Thumbs up for reforms

Ordinances will requirements for members of land-use board and limit campaign contributions.

By: Bill Greenwood
MONROE — The Township Council approved a package of ethics reform ordinances Wednesday that a government watchdog group is calling among the most far-reaching in the state.
    The ordinances, once they are signed by Mayor Richard Pucci, will tighten disclosure and recusal requirements for members of the township’s land-use board and limit campaign contributions from professional firms and developers.
    About 30 people were present at Wednesday’s public hearing, five of whom addressed the board. Several had concerns regarding specific language in the ordinances while another criticized the ordinance dealing with nepotism in the township.
    But a representative of Citizen’s Campaign, a watchdog group advocating tighter ethics rules for government officials, said the ordinances were an example for the rest of the state to follow.
    "The whole state and the entire country are looking to Monroe tonight because you have the first-of-
its-kind pay-to-play ordinance dealing with conventional development," Lauren Skowronski, a representative from Citizen’s Campaign, said.
    Business Administrator Wayne Hamilton said the ordinances would take effect 20 days after being signed by Mayor Pucci and published in local newspapers. He said he expected the process to be complete by early May.
    The seven-ordinance package will:
    • cap political contributions from businesses seeking professional service contracts with the township;
    • prohibit contributions from groups seeking development deals
    • prohibit contributions from groups seeking redevelopment deals;
    • create disclosure and recusal standards for all elected or appointed officials;
    • establish an ethics training officer;
    • prohibit the acceptance of gifts from those interested in doing business with the township;
    • and prohibit the hiring of relatives of full-time township employees except for part-time seasonal positions.
    The rules grew out of an ethics review called for by Mayor Pucci in 2006 after it was made public that a private consulting firm he ran did work for a political action committee that had taken contributions from a developer proposing projects in Monroe.
    While Township Attorney Joel Shain said the relationship was legal, the mayor dissolved his firm and appointed a committee to review various ethics issues.
    Tom Nothstein, who is running for mayor as a Republican, applauded the efforts of those who worked on the ordinances. However, he said the definition of a political action committee that cannot receive donations, used in several of the ordinances, is vague. Such an organization is described in the ordinances as any PAC "that regularly engages in, or whose primary purpose is, the support of municipal elections and / or municipal parties."
    Mr. Nothstein, of Nathaniel Street, said the council should consider removing the word "regularly" from the definition.
    He also asked the council to consider expanding the nepotism rules to remove exemptions for part-time seasonal positions.
    Michele Arminio, of Nathaniel Street, questioned the language in disclosure and recusal standards. The ordinance states, "If a board member, a board member’s spouse or other adult member of the board member’s household has any other formal, not casual, business or contractual relationship with the applicant or any of applicant’s professionals, recusal is required."
    Ms. Arminio said the ordinance should define formal and casual relationships more clearly.
    She also asked whether the public would be invited to ethics training programs to be carried out by the ethics training officer, a position established by one of the ordinances. Mr. Hamilton, who will serve as the ethics training officer, said he would advertise the sessions and invite the public to sit in.
    Ms. Arminio also asked whether the council could expand the ordinance prohibiting the township from hiring relatives of full-time employees except for part-time seasonal positions to also prohibit the relatives of appointed officials from working with the township on the same basis. Mr. Hamilton said the ordinance, as written, does not include them.
    John Kurczeski, a township resident who has served as a police officer with the Monroe Township Police Department for 33 years, spoke out against that ordinance. He said it unfairly blocks children from "following in (their) father or mother’s footsteps."
    Mr. Hamilton said the council would take a look at how the ordinances are operating in about six months. At that point, the council could consider amendments to one or more of the ordinances.