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Should local ethics boards in N.J. be abolished?

An obscure ethics board in an upscale South Jersey town hastily scheduled a rare special meeting last week to take care of some very old unfinished business.

Secretary of the Moorestown Ethical Standards Board Scott Carew, left,  and township solicitor Anthony Drollas Jr. at a recent meeting.
Secretary of the Moorestown Ethical Standards Board Scott Carew, left, and township solicitor Anthony Drollas Jr. at a recent meeting.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

An obscure ethics board in an upscale South Jersey town hastily scheduled a rare special meeting last week to take care of some very old unfinished business.

The Moorestown Township Ethical Standards Board announced it would meet "in the Town Hall Donut Room" on Wednesday and noted its first order of business would be to approve the minutes of its Oct. 24, 2012 meeting.

Why the rush now? Last month, a government watchdog sued the town in state Superior Court for refusing to let him read the minutes. Moorestown officials said the document was confidential because there had been no official vote taken during the last four years to approve and release them.

John Paff, the chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, often files lawsuits like this one to promote transparency. "If you can't physically attend a meeting, the minutes are the only way you can know what the government is doing," he said last week. "The minutes can tell you if, for example, the mayor has violated ethics standards and was fined $100, and that would clearly be of public interest."

The problems in Moorestown illustrate one reason New Jersey lawmakers are considering abolishing local ethics boards and giving the State Ethics Commission the responsibility of handling ethics complaints statewide. A bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union) passed the Senate last month with bipartisan support and is pending in the Assembly.

Only about 30 townships statewide have ethics boards, and most are in North Jersey. Moorestown is the only Burlington County town to have such a board, according to the state. North Wildwood and Margate are other South Jersey towns that still have ethics boards. Lumberton disbanded its board last year.

What was buried in Moorestown's October 2012 minutes was not Paff's concern. He objected to the board keeping the public records confidential after he filed an Open Public Records request last December to review them.

On Wednesday, when the 2012 minutes were finally approved and released, they revealed the board had taken action to have an ethics board member removed for failing to file an annual financial disclosure statement. The former member, John Piccone, could not be reached for comment.

One of the duties of an ethics board is to make sure public officials and appointees file financial statements. The filings are important, Paff said, because they identify an official's "sources of income, real estate and business holdings and family relationships so that the public can detect and identify any conflicts of interest and potential corruption."

Moorestown Township Manager Scott Carew, who serves as the secretary of the ethics board, said the reason the minutes were not released sooner is that the board meets infrequently - only when it receives complaints - and it had not had the opportunity to approve the old minutes. He said he did not know why the board did not vote on the minutes when it met last October.

Paff says local ethics boards often are inefficient. He also said these boards should not investigate complaints about conflicts of interest that might involve the same town officials who appointed them.

The ethics bill pending in the legislature would give the State Ethics Commission oversight over all complaints involving state and local officials and would give the agency the authority to overhaul ethics regulations. Penalties for local officials who violate ethics laws also would be significantly increased - from a maximum of $500 to $10,000, the same fines that state officials face.

Sen. Kean said in an interview last week that his bill would strengthen ethics rules and enforcement, and that would "enhance public confidence in government." There have been cases recently of local officials being charged with using their office for monetary gain, he said, and municipal officials need to be held accountable. "The oversight over municipal officials seems to go into a black hole," he said.

In the past two decades, towns could either establish a local ethics board or allow municipal ethics complaints to be handled by the state Local Finance Board, an agency with varied duties.

"Some towns created the local boards to provide a safe environment for local government officers who would rather be investigated by people they knew and trusted than by someone in Trenton," said Paff. Other boards, he said, were established with good intentions but later fell dormant and eventually were disbanded.

Carew, Moorestown's manager, said that the bipartisan ethics board is comprised of six volunteers and that it met last October "in response to a news article that pointed out we are one of the few" ethics boards in the area. The board meets around an unusual doughnut-shaped table (which gives the Donut Room its name) and discussed whether to disband. He said the board decided that it "had been effective and fair in the past and there was no reason to change course."

The Philadelphia Inquirer article Carew referenced, which appeared July 20, 2015, also said that the ethics board's 2012 meeting minutes were being withheld because they had not yet been approved. But Carew said the unapproved minutes did not come up for discussion. He said he did not know why but said he remembered the focus was on whether to disband.

Scott F. Cooper, the chairman of the ethics board, and other members who attended Wednesday's meeting, declined comment.

Township attorney Anthony Drollas Jr. said he did not recall whether the withheld 2012 minutes were brought to his attention and said he had not been at last year's meeting. Typically the board does not have the solicitor attend the board meetings, he said. The majority of the board, however, is comprised of lawyers, including its chairman, Cooper, a partner at Blank Rome in Philadelphia.

Drollas said Paff's lawsuit lacked merit. "The [2012] minutes had not been approved and there was nothing surreptitious about their absence from the record" when Paff had asked to see them, he said.

Paff is seeking a court order for the minutes to be released and for his legal bills to be paid. His lawsuit noted the Inquirer had requested them last July and that he requested them last December and both times the requests were denied. He is challenging a previous ruling by a state agency that says unapproved minutes are not public record.

"Towns should not be able to get away with saying, 'Well they're not approved, so they're not public' and then block the release of the minutes for as long as they want," Paff said.

No court hearing has been scheduled yet. A vote on the ethics bill in the Assembly also has not been set. "My hope is the Assembly will do its job and follow up on very strong bipartisan support and the support of ethics experts," Kean said.