407 West State Street, Trenton, NJ 08618  (609)695-3481
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William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director
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Partnering for Good Government
CAN WE RESTORE
PUBLIC TRUST?



Paula A. FranzeseNew Jersey State Seal

By Paula A Franzese

man and woman pushing large stone blocks up a ramp to a pyramid
Is meaningful and lasting ethics reform attainable? Yes, if we want ir to be.

Can we make real the promise of ethics reform? Yes, because the public, because all of us—living and working in this state that we love—deserve nothing less. Yes, because the preponderance of public servants, those we tend not to hear and read about, are high-minded, principled and good. More than anything, we must reinforce their resolve by demonstrating that every level of government supports their efforts. And yes, because, while much remains to be done, we know that significant strides can be made, indeed, they have been made, in the one year since Justice O’Hern and I, as Special Ethics Counsel, issued our report and recommendations.

Our ethics audit identified two principal causes of ethics lapses: good faith confusion or lack of knowledge of the governing strictures, or, more insidiously, bad faith defiance of the law. In processing the data, it occurred to me that my nine year old, Nina, was on to something. She had recently seen The Wizard of Oz for the first time. Thereafter, whenever meeting someone, she would whisper to me, “Mommy, is that person a good witch or a bad witch?” This is actually a powerful lens through which to view the ethics landscape. We have the choice, always, to be good witches or bad, to use the power that comes with influence and access and opportunity as a tool to inspire or to humiliate, to transcend or to add injury. The challenge is to be a good witch in what can sometimes feel like a wicked world.

Sometimes, even the good witches run afoul of the rules because of a lack of sufficient understanding. To remedy this problem, we recommended, and there is now in place under the aegis of the State Ethics Commission, top to bottom ethics training for all state officials and employees in the Executive Branch. A toll-free, confidential reporting hotline is up and running, allowing state employees and private citizens to ask questions and to make complaints.

We promulgated, and there is now in effect, a Plain Language Ethics Guide, which clarifies, streamlines and makes accessible the otherwise often bewildering array of rules and standards. In September, 2006, New Jersey will set a standard for national replication with the promulgation of an Uniform Ethics Code, a Herculean undertaking and significant achievement. The Uniform Ethics Code streamlines the web of existing ethics laws into a unitary, more simplified and more rigorous statute to bind the Executive Branch. It contains stricter anti-nepotism laws, a zero-tolerance policy on the acceptance of gifts, mechanisms to enhance transparency in the contracting process and more effective post-employment restrictions.

What do we do about the bad witches? To redress instances of deliberate abuse, we recommended aggressive, routine ethics auditing, easily accessible complaint procedures, the imposition of stiff penalties for transgressors, and the regulation of third parties who do business with the state. Today, a full-time Ethics Compliance Officer is on staff with the State Ethics Commission, far stricter penalty and enforcement mechanisms are now in place, and third parties who do business or hope to do business with the state must certify, by sworn oath, that they are in compliance with the newly promulgated Business Ethics Guide. Failure to do so results in disqualification of the bid.

Still, no set of rules, no matter how strict, will deter a person determined to violate the public trust. As Thomas Jefferson warned, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”

For that matter, problems arise when a system is over-legalized. The goal must be to build ethical cultures that honor not only the letter but also the spirit of the laws. Otherwise, we devolve into a system of, “If it’s legal, it’s ethical.” The motto of the Prudential Business Ethics Center makes the point: Just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Character is destiny, and good leadership must come from the top. Governor Codey demonstrated that by rebuilding the public’s trust, it is possible to restore a sense of nobility and accountability to government service. Governor Corzine has made ethics reform and good government the cornerstones of his administration, ushering in with his very first Executive Order reform measures and, tellingly, making Rita Strmensky, the Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission, a staple at Cabinet meetings.

