But city, county, and special district officials are constrained as to receiving gifts by a state statute that lays out a “code of ethics” for municipal officers — RCW 42.23.070.
As to gifts, there is very clear wording in RCW 42.23.070(2):
No municipal officer may, directly or indirectly, give or receive or agree to receive any compensation, gift, reward, or gratuity from a source except the employing municipality, for a matter connected with or related to the officer’s services as such an officer unless otherwise provided for by law.
The wording of this statute contains no specific exceptions, but some jurisdictions take a somewhat tolerant attitude toward very minor “gifts,” such as someone buying a cup of coffee for an official when sitting down to discuss public issues at the local coffee shop. But you need to be careful when the value of the “gift” starts to increase.
This very tight restraint on receiving things of value when related to public service is quite different from the approach in the private sector, and because of that difference, it is not uncommon to be faced with vexing ethical issues.
What should you or your agency do during the holiday season when companies that provide services to the agency deliver an unsolicited gift, such as a wine and cheese basket, free tickets to an entertainment event, etc.? Does it matter if the gift includes a card addressed to the head of the department, to an elected official, or to the agency staff in general? We recommend that no items of value – or at least not above a “de minimis” value – go directly to any “municipal officer” or employee, and that the agency politely advise businesses and individuals not to give gifts in the future. Consult with your legal counsel when unsure how to handle a gifting situation.
Some public officials are active in their communities and serve as officers or board members for local charitable or civic organizations. What should you do when it is unclear if you are receiving a “gift” because of your public official position or because of some other role that you have in your community? Our advice: review the facts closely with your legal counsel.
These issues come up in a thousand different variations, and they can all be potential landmines. Nobody wants to be accused of being “unethical,” nor do you want to be guilty of “malfeasance” in office, which could be the basis for the filing of a recall petition. So don’t hesitate to review these issues with legal counsel, and if the issue is a close one, we recommend being quite scrupulous. The voters expect high standards from public officials.
We recommend that your jurisdiction adopt a policy regarding gifts. A good example is one from Vancouver’s Employee Ethics Policy:
What if an employee is offered or receives a gift?
Any and all gifts received by a City employee at any time during the year should be given to the employee’s immediate supervisor or the Department Director with an explanation of the circumstances surrounding receipt of the gift. If possible, the supervisor or Department Director will return the gift to the sender with a written expression of thanks and an explanation of the City policy concerning gifts. A copy of the letter will be sent to the City Manager.
If returning or refusing a gift would be impractical (such as food, flowers or plants), the supervisor will take the item to a recognized relief/assistance organization or make the item available for the enjoyment of all employees or members of the public in the employee’s work area. The supervisor will also send a thank you card to the person or company that provided the gift explaining what was done with the gift.