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New policy outlaws gifts above $25

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment former administrator Paul McIntosh caused them earlier this year, county commissioners adopted a tough new policy governing the acceptance of gifts by government employees.

The rule forbids county workers from asking for or accepting gifts of any value from anyone attempting to influence government action, or from anyone who has or might have business dealings with the county.

It further states that employees may take gifts worth less than $25, but only if the gift is not intended to influence action and is instead an expression of appreciation. If the gift is worth more than $25, it can be taken as public property.

Employees also may accept "social courtesies," such as a meal, while attending functions at which the items are generally available to everyone there. The rule in no way absolves anyone of a requirement to report gifts received to the state.

"The message, loud and clear, is we have a policy and we expect all our employees to adhere to it," Chairwoman Nancy Robinson said after the 4-1 vote to implement it.

Commissioner Mary Aiken opposed the policy, calling it "one of the biggest nonissues I've run into."

Other commissioners did not share her view. Rather, they wanted to craft a rule that would make clear to the public that government workers cannot be bought, yet at the same time a rule that allows employees some room to eat at a seminar or accept a small present from a colleague.

The previous policy was unclear, according to the county legal staff, so commissioners did not impose it against McIntosh after learning he had taken event tickets and other gifts from people or groups seeking county action, such as the Economic Development Commission.

After conducting a workshop to determine how tough to get, commissioners asked the lawyers to draft a new policy. They hashed through it Tuesday, with most concerns focusing on the value of minimal, noninfluential gifts that would be allowed.

The lawyers had proposed $100 for that level.

Commissioners agreed that was too high but had much conversation on what amount was acceptable. Commissioner Diane Rowden pushed for no gifts, while others said there had to be some leeway.

Residents in the audience, meanwhile, also pressed for a zero gift policy.

"The old saying still exists. The day you accept a gift, you are in their pocket," said Peggy Cartwright, who regularly lectures the commission on issues.