Ask the Ethics Officer

May I attend a local seminar hosted by a potential city vendor?

Q: I have been invited to attend a local seminar after work that is being hosted by a potential city vendor for local, state, and federal employees. There is no charge to attend the event, and food and beverages will be provided. May I attend?

A: You may attend the event since it is open to other members of the public, and you may accept the food because it is furnished in connection with your appearance in an official capacity at a seminar, convention, or conference.

One of the exceptions to the ban on gratuities permits city employees and officials to accept “reasonable meals or refreshments” furnished when they attend a “public, civic, charitable, or non-profit ceremony, event, convention, or conference” in their official capacity, whether or not the sponsor of the event does business with the city. There is no requirement to disclose the gift of the meal under this exception because the public nature of the event serves as the notice or disclosure.

Can a contractor pay for my travel?

Q: I am a city employee and have been working with a city contractor on a project. The contractor has asked me to speak on a panel at a conference this winter and offered to pay for my travel. May I accept the offer?

A: You may accept reimbursement of travel expenses from the contractor because you are participating on a conference panel, but must publicly disclose the travel expenses in the Electronic Disclosure System.

The Code of Ethics permits city officials and employees to receive expense reimbursements from prohibited sources for “reasonable hosting expenses,” which include travel, meals, lodging, and conference registration fees, in limited circumstances. The travel must be made in connection with (1) speaking, (2) teaching, (3) participating on a professional panel, or (4) attending a conference in an official capacity. Any travel paid by a non-city source must be reported online on a Travel Disclosure Report within 30 days of the event.

May I ask a city vendor for a door prize?

Q: I am helping to plan an Employee Appreciation Luncheon in my department. May I ask a vendor with whom I work for a cash donation or gift to give as a door prize?

A: No. The Code of Ethics prohibits you from soliciting gifts directly from vendors and contractors with whom you regularly work. You may, however, solicit donations for employee awards from any business that is not a prohibited source or targeted solely because it does business with the City.

The Board of Ethics has established the following guidelines for employees to follow in soliciting money and in-kind donations from individuals and businesses:

  • The official or employee must solicit in an official capacity
  • The solicitation must be made for a city purpose, project, or program
  • The fund-raising campaign should make a broad public appeal for support
  • The solicitation should not target prohibited sources
  • The gift must be given to the City of Atlanta or one of its agencies
  • The gift must be publicly disclosed on an online gift report form
  • The gift cannot be calculated to influence any vote, decision, or official action

Can I accept a holiday gift from a prohibited source?

Q: I have received a box of chocolates from a vendor that has a contract with my department. May I keep the gift?

A: City officials and employees may accept gifts of food and flowers on behalf of their agency when the gift is perishable, has a nominal market value, and is impractical to return. The gift must be placed in a public area where other employees or the general public can share it.

The Code of Ethics prohibits city employees and officials from accepting gratuities or gifts from prohibited sources, which includes persons doing business with the City. Accepting a gift from a city vendor or contractor creates the perception that the employee’s or official’s independence and judgment is being compromised. If an employee or official receives a gratuity, the recipient should return the gift to the donor, pay the fair market value of the item, or give it to a charity in the name of the sender. Because of the practical problems associated with gifts of food, the Board of Ethics adopted a holiday gift rule that permits the acceptance of occasional, modest, and perishable gifts that are shared within the office.

How do I say no?

Q: I received a $50 gift certificate to a local restaurant with a note of thanks from a group that I have helped over the past two years. How can I explain that I can’t accept the gift?

A: When you receive a gift card or certificate from a prohibited source, you have three choices: you may return the gift to the sender, pay the fair market value of the gift, or donate it to a charity in the name of the sender. Here are examples of how other employees have explained their reasons for returning a gift or donating it to a charity.

Example 1: It was wonderful to receive your letter today inviting me to visit [name of restaurant] this spring. Your menu lists a variety of delectable selections that I will keep in mind for me and my family when we occasionally dine out. I also want to thank you for the $50 luncheon certificate. However, due to the current City of Atlanta Ethics policy, I am unable to accept this gift certificate (enclosed). Thank you again, and I wish you and [name of restaurant] continued success!

Example 2: Thank you very much for your holiday greetings. We have enjoyed our working relationship with [name of company] this year. We appreciate your generosity and thoughtfulness by sending us the gift cards, but though your intent surely springs from the spirit of the season, City policy prohibits us from accepting gifts of this nature. Please understand why we can’t accept your gift. This being the case, and since we believe there are many in the City who have great needs at this time of year, we have donated the gift cards to the Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry Campaign in your names.

May I accept a lunch invitation?

Q: I am having a business lunch with outside counsel for Beltline, Inc. She wants to buy my lunch. We are on the same side of a transaction. I assume this is okay, as long as I disclose and keep it under $25. Correct?

A: No. The City has no exception for personal gifts of meals. The ban on gratuities prohibits employees from accepting things of value from a prohibited source, which includes law firms that represent city agencies. There are three exceptions for food: (1) meals and refreshments provided at a public event, (2) hospitality extended for a social or business purpose unrelated to official city business, and (3) meals provided as part of travel in connection with a speech or a conference.

Can a vendor donate money for a retirement party?

Q: Our department is hosting a retirement party for an employee. A city vendor wants to give money to support the event. Can we accept donations from city contractors, vendors, and other prohibited sources to help pay for the event?

