Planning Ethics: What Could Be Wrong About Accepting a Gift?

The December holiday season is one where it is the tradition to give and receive gifts. This gift-giving can extend to the work setting, both among colleagues and clients. But what happens when the gift giver happens to be a private individual or organization that is doing business with a public agency?

For public planners who are AICP members, receiving gifts is a tricky road to travel, even if local regulations or state law allow it.

Navigating Gift Regulations for Planners

Many public agencies have explicit rules about what types of gifts may be accepted by their employees. For example, Tacoma, Washington, allows public officials to accept, among other things, "Nominal promotional items including, but not limited to, items such as ballpoint pens, calendars, wearing apparel, or food items which cannot reasonably be presumed to influence the vote, action, or judgment of the City Official or be considered as part of a reward for action or inaction." In some cases, there is a maximum dollar amount that is specified for acceptance of a gift, such as $50 or less.

Gifts given to AICP planners who work in the public sector, however, are governed by Rule of Conduct 5 of the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which states that:

"We shall not, as public officials or employees, accept from anyone other than our public employer any compensation, commission, rebate, or other advantage that may be perceived as related to our public office or employment."

Regarding the acceptance of gifts, Rule 5 has been generally interpreted as saying that if a public planner is given a gift because of his/her public office or job position, said planner should not accept the gift.

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves: "Someone buying me dinner is not going to affect my professional judgment," or "People will be offended if I don't accept their gift," or "It has always been done this way here."

Assessing Gifts for Ethical Acceptance

I understand how you might have those sentiments, but Rule 5 is very clear about "any compensation ... or other advantage that may be perceived as related to our public office or employment."

It is not that the AICP Code of Ethics assumes that accepting a gift will automatically cause a public planner to be influenced in a manner that will result in unethical behavior. Rather, it is the "perception" of unethical influence that the rule is addressing. In addition, Rule 5 applies to all AICP public planners, even if their employer or local customs allow other public employees to receive outside gifts.

But what about accepting something minor, like an offer of breakfast or a cup of coffee? When facing a situation in which an AICP public planner is being offered a gift, big or small, the question to ask yourself is: "Would the person be offering me this gift, meal, or other type of benefit, if I didn't occupy the job I currently hold or if I worked for a different employer?" If the answer is "probably not" or "no," then my advice would be to decline the offer.

Conversely, if the person offering a gift is a long-time friend with whom you also have a professional relationship, you should ask yourself the same question, but your answer may be different. The ICMA Code of Ethics may provide some guidance in this regard. It states that gifts may be accepted in "normal social practices, not associated with the member's official duties," where gifts are exchanged among relatives and friends.

If you are concerned about offending the gift giver, be upfront and tell them the reasons why you cannot accept their gift.

Understanding and Respecting Gift Limitations

I recently talked with the CEO of a medium-sized engineering firm about the AICP Code of Ethics. He mentioned that his firm holds an annual holiday party as a way of saying thank you to all of its clients but said he had been annoyed in the past when many of his public planner clients declined to attend. After learning about the AICP Code of Ethics limits on acceptance of gifts, however, the CEO said he now understands and respects the reason for their non-attendance.

Be sure to also review your state's laws to see if they contain limitations on the acceptance of gifts by public employees.

Some states have restrictions on the acceptance of gifts that are even stricter than the AICP Code of Ethics limits. For example, in the state of Washington, there is a state statute that appears to prohibit the acceptance of any gift by local government officials.

Acting ethically can be challenging at times and doesn't always involve "a black and white" situation. If you are an AICP public planner, however, it is important to carefully and deliberately consider the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and other applicable restrictions before accepting a gift.

Top image: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
Steve Butler, FAICP, a member of the AICP Ethics Committee, is the Planning and Policy Manager for the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) in Seattle. He thanks Jim Peters, FAICP, AICP Ethics Officer, and Paul Sullivan, legal consultant at MRSC, for their insights about professional ethics.

December 3, 2019

By Stephen Butler, FAICP