So You Want to File an Ethics Complaint Against a Public Official?
Is the mayor getting his lawn cut by the public works department? Want to do something about that unethical council member? One tool available to citizens is the ability to file ethics complaints with the state Local Finance Board if they believe public officials are acting in violation of state ethics laws. Here’s how to do it.
As a followup to this website’s recent listing of ethics cases involving Ocean County’s elected and appointed officials, some of our readers wanted to know about how they can go about filing a complaint of their own.
New Jersey’s Local Government Ethics Law
In 1991, the Local Government Ethics Law was signed into law. With it came a new set of requirements for elected and appointed officials as well as public employees within the state of New Jersey.
The most widely known part of the law is the annual financial disclosure statements that must be filed by those with positions covered under the law. The disclosure forms provide a means of identifying conflicts of interest, as the disclosure forms indicate both the official’s sources of income, as well as those of their spouse in addition to any real estate they own in the within the state of New Jersey. Public officials covered under the law must file the form electronically each year, and the state maintains a free searchable database of the forms here.
The statute also gives counties the option to create their own ethics boards at the county level that have the power to institute requirements stricter than what is required by the state ethics law, but not anything less. At this time, Ocean County does not have an ethics board of its own, but the freeholder board has the ability to create one if they so desire.
According to a listing provided by the state government’s website, there are also currently no municipal ethics boards established within any of Ocean County’s municipalities.
Financial penalties issued against public officials under the Local Government Ethics Law can only be between a minimum of $100 to a maximum of $500. In addition to those fines, if the state Local Finance Board, county or municipal ethics boards find an appointed official or employee violated the ethical requirements of this act. The statute also states that public employees found to have violated the Local Government Ethics Law could be punished with termination, demotion, suspension or other discipline as governed by state labor relations laws.
Did They Break The Law?
The first question you’ll need to answer if you think you have something worth filing a complaint over is whether the set of facts you’ll set forth in the complaint will prove a violation of the code of ethics that the respondent is required to abide by.
Here is the code of ethics for local officials under the Local Finance Board’s jurisdiction:
- No local government officer or employee or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest;
- No independent local authority shall, for a period of one year next subsequent to the termination of office of a member of that authority:
- (1) award any contract which is not publicly bid to a former member of that authority;
- (2) allow a former member of that authority to represent, appear for or negotiate on behalf of any other party before that authority; or
- (3) employ for compensation, except pursuant to open competitive examination in accordance with Title 11A of the New Jersey Statutes and the rules and regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, any former member of that authority.The restrictions contained in this subsection shall also apply to any business organization in which the former authority member holds an interest.
- No local government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others;
- No local government officer or employee shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment;
- No local government officer or employee shall undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties;
- No local government officer or employee, member of his immediate family, or business organization in which he has an interest, shall solicit or accept any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value based upon an understanding that the gift, favor, loan, contribution, service, promise, or other thing of value was given or offered for the purpose of influencing him, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of his official duties. This provision shall not apply to the solicitation or acceptance of contributions to the campaign of an announced candidate for elective public office, if the local government officer has no knowledge or reason to believe that the campaign contribution, if accepted, was given with the intent to influence the local government officer in the discharge of his official duties;
- No local government officer or employee shall use, or allow to be used, his public office or employment, or any information, not generally available to the members of the public, which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his office or employment, for the purpose of securing financial gain for himself, any member of his immediate family, or any business organization with which he is associated;
- No local government officer or employee or business organization in which he has an interest shall represent any person or party other than the local government in connection with any cause, proceeding, application or other matter pending before any agency in the local government in which he serves. This provision shall not be deemed to prohibit one local government employee from representing another local government employee where the local government agency is the employer and the representation is within the context of official labor union or similar representational responsibilities;
- No local government officer shall be deemed in conflict with these provisions if, by reason of his participation in the enactment of any ordinance, resolution or other matter required to be voted upon or which is subject to executive approval or veto, no material or monetary gain accrues to him as a member of any business, profession, occupation or group, to any greater extent than any gain could reasonably be expected to accrue to any other member of such business, profession, occupation or group;
- No elected local government officer shall be prohibited from making an inquiry for information on behalf of a constituent, if no fee, reward or other thing of value is promised to, given to or accepted by the officer or a member of his immediate family, whether directly or indirectly, in return therefor; and
- Nothing shall prohibit any local government officer or employee, or members of his immediate family, from representing himself, or themselves, in negotiations or proceedings concerning his, or their, own interests.
How To File The Complaint
To file a complaint under the LGEL, state law sets a very strict procedure that must be followed to avoid the dismissal of your ethics complaint. Consult this link for the full case procedure as defined by state law.
Essentially, you must identify one of the provisions of the law or code of ethics that you believe the public official in question violated. That allegation must be supported with evidence and documentation.
The complaint must contain your full name and original signature, and must be mailed to the Local Finance Board at P.O. Box 803, Trenton, NJ 08625-0803.
School Board Members Must Also Comply With School Ethics Act
If the individual you want to file an ethics complaint is a school board member you should be aware that in addition to the LGEL, school board members have a stricter ethics code all of their own.
The School Ethics Act, enacted in 1991 applies to school board members along with school employees. Anybody who manages to get elected to a local or regional school board will be strictly bound to the code of ethics adopted within the act, and an independent state agency known as the School Ethics Commission processes and adjudicates ethics complaints along with administering the requirements of the School Ethics Act statewide.
According to the legislative findings of the act, the law’s intention is to eliminate conduct by public officials “..which is in violation of their public trust or which creates a justifiable impression among the public that such trust is being violated.”
The full code of ethics for school board members as set by state law is as follows:
- I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools. Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.
- I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.
- I will confine my board action to policy making, planning, and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.
- I will carry out my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.
- I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.
- I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.
- I will hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools. In all other matters, I will provide accurate information and, in concert with my fellow board members, interpret to the staff the aspirations of the community for its school.
- I will vote to appoint the best qualified personnel available after consideration of the recommendation of the chief administrative officer.
- I will support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.
- I will refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and will act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.
Be advised that if the commission determines that your complaint was filed frivolously, they are empowered to fine the complainant up to $500, so only file your complaint if you have facts and evidence that can support an allegation of violating the code of ethics or a provision of the Act.
The School Ethics Commission also provides prior case decisions and ethics advisory opinions on its publicly available website, which may aid in drafting the complaint or determining whether or not you can file one in the first place.
Your complaint must be printed out and mailed to School Ethics Commission,New Jersey State Department of Education PO BOX 500 Trenton, NJ 08625-0500.
Editor’s Note: This article is intended to be a general guide, and is not intended as legal advice for any specific situations. Whether or not an individual violated the law can only be determined by the appropriate investigating agency and is highly dependent on the unique set of facts in any given case.