making local government more ethical

Will New Jersey Improve Its Local Government Ethics Program?

New Jersey has one of the oddest approaches to local government ethics. Like several states,  including Massachusetts, California, and Florida, a state ethics program has jurisdiction over local officials. But unlike other states, the state ethics program is not run by the state ethics commission. It is run by the Department of Community Affairs.

Go to the Community Affairs homepage, and there is no mention of ethics anywhere. When you click on Divisions, the closest division to ethics is Local Government Services, which "works with local governments to ensure their financial integrity and solvency, and to support their efforts to comply with State laws and regulations."

Go the Local Government Services homepage, and you find that Ethics Law and Complaints is listed in the midst of 15 programs.

Go the ethics homepage, and you find six categories:  financial disclosure, local government officer rosters, marriage and civil union ceremonies (!), attorney general opinions (most of which involve who is a "local government officer"), papers and publications (including the state ethics law, rules of procedure, and one advisory opinion), and local ethics board (a link to a list of them, with a designation of the few that have been approved by the Local Finance Board, which doesn't seem an appropriate body to deal with government ethics).

In short, the state's ethics program appears to be a mess. There is one advisory opinion, no decisions, no meeting minutes, no hint of how the system works, no guidance.

But there is good news. Senate bill S-2068 has been filed, which would hand local government ethics over to the state ethics commission and require that local government and school officials be covered by the same ethics laws as state officials. The bad news is that it was filed in June, and does not appear to have gone anywhere.

But one of the sponsors, Tom Kean, Jr., the Senate Republican leader, is still pushing the bill. In a January 29 press release, he says, “Fragmented ethics oversight that subjects different levels of government to different standards is a recipe for violating the public trust. My legislation subjects the government closest to the people — local government — to the higher ethical standards required of state officials and streamlines enforcement of conflicts of interest laws. As the legislative session for 2013 ramps up, I call on the Senate President to ensure that this legislation is given consideration and a vote.”

To those who consider New Jersey a cesspool of corruption, this might not seem very important. But New Jersey is supposed to have put together a good state ethics program. State Integrity's recent report card on all 50 states put New Jersey No. 1. If the state ethics commission is given sufficient funding, its expertise should make quality advice and training available at the local level, and provide independent enforcement, as well.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics