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City management increases restrictions on employee gifts

Monday, December 2, 2013 by Gene Davis

Sparked by a case where city employees walked away with $11,000 in prizes from a work-related convention, Human Resources Director Mark Washington has outlined a new policy that places stricter limits on the gifts city employees can receive while on the job.


Washington told Council Audit and Finance Committee members last month that the new policy forbids city employees from accepting “games of chance” prizes while attending a work-related conference or event. A random drawing or door prize is considered a “games of chance.”


“The rationale of (the new policy) is it’s clear that if you’re at a conference and you’re on city business, you should be there for the conference and not for participating in games of chance,” said Human Resources Assistant Director Karen Sharp.


The new policy is more restrictive than city code, meaning an amendment to the city code is unnecessary. An administrative bulletin will communicate the new policy to city employees, Sharp said.


“We would (like to) communicate this to employees before the holiday season, since we know that gifts are abound in the holiday season, and ensure our training materials and administrative bulletins line up with our new expectations,” she said.


After city employees won $1,000 and $10,000 prizes from a game of chance during a work conference, a follow-up investigation by the Auditor’s Office found “the city was unable to recover the funds from these employees due to a lack of a clear policy practice,” Washington said.


After hearing about the case, Council members on the Audit and Finance Committee requested staff to reexamine the city’s policy about gifts and city employees, particularly in regards to games of chance. Committee members expressed enthusiasm during the Nov. 20 meeting with the new policy.


“I really do completely agree with the proposed clarification,” Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said.


Previous city policy prohibited city employees from accepting or soliciting any gift that might influence their job. The new policy keeps that requirement in place while adding that the gift can’t be in cash or more than $50 in value. Also, the new policy requires employees report all gifts to their immediate supervisor within two business days.


City employees can still collect prizes from games of chance during City of Austin-hosted events.


In determining the new policy, city staff investigated the policies other municipalities have in place. The results ranged greatly, from the City of Houston banning city employees from accepting gifts of any kind to the City of El Paso allowing city employees to accept items $75 or less and prizes from games of chance. The majority of municipalities researched did not have a policy in place about games of chance, Sharp said.


“I’ve looked at everybody else’s practices, we have now established the best practice,” Councilman Bill Spelman said. “All the other cities we’ve looked at probably ought to copy our policy.”

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