A Gift? For Me? The Basics of Gifts for Municipal Officers and Employees
December 5, 2022
Category: Ethics and Conflicts of Interest
This blog is based on prior content written by longtime legal consultant Paul Sullivan who retired in 2019.
Just about everyone likes getting gifts, and that’s probably true for local government officials and employees as well. It’s okay for an elected official or a municipal employee to accept a gift, isn’t it? As you may have guessed, it depends.
For elected officials, one concern is whether acceptance of a gift violates RCW 42.23.070, which states:
(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.
What Is a Municipal Officer?
In RCW 42.23.020(2), the term “municipal officer” is defined to include both elected and appointed officers as well as their deputies and assistants.
In light of this information, it is clear that mayors, councilmembers, commissioners, prosecuting attorneys, sheriffs, auditors, treasurers, and other elected officials are covered by RCW 42.23.020(2), as are their deputies and assistants.
Appointed officers are also covered under this statute. This would include fire chiefs, police officers, city managers, public works directors, clerks and clerk treasurers, and other appointed officers.
However, RCW 42.23.070(2) does not apply to local government employees who do not meet the definition of “municipal officer.” Does that mean that such employees are free to accept gifts in connection with their work as public employees? Not necessarily — as the section on Municipal Employees discusses below.
Gifts that Are Allowed/Prohibited for Municipal Officers
Does RCW 42.23.020(2) address the types of gifts that are allowed or prohibited for municipal officers?
Simply stated, when a gift is given to a municipal officer for a matter associated with the officer’s position, acceptance of the gift is prohibited. Of course, this does not restrict an officer from accepting personal gifts — e.g., gifts that are not given in connection with the recipient’s office — but it is important to be cautious. If your friend has always bought lunch, even before you became a municipal officer, then perhaps that practice can continue. But if a contractor gives the public works director tickets to an upcoming football game (and gifts of tickets were not being made prior to becoming the public works director), RCW 42.23.020(2) would apply and the public works director should not accept the gift.
If a gift is given to and accepted by a municipal officer, what’s the penalty?
Per RCW 42.23.050, violation of the statute may result in a $500 penalty, possible forfeiture of office, and “other civil or criminal liability as may otherwise be imposed upon the office by law.”
Does it matter that the gift is small or insignificant, such as a lunch, a cup of coffee, or some flowers? Presumably, under RCW 42.23.020(2) it would not matter since the statute covers any gift or compensation.
Some local governments have policies that allow municipal officers to accept gifts with an aggregate value of $50 or less. These policies appear to mirror RCW 42.52.150(1), which contains such a provision that applies to state officials, but that particular statute does not apply to local government officials. Accordingly, patterning a local government policy after the state provision carries risks, but MRSC is not aware of adverse legal consequences or audit findings in connection with such policies.
If you are a municipal employee but not a municipal officer, there are several things to consider with respect to gifts.
First, does your employer have a local ethics code that restricts or prohibits the acceptance of gifts? It is common for local government ethics codes to address gifts made to employees as well as to municipal officers. If an employee accepts a gift in violation of a local code of ethics, it could be grounds for imposition of discipline. For more information and examples, see MRSC’s Local Codes of Ethics webpage.
Second, it is important for local government employees to consider the appearance of their conduct. Even if accepting a gift does not violate state law or local policies, it may erode public trust, tarnish the reputation of the local government entity, and put the employee in an awkward and embarrassing position. Erring on the side of caution and politely declining a gift is a good practice if it appears a gift may be offered in connection with the employee’s job duties.
If you have questions about the receipt of gifts or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.