County ethics board and ethics code are needed now

Guest Column

It is sad to watch members of the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders quibble over how to get a much-needed county governmental ethics structure up and running. At the heart of it, Republican Freeholder Robert D. Clifton seems to want to forget the GOP-dominated Operation Bid Rig scandal four years ago and refuses to admit that the corruption stench of that time still hangs over Freehold.

The irony is that Clifton, long a Republican insider, is not a babe-in-the-politicalwoods and should have known what was taking place during those terrible days when more than two dozen Monmouth County and other officials were arrested in an FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office corruption sweep. Scooped up in that sweep was the late longtime former Republican Board of Freeholders Director Harry Larrison Jr., charged with taking bribes. It was s shameful period in county history.

And where was Clifton when former Freeholder Amy H. Handlin — now a Republican assemblywoman from the 13th legislative district — became a trailblazer for ethical reform in county government? She fought a brave battle — even going so far as to rightly urge that Larrison’s name be removed from Brookdale Community College’s tainted Larrison Hall campus building. Clifton was silent.

Now he is the major stumbling block as the county appointed a special ethics review committee that carefully examined existing policies, procedures and an employee manual, concluding "the existing structure is in need of revision."

To his credit, Democrat Freeholder John D’Amico Jr. urged that the freeholders promptly release the report to the public. Clifton was opposed. He attempted to keep the document under wraps, not wanting to bring up reminders of the old days. How’s that for governmental transparency? But the excuse became an argument over what should or should not be released from freeholder executive sessions.

Here is the makeup of the bipartisan pro bono ethics review committee: retired former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice James R. Zazzali, retired former Superior Court Judge Alexander D. Lehrer, and Former Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas J. Powers.

And here is what the committee unanimously recommended to the freeholders — "the adoption of a strong county ethics code and the establishment of a nonpartisan, independent ethics board."

The committee did not recommend the establishment of an office of inspector general even though recognizing the value it could bring in the search for an ethics watchdog and higher ethical standards in county government.

Creating an inspector general’s office would be costly and — the way things often have been carried on in Monmouth County — it could lead to another bureaucracy with cronyism and patronage jobs. "But during these challenging economic times it cannot be justified," the committee stated.

That leaves the ethics board with wideranging powers backed up by what should be a no-nonsense code of ethics that would include provisions pertaining to such areas as conflicts of interest, activity that gives the appearance of impropriety, gifts, lobbying of public officials, nepotism, incompatible employment, the procurement process, penalties, ethics education, and financial disclosures.

The ethics board would be able to issue

subpoenas, receive complaints and hold code violation hearings. It could forward information to law enforcement authorities. It would enforce the code and impose or recommend

penalties for violations. It would have the teeth to get an ethics job done.


The review committee foresees that the ethics board’s establishment "will encourage an expeditious resolution of issues by highly respected, nonpartisan board members with local knowledge and concern," adding: "This can be accomplished at minimal expense, provided that the members serve without compensation and existing resources are utilized in support of the board’s work."

Still, Clifton continues to throw rocks in the path of the other freeholders as decision time nears on how to get the frameworks for the ethics code and ethics board moving. Clifton was quoted in a published report as saying he is "concerned that a new board will be used by majority Democrats as ‘a weapon’ against political enemies." That’s nonsense and the freeholders must try to rise above such talk.

Monmouth County does not need nor want another Operation Bid Rig. It was a nightmare that this county can do without again. That is why it remains imperative to remember the past and to make sure those sins will not recur.

Right now, Andrea Bazer, the new county counsel, is drafting an ethics code for review and possible adoption by the freeholders. Further discussion and updates could come as early as the board’s Oct. 22 meeting.

But before that happens, the freeholders should etch in their minds the parting words of the ethics review committee in its report. Those words could herald the start of a new, strong culture of ethics in Monmouth County:

"Maintaining public trust in the integrity of government is essential to the success of democratic government. The public expects its elected officials and public employees to conduct themselves with integrity while they work for the public good. An ethical government with integrity is a precondition for making good public policy."

Arthur Z. Kamin of Fair Haven is an independent journalist.