The following article appeared in the October 16th edition of The Ocean Star
Public ethics seminar clarifies boundaries
By Erica Florentine
The boroughs of Mantoloking and Bay Head gained insight into their own governments’ practices through a special joint ethics presentation last Friday, Oct. 9, held at Mantoloking Borough Hall.
The topic of ethics was at the forefront of the information session, and attendees sat through a series of example scenarios teaching the boundaries between ethical and not ethical behavior in the workplace.
The day’s talks were led by William Kearns Jr., attorney for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. Mr. Kearns said he holds sessions like this for groups throughout the state.
In charge of organizing the event was Mantoloking Councilman Jim Brown. Councilman Brown said that, to the best of his knowledge, this type of seminar has not been held in any other nearby towns.
Mr. Brown said that, though there is a law mandating state officials attend a similar ethics seminar once per year, there is no such requirement for municipalities.
Filling the courtroom at Mantoloking Borough Hall were a variety of local officials, including borough hall employees, police officers and borough council members.
Mr. Kearns began his presentation by discussing how, sometimes, those who work for municipal governments feel as though they are targets of the community’s focus. He stressed the importance of acting in the most ethical of fashions.
“Ethical conduct is doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do,” Mr. Kearns said.
He said on the state level, officials are governed by a set laws. However, these rules can become a bit vague on the municipal level. He said local government ethics laws establish a minimum standard of conduct, and require financial disclosure statements of certain officials, which are enforced by the local finance board.
Mr. Kearns said sanctions include fines and potential removal from office.
Throughout the presentation, Mr. Kearns made it clear that there is a standard of conduct when working for a municipality.
“For example, don’t vote on something dealing with an immediate family member,” Mr. Kearns said.
Residents expect that those who work for the town will make judgments independently, free of bias, and will not use their positions to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages, Mr. Kearns noted.
“Sometimes, it can be something as trivial as taking a cup of coffee for free,” he said.
He suggested the importance of borough employees not taking advantage of information that has been obtained confidentially through their position.
In an effort to present the audience with some clear examples, he presented a variety of situations and asked the audience for feedback.
One situation involved a town worker receiving free Yankee tickets from a resident who could potentially benefit from giving the gift somewhere down the road. Mr. Kearns said this is always a bad idea for the employee.
If a municipal government official is out to dinner with an attorney who is representing a case for the town, Mr. Kearns warned against even allowing the attorney to pick up the tab for the meal, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Another example Mr. Kearns used dealt with borough redevelopment projects. In his example, a developer approached the town’s planning board with a concept, and said the concept has been used before in Denver and would like members to see it in person. The developer then offers to fly the members to Denver, free of cost to them, in order for them to make their decision.
Mr. Kearns said any situation like this, where the trip would be free, would be a bad idea for the government officials involved. He suggested the audience consider how this would appear to residents of the town, whose hope is that the board members’ priority are doing what is in the best interest of the community.
Mr. Kearns outlined his guidelines on ethics in municipal government for those in attendance. If an official is making an ethical decision about whether to receive a certain gift, a particular type of treatment or simply using their position as an official to benefit themselves, they should consider the following:
• Would the official be embarrassed about his or her choice if called out on it at a public meeting?
• Would the official be embarrassed to tell his or her mother what they had done?
• Would the official be embarrassed to tell their children what they had done?
• Would the official have received the gift/special treatment if they weren’t in that position?
After explaining his guidelines, Mr. Kearns continued by saying, “If you wouldn’t do it in public, don’t do it.”
He told the audience to think before they act, as their reputation could be tarnished should they make the wrong ethical decision.
“My father once told me, ‘You can spend a lifetime building a reputation, and in seconds you can lose it,’” he said.
Though Mr. Kearns admitted that most of the situations he described are not typically initiated by the government official, it is still that official’s responsibility to think ethically.
He said that it is unlikely anyone would think twice about an official receiving a free plate of cookies or something of a similar nature. It is when the gift or treatment gets to the level of the free Yankees tickets to a playoff game that the situation may seem a bit less innocent.
Anyone wishing to attend the presentation from either Mantoloking or Bay Head was given the chance to do so, as both a morning and afternoon session were offered.
The morning session began at 10 a.m. As for the afternoon session, community members were invited to a repeat of the morning’s presentation at 1 p.m. Both of the sessions were free to any resident or employee of the host towns.
According to the event’s invitation, the two sessions were held at different times, in order to prevent having to close the offices at either of the borough halls.
The session was particularly geared toward all municipal officials and employees from the towns. Residents were welcome to join in on either of the sessions, as well.
Mayor George Nebel said he felt the event was very well-attended. He said the presentation proved to be worthwhile.
“I was very pleased with it,” Mayor Nebel said this week.
He said he feels as though it is important to offer a seminar like this to give borough employees and officials a chance to brush up the topic of ethics.
Though Councilman Brown said there have not been specific ethical issues or transgressions in Mantoloking, he and the governing body still felt it vital to give employees a chance to hear a bit about the topic.
“I think it’s a good idea to get ahead of the curve,” Councilman Brown said.
He said he felt everyone — the government officials and residents alike — enjoyed the presentation, and was able to learn some new things from it.
He said he thinks the next step should be to have ethics laws apply at the municipal government level.
Councilman Brown said the presentation was highly supported by both Mayor Nebel and Mayor William Curtis, of Bay Head.
Mayor Nebel said that, though nothing is final right now, he believes the borough will probably hold a similar seminar for employees again sometime down the road.
Councilman Brown said he would hope to see a similar presentation about once every three years.