Ultimately, to be effective, the ethics laws must be applied consistently and rigorously at all levels of government, and across all branches. It is time for a bipartisan effort to:

  • Merge the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct within the legislative branch, into the State Ethics Commission. Alternatively described as toothless and as a sham ethics panel, citizens bemoan the Joint Legislative Committee’s failure to meaningfully investigate allegations against their own.

  • Rein in local government. New Jersey’s counties and municipalities should be within the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission and bound by the Uniform Ethics Code. The State Ethics Commission should be armed with the resources to oversee the implementation of mandatory ethics training at the county and municipal levels.

  • Eliminate dual office-holding.

  • Ban pay-to-play meaningfully at all levels of government.

  • Tighten the state’s pension laws to end double-dipping and pension-padding, and cancel pension benefits for public officials convicted of serious wrongdoing.

  • Make real the promise of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), at all levels of government. Too often, citizens at the local level are met with closed doors and “studied inaction” in response to requests for access and information. The Government Records Council must do its job. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government takes as its credo the premise that corruption thrives in secret places. As Justice Brandeis observed, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

  • Coordinate and share resources. Just as there are joint task forces of state and federal agencies to fight crime or pollution, there can be a joint task force of the Office of the Attorney General, the United States Attorney, the State Commission of Investigations, the State Ethics Commission and the Office of the State Auditor, to coordinate their important efforts to fight fraud, waste and ethical misconduct in government.

Honest and just leadership resides in our capacity to inspire earnest and decent people to seek public office, as we recognize and honor at every turn the desire to gain power to do good. Cultures of infectious cynicism, character assassination and “gotcha” journalism keep out the good. It is time for all of us to accept our responsibility as the stewards of good government. Apathy and complacency are the greatest threats to democracy and to the proper and effective functioning of all three branches of government, including the fourth estate—a fair and responsible press. We get the government we deserve. We get the press we deserve. When only one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 reads a newspaper on a daily basis, when even fewer can identify their state and local leaders, it is time for a partnering between the public and private sectors to promote a deliberate campaign of citizen re-engagement. To this end, we need to:

  • Consciously nurture the teaching of values in our homes. For that matter, we need to be communicating to our children that no one of us is too small to make a difference, as long as we are relentless in our capacity to anchor ourselves in the cause of the right and the just. My dad, an Italian immigrant, would remind us, “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.”

  • Return to the teaching of civics in our schools. Knowledge is power. Our children deserve the foundation that good civics education can provide. The New Jersey Center for Civic Responsibility has made significant strides in this realm and provides resources to accomplish the worthy aims of citizen training and empowerment.

  • Encourage the press to report on the good with the bad. Surely, investigative reporting contributes immeasurably to the task of weeding out corruption. Additionally, regular features on the noble and the high-minded, with titles like “Profiles in Integrity,” have the power to inspire and to lead by example.

  • Fight against apathy and cynicism. “Whatever” is the greatest threat to democracy. We all know our share of cynics, described by one writer as “those people who tell you they see things as they really are, and things are really rotten. They believe that no one is sincere, that everyone has secret, selfish reasons for the things they do, the world is rigged against you and no one means what they say.” Cynicism, as described by Philip van Munching “is a belief in nothing. It takes courage to believe in things. Sometimes, things will disappoint you, and sometimes people will let you down. To have faith is to risk having your heart broken, and the cynic is not willing to take that risk.” We have to be willing to take that risk. People can be mean and cruel and irresponsible, but it is up to us to see the potential that resides not just in some of us, but in all of us.

Is meaningful and lasting ethics reform attainable? Yes, if we want it to be. If we say yes to the opportunity to do good, and seek out opportunities to embrace and promote others who are doing the same. If we are relentless in our capacity to expect the best and to demand the best from our leaders, we get the government we deserve. Our state’s destiny will be what we make of it.

Paula A. Franzese is Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School, and Chair of the State Ethics Commission. Previously, she was Special Ethics Counsel, and Vice-Chair and Commissioner of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.


