his union work was legal as he seeks a dismissal of his corruption charges. That, Philly 3.0’s engagement director points out, is exactly the problem

Councilman Bobby Henon is arguing that his union work was legal as he seeks a dismissal of his corruption charges. That, Philly 3.0’s engagement director points out, is exactly the problem

City Council side jobs are back in the news this week, with Jeremy Roebuck reporting from federal court on the arguments over whether Bobby Henon’s salaried position with IBEW Local 98 amounts to a bribe by federal standards. 

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“While prosecutors have portrayed Henon as a crooked politician who sold his Council seat in exchange for a $73,000-a-year union job, the attorneys maintained that state law allows for outside employment. Henon’s income from Dougherty’s union was no different than that of any of the eight other members of Council who hold other jobs, said his lawyer, Brian J. McMonagle.

“What has been alleged here is simply not a crime,” McMonagle argued during a hearing in Philadelphia. “If it is, then a lot of people — any official that is on a salary from an outside entity — better head for the hills.” […]

The indictment is filled with accusations that the labor leader leaned on Henon again and again to back policies or actions that benefited his union.

At Dougherty’s request, it says, Henon forwarded a 2015 complaint that led to the shutdown of a nonunion contractor installing MRI machines at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. That year, Henon also allegedly put Dougherty in the room when Comcast renegotiated its franchise agreement with the city — a deal that resulted in a lucrative contract for a union contractor favored by Local 98.”

The thing about this is that regardless of whether or not it’s ultimately deemed illegal, it seems undeniable why Local 98 pays Bobby Henon a full-time salary: He is the person entrusted to be Local 98’s eyes and ears, and safeguard their interests across city government. That is, arguably, the job. 

Council makes several times more than the median Philadelphia resident, and they’re able to afford pretty comfortable lives making $130,000 as individual earners.

The second salary defenders say this isn’t a bribe because Councilor Henon isn’t being paid to do anything he otherwise wouldn’t want to do. Henon has very pro-union politics on and off the clock, so the additional salary from Local 98 isn’t really “buying” anything extra. They’re just giving him more resources to do what he would already be inclined to do. And as Henon’s lawyer argues, he’s been reelected and remains popular in the 6th District even with this information about the second salary being widely-known at this point. 

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The key question is: Who does Henon serve when the interests of his two employers—Philadelphia residents and Local 98—come into conflict? It’s great to believe that supporting a pro-union politics is broadly aligned with the public interest, but you’d have to be a pretty major league ideologue to say the interests of the Philadelphia building trades and the broader public are always aligned. Or to try and read some kind of public interest rationale into things like the MRI episode at CHOP, for instance. 

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This is where a prohibition on side gigs for the highest-paid big city legislature in the U.S. could really help provide some clarity about whose interests elected officials are representing in Council, while avoiding the appearance of corruption and the corrosive cynicism that it promotes. Council makes several times more than the median Philadelphia resident, and they’re able to afford pretty comfortable lives making $130,000 as individual earners. Regardless of whether or not this is found to be in violation of federal law, it pretty clearly allows for some clear conflicts of interest, and with everything that’s happened, it hopefully won’t take a guilty verdict to create some momentum for a change to the outside employment rules.

Jon Geeting is the director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, a political action committee that supports efforts to reform and modernize City Hall. This is part of a series of articles running in both The Citizen and 3.0’s blog.

Photo via Wikipedia

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