A: Yes. You may accept donations on behalf of your department from prohibited sources for a retirement party. You will need to file an online Gift to the City Report disclosing all gifts that your department receives from non-city sources.

City employees should not solicit donations from city contractors, vendors, and other prohibited sources for retirement parties, employee appreciation lunches, or similar events honoring individuals. In addition, city contractors and vendors may not give cash, a watch, and other things of value as personal gifts to the employee being honored.

May I wear a campaign t-shirt to work?

Q: Can we wear t-shirts at work that have a photo of a presidential candidate on them?

A: No. While on duty, city employees cannot wear t-shirts or campaign buttons that promote any candidate for president or any other office. Employees need to limit their endorsements of political candidates for elective office – whether by buttons, t-shirts, or signs – to their off-duty hours. Employees may, of course, express a personal opinion on political issues in private conversations with co-workers.

Do I have a conflict?

Q: My wife is a paralegal at the local branch of a New York law firm that is one of three firms making a presentation to the board on which I serve in a bid for our business. Do I have a conflict-of-interest problem?

A: Yes. Because your wife is an employee in a firm seeking to do business with your board, you may not participate in the board's discussion or decision on who is awarded the contract. Board members are prohibited from participating in contracts, subcontracts, requests for proposals, or contract specifications when they know or should know that they, their employer, an immediate family member, or the family member's employer has a financial interest. You need to recuse yourself, decline to discuss or participate in the matter, and file an online Conflict of Interest Disclosure Report in the Electronic Disclosure System.

Can I accept this lunch?

Q: Our department has hired a company that is the corporate sponsor for an upcoming awards ceremony. The company has invited me as its guest at the ceremony, which includes lunch. I would like to attend to see what is required to nominate the City of Atlanta for next year’s award. Can I accept?

A: Yes. You may accept the invitation under the exception for reasonable meals at a public event. The Code of Ethics prohibits officials and employees from accepting things of value from a prohibited source. There are 11 exceptions to the ban. A major exception allows reasonable meals or refreshments furnished in connection with an employee’s appearance in an official capacity at a “public, civic, charitable or non-profit ceremony, event, convention or conference whether the sponsor of the event does or does not do business with the city.” Since the meal is reasonable, the ceremony is public, and you are appearing in your official capacity, you fall within the exception.

Can we hire a city employee?

Q: Our department solicited and received three bids from local companies for a contract that is under $20,000. The lowest bid is from a company that a city employee owns. Can we award the contract to the employee’s company?

A: No. Active city employees cannot own a company that does business with the City, unless the business is conducted through a sealed competitive bid process. Since the department is awarding its contract based on quotes from three companies, it is prohibited from entering into a contract with the city employee or the employee’s company.

Can we hire a former employee?

Q: Our department would like to rehire a former employee as a consultant to advise us on a project on which she worked while with the City.  She left just three months ago, so she is still within her one-year cooling-off period.  Can we hire her?

A: Yes. The Code of Ethics has an exception that permits the City to directly engage a former employee to provide services to or on behalf of the City during the one-year cooling-off period.  This rule applies whether the individual is self-employed or has her own wholly-owned consulting firm.   This exception essentially postpones the former employee’s cooling-off period, which would begin on the date that the former employee is no longer directly engaged by the City.

The rule on the cooling-off period prohibits a former employee from representing a private client before a city agency or receiving compensation for any services provided on behalf of a person, business, or association other than the City in connection with any matter in which the employee was directly concerned, personally participated, actively considered, or acquired knowledge.  This prohibition means that the former employee cannot be paid by individuals, private companies, or non-profit organizations to represent them before a city agency or do work on a matter on which they worked while at the City.Top

Can I serve on a city board?

Q:  An employee who works in the human resources division in our department is interested in serving on an advisory committee related to the BeltLine.  Can a city employee be appointed to serve as a volunteer on a city board?

A:  Yes.  A city employee who lives in the City of Atlanta may be appointed to a city board or participate in his or her neighborhood planning unit unless the enabling legislation expressly prohibits city employees from serving or the volunteer service is incompatible with the employee’s official duties.  For example, the legislation creating the Atlanta Citizen Review Board states that no member shall hold employment with the City of Atlanta; a staff member to a board would generally not be able to serve as a volunteer on that same board.  City employees have served as president of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, as officers in their NPU, and as members of boards as diverse as the Municipal Market Board, the Tree Conservation Commission, and the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Board.  In each case, the work they do for the City is not similar to the work of the city board.Top

How can I thank an employee?

Q:  We have a particular officer who has endeared himself to the neighborhood residents, and some would like to show their appreciation to him for his above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty service to us.  I know gift cards are on the prohibited list. Could you provide me a list of acceptable ways to show appreciation   to our Atlanta Police Department personnel?

A:  You should not give cash, lunch, tickets, or other personal gifts to a police officer or city employee.  The best way to thank city employees for their work is to write a note, email, or letter of praise to their supervisor.  You may also make a donation in their honor to a city department or city-related foundation or give them an honorary title.  As examples, one neighborhood association planted a tree in a city park in appreciation of an employee’s work in designing the park; another group designated their favorite officer as an honorary neighborhood citizen; and a citizen grateful for the efforts of firefighters in saving his cat made a donation in the employees’ names to the Atlanta Fire Foundation.


 "Ask the Ethics Officer" is a regular feature of the Board of Ethics' enewsletter Ethics Matters. If you have a question or need advice, you may ask a question online, send your question to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call the Ethics Office at 404-330-6286.


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