407 West State Street, Trenton, NJ 08618  (609)695-3481
 NJLM logo 

William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director
Change Font Size
Larger
| Smaller
Partnering for Good Government
CAN WE RESTORE
PUBLIC TRUST?



Paula A. FranzeseNew Jersey State Seal

By Paula A Franzese

man and woman pushing large stone blocks up a ramp to a pyramid
Is meaningful and lasting ethics reform attainable? Yes, if we want ir to be.

Can we make real the promise of ethics reform? Yes, because the public, because all of us—living and working in this state that we love—deserve nothing less. Yes, because the preponderance of public servants, those we tend not to hear and read about, are high-minded, principled and good. More than anything, we must reinforce their resolve by demonstrating that every level of government supports their efforts. And yes, because, while much remains to be done, we know that significant strides can be made, indeed, they have been made, in the one year since Justice O’Hern and I, as Special Ethics Counsel, issued our report and recommendations.

Our ethics audit identified two principal causes of ethics lapses: good faith confusion or lack of knowledge of the governing strictures, or, more insidiously, bad faith defiance of the law. In processing the data, it occurred to me that my nine year old, Nina, was on to something. She had recently seen The Wizard of Oz for the first time. Thereafter, whenever meeting someone, she would whisper to me, “Mommy, is that person a good witch or a bad witch?” This is actually a powerful lens through which to view the ethics landscape. We have the choice, always, to be good witches or bad, to use the power that comes with influence and access and opportunity as a tool to inspire or to humiliate, to transcend or to add injury. The challenge is to be a good witch in what can sometimes feel like a wicked world.

Sometimes, even the good witches run afoul of the rules because of a lack of sufficient understanding. To remedy this problem, we recommended, and there is now in place under the aegis of the State Ethics Commission, top to bottom ethics training for all state officials and employees in the Executive Branch. A toll-free, confidential reporting hotline is up and running, allowing state employees and private citizens to ask questions and to make complaints.

We promulgated, and there is now in effect, a Plain Language Ethics Guide, which clarifies, streamlines and makes accessible the otherwise often bewildering array of rules and standards. In September, 2006, New Jersey will set a standard for national replication with the promulgation of an Uniform Ethics Code, a Herculean undertaking and significant achievement. The Uniform Ethics Code streamlines the web of existing ethics laws into a unitary, more simplified and more rigorous statute to bind the Executive Branch. It contains stricter anti-nepotism laws, a zero-tolerance policy on the acceptance of gifts, mechanisms to enhance transparency in the contracting process and more effective post-employment restrictions.

What do we do about the bad witches? To redress instances of deliberate abuse, we recommended aggressive, routine ethics auditing, easily accessible complaint procedures, the imposition of stiff penalties for transgressors, and the regulation of third parties who do business with the state. Today, a full-time Ethics Compliance Officer is on staff with the State Ethics Commission, far stricter penalty and enforcement mechanisms are now in place, and third parties who do business or hope to do business with the state must certify, by sworn oath, that they are in compliance with the newly promulgated Business Ethics Guide. Failure to do so results in disqualification of the bid.

Still, no set of rules, no matter how strict, will deter a person determined to violate the public trust. As Thomas Jefferson warned, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”

For that matter, problems arise when a system is over-legalized. The goal must be to build ethical cultures that honor not only the letter but also the spirit of the laws. Otherwise, we devolve into a system of, “If it’s legal, it’s ethical.” The motto of the Prudential Business Ethics Center makes the point: Just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Character is destiny, and good leadership must come from the top. Governor Codey demonstrated that by rebuilding the public’s trust, it is possible to restore a sense of nobility and accountability to government service. Governor Corzine has made ethics reform and good government the cornerstones of his administration, ushering in with his very first Executive Order reform measures and, tellingly, making Rita Strmensky, the Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission, a staple at Cabinet meetings.

