New Jersey Advances Local Ethics Change

By John Celock

A New Jersey Senate committee voted Thursday to advance legislation that would place the state’s local officials under the control of state ethics officials.

The Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee voted unanimously to pass legislation that would require the state Ethics Commission to assume oversight of the state’s local officials. The law would mandate that local officials file financial disclosure forms with the state ethics agency and give the ethics agency control to investigate and potentially reprimand local officials for ethics violations. The commission would also put into effect new ethics rules for local officials around the state.

“It is long overdo,” former state Sen. William Shulter (R-Mercer County) told the committee in his testimony. “It will uniformity to all local government officials who serve in this state.”

Under the terms of the bill, the state Ethics Commission would work with the state’s local government services director to draft new ethics guidelines for local officials in the state’s 565 municipalities and 21 counties. The changes do not cover the state’s school districts and local boards of education, which fall under the control of the state Department of Education on ethics issues.

Currently local ethics issues are handled by local ethics boards and county prosecutor offices.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield), the bill’s primary sponsor, did not speak at the committee hearing. Kean, who has made ethics reform a key issue of his since first becoming a state legislator in 2001, has been pushing the local ethics bill since last year. State Sen. Jim Whalen (D-Atlantic City), the committee chairman and a sponsor of the bill, said that he and Kean have had conversations with the state League of Municipalities in drafting the bill.

State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge) told the committee that he supported the move, saying it would allow for ethics complaints to be handled by groups that are not local. Thompson related a story where he said Middlesex County Republicans filed an ethics complaint against Middlesex County Sheriff Mildred Scott (D) during her 2010 campaign. Thompson alleged that Scott, then a county freeholder overseeing public safety issues, had had a sheriff’s officer park in a county park where she then filmed a campaign commercial.

Thompson said the county prosecutor declined to take the case and the complaint has lingered with the county ethics board since 2010.

Most of the committee hearing on the bill focused on Schluter’s testimony and his suggestions for state ethics reform. Schluter made ethics reform the centerpiece of his legislative service, which ended in 2002 after a failed 2001 independent run for governor. During his tenure in the Senate, Schluter chaired the joint legislative ethics committee. Since leaving the Senate, Schulter served several years on the state Ethics Commission, including a stint as the commission’s vice chairman.

During his testimony, Schluter called on lawmakers to overhaul the ethics commission to remove the three executive branch members and make a citizen led commission. He also proposed changing the appointment process for the commission to have a nominating commission suggest appointees to the governor for service. He modeled his nominating commission proposal after the nominating process for redistricting commissions in Arizona and California.

Schluter said the change in the makeup of the commission would allow for the commission to be independent from others in state government. He noted that the Legislature’s ethics committee went from being comprised of lawmakers to the public several years ago.

“In my views that carries relationships that could detract from the absolute independence that is needed,” he said.