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Update: Divided Township Council Dissolves Ethics Board

Patricia Bacon

Patricia Bacon, chairwoman of the Municipal Ethics Board, told the Township Council that the board wants to talk about a move to transfer its responsibilities to the state.

The township Ethics Board was officially dissolved at the Township Council Dec. 10 meeting, by a vote of 6-2.

Voting for the motion to move the board’s duties to the state Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board were Council members James Vassanella (Ward 5), Ted Chase (Ward 1), Brian Regan (At-Large), Phil Kramer (Ward 3), Rajiv Prasad (At-Large) and Deputy Mayor Roz Sherman (Ward 2).

Mayor Brian Levine and Councilman Carl R.A. Wright (Ward 4) voted against the move.

More details to come. The original story follows.

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A majority of the Township Council wants to dismantle the Municipal Ethics Board, but board members aren’t going down without a fight.

In a split vote, the council on Nov. 26 introduced an ordinance that would transfer the responsibilities of the board to the state Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board.

Mayor Brian Levine and Councilmen Phil Kramer (Ward 3) and Carl R.A. Wright (Ward 4) voted against the ordinance’s introduction.

Supporters of the change say the state can handle the board’s functions at no cost to the township.

Patricia Bacon, the board’s chairwoman, showed up at the council meeting to ask that the board and its supporters be given time to state its case prior to the ordinance’s second reading and public hearing at the December meeting.

“I feel there is some confusion about what we do and how we act,” she said.

“This is one of the few municipal ethics boards in the state,” she noted. Bacon said that over the years, township officials have approached the board with questions about issues that may have landed them afoul of ethics laws.

“I feel that there are officials who, if deprived of this opportunity, would find themselves in a place they would regret being in,” she said.

She said that many citizens have “availed themselves” of the board, and that the board has had an impact.

“But you will never know,” because what the board does is confidential, she said.

Kramer then suggested allowing board members to come in to the December meeting for a short discussion about the ordinance.

Councilman Brian Regan (At-Large) later questioned the purpose of the extra discussion, noting that the ordinance would have a public hearing at that meeting, and that anyone is free to speak at that time.

He said the idea of dissolving the ethics board has been talked about for a year, and has been the topic of two council executive sessions.

Kramer said the structure of the public hearing is such that it does not allow for a conversation between the board and council, as would a short discussion session.

Council members took the unusual step of commenting on the ordinance introduction before their vote.

Kramer said that moving the functions to the state would not “eliminate the right of any citizen or their ability to investigate ethics charges against anyone.”

It comes down to money, Kramer said.

“Then the question becomes, which is better, having it done locally, but costing money, or having it done by the state, which might not be sensitive to the local community, but which would cost us nothing,” he said.

Levine said the board does “cost us a little,” but that he is willing to spend the money “if I can do a better job locally.”

Regan said the Local Finance Board handles ethics complaints “across the state very effectively.”

“Shared services with Trenton would be a more effective use of our funds,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Roz Sherman (Ward 2) said the ethics board is “perhaps an idea where the time has come to re-think it.”

The consideration should be “what makes sense and what serves our community well,” she said.

 

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