Ultimately, to be effective, the ethics laws must be applied consistently and rigorously at all levels of government, and across all branches. It is time for a bipartisan effort to:

  • Merge the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct within the legislative branch, into the State Ethics Commission. Alternatively described as toothless and as a sham ethics panel, citizens bemoan the Joint Legislative Committee’s failure to meaningfully investigate allegations against their own.

  • Rein in local government. New Jersey’s counties and municipalities should be within the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission and bound by the Uniform Ethics Code. The State Ethics Commission should be armed with the resources to oversee the implementation of mandatory ethics training at the county and municipal levels.

  • Eliminate dual office-holding.

  • Ban pay-to-play meaningfully at all levels of government.

  • Tighten the state’s pension laws to end double-dipping and pension-padding, and cancel pension benefits for public officials convicted of serious wrongdoing.

  • Make real the promise of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), at all levels of government. Too often, citizens at the local level are met with closed doors and “studied inaction” in response to requests for access and information. The Government Records Council must do its job. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government takes as its credo the premise that corruption thrives in secret places. As Justice Brandeis observed, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

  • Coordinate and share resources. Just as there are joint task forces of state and federal agencies to fight crime or pollution, there can be a joint task force of the Office of the Attorney General, the United States Attorney, the State Commission of Investigations, the State Ethics Commission and the Office of the State Auditor, to coordinate their important efforts to fight fraud, waste and ethical misconduct in government.

Honest and just leadership resides in our capacity to inspire earnest and decent people to seek public office, as we recognize and honor at every turn the desire to gain power to do good. Cultures of infectious cynicism, character assassination and “gotcha” journalism keep out the good. It is time for all of us to accept our responsibility as the stewards of good government. Apathy and complacency are the greatest threats to democracy and to the proper and effective functioning of all three branches of government, including the fourth estate—a fair and responsible press. We get the government we deserve. We get the press we deserve. When only one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 reads a newspaper on a daily basis, when even fewer can identify their state and local leaders, it is time for a partnering between the public and private sectors to promote a deliberate campaign of citizen re-engagement. To this end, we need to:

  • Consciously nurture the teaching of values in our homes. For that matter, we need to be communicating to our children that no one of us is too small to make a difference, as long as we are relentless in our capacity to anchor ourselves in the cause of the right and the just. My dad, an Italian immigrant, would remind us, “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.”

  • Return to the teaching of civics in our schools. Knowledge is power. Our children deserve the foundation that good civics education can provide. The New Jersey Center for Civic Responsibility has made significant strides in this realm and provides resources to accomplish the worthy aims of citizen training and empowerment.

  • Encourage the press to report on the good with the bad. Surely, investigative reporting contributes immeasurably to the task of weeding out corruption. Additionally, regular features on the noble and the high-minded, with titles like “Profiles in Integrity,” have the power to inspire and to lead by example.

  • Fight against apathy and cynicism. “Whatever” is the greatest threat to democracy. We all know our share of cynics, described by one writer as “those people who tell you they see things as they really are, and things are really rotten. They believe that no one is sincere, that everyone has secret, selfish reasons for the things they do, the world is rigged against you and no one means what they say.” Cynicism, as described by Philip van Munching “is a belief in nothing. It takes courage to believe in things. Sometimes, things will disappoint you, and sometimes people will let you down. To have faith is to risk having your heart broken, and the cynic is not willing to take that risk.” We have to be willing to take that risk. People can be mean and cruel and irresponsible, but it is up to us to see the potential that resides not just in some of us, but in all of us.

Is meaningful and lasting ethics reform attainable? Yes, if we want it to be. If we say yes to the opportunity to do good, and seek out opportunities to embrace and promote others who are doing the same. If we are relentless in our capacity to expect the best and to demand the best from our leaders, we get the government we deserve. Our state’s destiny will be what we make of it.

Paula A. Franzese is Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School, and Chair of the State Ethics Commission. Previously, she was Special Ethics Counsel, and Vice-Chair and Commissioner of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

 

 

Article published in November 2006, New Jersey Municipalities

 

 

 

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