The jurisdiction of local ethics complaints eyed

Last week, years after Lumberton's Ethics Board went dormant, the township committee voted to make its demise official. With a unanimous vote, the board was abolished.

Lumberton was one of only two municipalities in Burlington County to even have such a board; there are only about 30 across the state.

Township Solicitor George Morris had advised the committee to eliminate it "for consistency" reasons, saying the majority of New Jersey's municipalities allow the state Local Finance Board to handle ethics complaints lodged against local officials.

Now Moorestown is the only municipality in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties to have its own ethics board. Like Lumberton, its board has fallen into disuse.

The Moorestown board last met on Oct. 24, 2012, according to Township Clerk Patricia Hunt, who recently responded to a public-records request for documents on what the board has been doing. The minutes of that 2012 meeting were never approved and therefore cannot be released to the public, even nearly three years later, she said. An email sent to the board several weeks ago went to a few members who resigned long ago.

John Paff, a state-government watchdog, said that at the very least the Moorestown board should hold an annual reorganization meeting.

"The danger of not having it allows you to not have one the next year or the next year and you lose the continuity. They need to meet to maintain a level of effectiveness and to designate someone to receive complaints from the public," he said.

Paff, chairman of the state Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, recently sent a letter urging state lawmakers to pass a bill giving the New Jersey Ethics Commission jurisdiction over complaints filed against local officials.

The commission has more teeth, but currently investigates only state officials who violate ethics and conflict of interest laws, he said.

The state Local Finance Board handles ethics matters involving local officials who serve in most of the state's nearly 600 municipalities. But there is a two- to three-year backlog and the fines are typically limited to $100.

A bill sponsored by Sens. Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Essex) and Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth) and Assemblyman David W. Wolfe (R., Brick) would put the Ethics Commission in charge of these complaints and also would increase the minimum fine to $500 and the maximum to $10,000.

In his June 11 letter of "written testimony," Paff recommended the lawmakers take it a step further and have the Ethics Commission handle all complaints, even those that are now filed with township ethics boards across the state.

Paff suggested that the bill call for the disbanding of all of the local boards, saying these boards often do not do "a particularly good job in enforcing the ethics law," and that many are inactive.

Morris, Lumberton's solicitor, said that he learned the town's ethics board had been dormant "for years" after Paff attempted to file a complaint with the board about a potential ethics violation.

Morris said he told Paff that he would recommend the township committee disband its ethics board and that Paff would then be free to file his complaint with the state agency that currently handles these matters.

"The local ethics board in Lumberton was a duplication of an already-established process, and this move to eliminate the board was prudent since finding members to serve has proven difficult," Township Administrator Brandon Umba said.

A few weeks after Paff submitted his letter to the lawmakers, and the legislators heard from others, an amendment was introduced to abolish township ethics boards.

"Sen. Kean believed the following amendments were necessary to provide for more streamlined, comprehensive, and expeditious enforcement of existing ethics laws," said Jeremy Rosen, a spokesman for the senator.

Rosen said that Kean and other legislators received input on the bill from several people, including Sen. Sam Thompson (R., Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean) who shared "an anecdotal story about a complaint filed with a county ethics commission that had been sitting unheard for more than four or five years.

"This illustrates the reality that municipal and county ethics boards are often ill-fitted to consider the complex, quasi-judicial issues brought before them."

The bill is awaiting a vote by the full legislature. No date has been scheduled.


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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