Open Government Group Calls on State to Strengthen Local Government Ethics Law

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government is calling on the State of New Jersey to strengthen the rules that govern how the state processes citizen complaints against local officials for allegedly violating the state’s local government ethics law.

The group has filed a petition with the state Department of Community Affairs seeking three amendments to the law. The group wants the state to set deadlines for resolving ethics complaints.

Under current rules, the state’s Local Finance Board, the body that reviews ethics complaints, is not subject to any time constraints for conducting investigations. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government is calling on the state to complete investigations within 18 months. The group says one case has been pending for nearly three and half years and others have been in the investigative stage for more than two years.

Under current rules, all information concerning ethics complaints is held confidential until the complaint is finally resolved.  Under the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government’s proposal, complaints will made public after the Local Finance Board completes its preliminary investigation, which must be done within 120 days of the complaint’s filing.

Currently, the Local Finance Board can reject complaints that deal with conduct that is also the subject of a court case or other tribunal.The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government’s proposal would not allow the board to dismiss a complaint that alleges the same conduct that is the subject to an action by a court or another tribunal unless the complaint’s allegations are “substantially similar to the material allegations” made in the other matter.  The rule would also require the board to inform the complainant that he or she may bring the complaint anew after the matter before the court or other tribunal has been resolved.

The New Jersey Administrative Procedures Act allows anyone to petition any state agency for a new rule or for an amendment to or a repeal of an existing rule.  The same law requires that the agency either grant a petition, deny it with a statement of reasons, or refer the matter for further deliberations to be concluded within 90 days.

The Local Finance Board  considered the petition at its October 14 and decided to “refer the matter to Local Finance Board staff for further deliberation and recommendation on further action within 90 days.”