making local government more ethical

NJ's Ineffective Local Government Ethics Program Is Up for Renewal

In 2008, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine established a special task force to take a look at the state's local government ethics program. In September 2010, the task force filed a report that recommended substantial changes to the program (attached; see below). Nothing was done.

The state's local government ethics rules were set to expire in September of this year. The Local Finance Board, which administers the state-run local government ethics program, obtained an extension on renewal until March 19, 2014. In a proposed rule (also attached; see below), the board came out in favor of renewal of the rules without any changes. That is, without any of the changes proposed by the task force or by anyone else (see below). It is as if the task force had never been formed.

The Way Things Are Now
It is hard to say that the Local Finance Board (LFB) is ineffective, because the board provides no online records of its advisory opinions, proceedings, or anything. I couldn't even find minutes of its meetings (see a blog post on the LFB's transparency problem). The only information I could find about its activities was from people who had obtained redacted records through a public record request. For example, comments on the rule proposal by the chair of the state Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project (OGAP) refer to the LFB's recent complaint rosters, obtained through a public record request:
Complaint 2006-011 was redacted by the LFB from the 2012 roster and excluded from the 2013 roster.  This means that as of July 2013 — more than seven years after 2006-011's filing — the public was still not permitted to know against whom the complaint was filed or even the agency with which the accused was associated. Complaint 2006-041 was redacted from the LFB's 2012 roster but was disclosed on its 2013 roster, presumably because the matter was adjudicated or otherwise resolved between mid-2012 and mid-2013.  Upon resolution of the matter — some six to seven years after the complaint's filing — Upper Freehold Township citizens could finally inform themselves that Township Committeeman William Miscoski was accused of an ethics violation by Stephen Edelstein.
The OGAP has posted redacted LFB advisory opinions from 1991-2004 (attached; see below). This gives a sad picture of how the LFB's visibility and how much respect it has (or at least had) from local officials. The document contains only 19 advisory opinions from a period of 13 years. For a state the size of New Jersey, at least that number of opinions should be provided every month.

The Attorney General also provides, or provided, ethics advisory opinions. The LFB has a sheet of these opinions on its website, but they end in 2000.

Local governments are permitted to have their own ethics program, but few have chosen to establish or preserve them. According to a recent article in the Star-Ledger, there is a debate in Franklin Township (where I lived for a short time thirty years ago) about whether to preserve its program or turn the job over to the Local Finance Board. A council member who supports scrapping the program is quoted as saying, “Can everybody else be crazy but us? Why are we doing this? Why are we so special?” This is normally a good question. But the answer in this case is clear:  giving jurisdiction to a board that is focused on other matters (local finances) and that provides no transparency is the best thing possible for local officials (or so they think).

Task Force Recommendations
The task force report made recommendations that would greatly change the system. It proposed to take the program out of the hands of the Local Finance Board, where it certainly does not belong, and establish instead a special Local Government Ethics Board. The task force also recommended the appointment of a local government ethics adviser and ethics liaisons in each local government unit to act as a resource. This is effectively how the program for state officials works, with liaisons in each agency. The task force recommended getting rid of local ethics programs altogether.

A majority of the task force wanted to keep the new ethics board in the Department of Community Affairs, where it is now. But a minority wanted to integrate it with the state ethics commission, consistent with a proposal that appeared in a 2009 guest column for nj.com (a consortium of New Jersey newspapers) by the chair of the state ethics commission (see my blog post on this proposal). This year, a bill was proposed in the state senate to do the same thing, but it died in committee (see my blog post on the bill). It is likely that opposition from municipal officials prevented this, and other reforms, from occurring.

The task force recommended improvement of the state ethics program's website: "better communications in all ways and especially online can serve to build understanding and support for ethical standards and the administration that supports them. All aspects of information, counseling and website content should parallel that of the State Ethics Commission." This recommendation, which required no statutory changes, appears to have been ignored by the LFB.

The task force recommended mandatory ethics training. Now, ethics training is provided by the NJ League of Municipalities. It is better to have an ethics program itself provide this training.

The task force also made recommendations regarding improved ethics provisions, the gift ban, disclosure, enforcement, and other matters.

As far as I can tell, none of the recommendations have been accepted. It is probably no accident that Gov. Christie's ethics reform proposals of September 2010, the same month the report was published, included no changes to the state's local government ethics program.

The LFB Proposal to Renew Its Program
It is bad enough that the task force recommendations did not become reality. It is completely unacceptable that the LFB did not show sufficient respect for the work done by the task force to mention, and refute, these recommendations in its proposal to renew the local government ethics rules without any changes.

This alone should disqualify the LFB from managing the state's local government ethics program. It would be better to cancel the current system, which appears to be little used, so that a visible and effective program can be established in its stead.

The LFB's rule proposal (Proposal No. PRN 2013-149) requests comments to be presented by December 20. Needless to say, unlike other agencies' comments on rule proposals, the LFB is allowing only written comments mailed to a post office box. Here is the address: Patricia Parkin McNamara, Executive Secretary, Local Finance Board, Department of Community Affairs P.O. Box 803, Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0803. But here are two possible e-mail addresses for Ms. McNamara: pat.mcnamara@dca.state.nj.us or Patricia.McNamara@dca.state.nj.us

I will be sending comments criticizing the LFB for not dealing with the task force recommendations, the state EC chair's recommendations, or legislative ethics reform bills. It appears that the LFB is protecting its own turf by acting as if there were no disagreements about the future of the ethics program, and that, by providing little in the way of transparency, it has something to hide. For these reasons, the LFB should be superseded by another board, either the state EC or an independent local ethics board.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-230-2548