Future of ethics board dismal

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Council will consider disbanding board at future meeting

OCEAN CITY – Torn between potentially endless legal bills and a dedicated group of volunteers, City Council members decided Thursday night that disbanding the city’s ethics board was in the best interest of the taxpayer, while keeping open the option to form a quasi-advisory board serving some of the same functions.

During the Jan. 12 City Council meeting, council decided to consider a resolution at the Jan. 26 council meeting to disband the ethics board. Council asked city solicitor Dorothy McCrosson to look into the possibility of forming a new volunteer board to hear citizen complaints concerning the ethics of city employees or elected officials

In November, the ethics board asked for $15,000 to cover the accrued and anticipated legal costs of defending an appeal filed by Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Tom Mullineaux. Noting that the costs could go much higher, some council members said they could not support funding the board, formed by former Mayor Sal Perillo in 2006.

On Jan. 12, Mayor Jay Gillian said he would not fund the ethics board in the upcoming budget as the state of New Jersey provides the same service to local residents without the city incurring an additional cost.

Several members of the public voiced support for the ethics board, including former Chairman Stanley Pszczolkowski, whose term expired at the end of 2011. Some residents suggested the administration was negligent in disciplining, instead coddling city employees found guilty of violations.

“Ask yourself; where do these lawsuits come from,” resident Pete Guinosso said. “How does the administration handle people?

“There is no accountability about fudging numbers; three or four people identifed as fudging numbers are still working for us,” Guinosso said. “If we, as taxpayers, fudged numbers, we’d be held accountable.”

Guinosso suggested that there were “two tiers” of people: insiders and outsiders.

“When are we going to hold these people accountable?” Guinosso asked.

Gillian took umbrage with the suggestion that his administration was culpable.

“It’s a very serious thing when you talk about someone’s ethics,” he said, adding that he was restricted in dealing with potential violators because state laws tie the hands of a municipality.

“If you want to do something, get rid of civil service,” he said, which he said would allow him to clear out those causing problems.  Civil service, he said, protects employees even when they do violate rules. The state, Gillian said, has “taught people how to work the system,” thus suing the city they work for in exchange for monetary compensation.

“We are doing everything we can to hold people accountable,” Gillian said.

Gillian said the system the state has in place for ethics complaints serves the same purpose as the city’s.

“I think it does work at the state,” he said, addressing comments that the state was too slow in addressing problems. “Does it work perfectly? No, but it works.”

Gillian complimented those he said dedicated countless hours for a “great job,” adding that his administration respected everyone who volunteered. He said he moved ahead to settle lawsuits that had been dragging on “to stop the bleeding.”

“We can thank the state for making it easier for employees to get one over on us,” he said. “It’s politics that makes this difficult for us to do what is right. We have to look at who is making all this money. Lawsuits cost this city a lot of money.”

Gillian said he has little compassion for anyone who violates a law.

“I don’t put up with it,” he said. “I hate it when people waste taxpayer money. People who are wrong will get punished. Nobody is an insider with me.”

Councilman John Kemenosh said he wished the world were perfect, “but it’s not.” The ethics board was a fine idea, but too expensive, he said, and he felt that council should allow the administration more time to “clean house.”

“Once the lawyers get involved, it’s game over,” he said.

The city, Kemenosh said, was negligent in some cases, but that was history.

“I would be in favor of letting the city clean this mess up,” he said. “We won’t need an ethics board if we do that. I am in favor of disbanding this board.”

Councilman Tony Wilson said the city should utilize the state’s ethics board due to potential legal costs.

“There’s no end to it,” he said. “When will we have to stop paying?”

Councilman Roy Wagner, however, defended the board. He said it was the “last chance saloon” for citizens.

“We have to be protected from violations of our laws,” he said. “We have to look at it as the cost of justice. It’s an inexpensive way to make sure people are doing the right thing.”

Hartzell was less decisive. He said council agreed to a $5,000 budget when the board was formed. Doing away with the board would “completely take the voice” of the citizen away, he said.

“We need to do something quasi-wise,” he said.

Hartzell said he envisioned a board that would serve in the same capacity, but have no teeth to find someone guilty and fine them.

“At least they could look at things and say, ‘You need to do something,’” he said. “The state takes too long and not enough happens.”

“You respond to everything, but the last guy didn’t,” Hartzell said to Gillian, referencing Perillo. Hartzell said he worried about a future mayor ignoring ethics violations.

“We have to have something in place,” he said.

Councilwoman Karen Bergman said Hartzell’s suggestion made sense.

“It would be great to have a more informal, less costly way,” she said. “People’s reputations are at stake.”

“You cannot call it an ethics board,” McCrosson advised.

A smaller, less formal, less punitive and structured board could be possible, she said, sort of like an “ombudsman.”

An ethics board, she noted “only considers violations to the code of ethics.”

Council members noted that the ethics board was a liability when someone who was found guilty appeals. McCrosson said the case moves from the Local Finance Board to a state Administrative Law court and must be defended. When the city utilizes the state’s ethics board, it’s with state taxpayer dollars, which does cost residents, but not as much as a local ethics board.

“It’s state taxpayer money versus city tax dollars,” she said.

Council President Michael Allegretto said the “open-ended” possibility concerned him.

What started as an avenue for “citizens who felt wronged” became a budgetary issue, he said.

“I’m not comfortable to continue funding this when it’s open ended,” he said. “I don't want the ethics board to become another avenue for the city to be sued.”

Councilman Scott Ping did not attend the meeting. Allegretto, Wilson and Kemenosh supported abolishing the board. Hartzell and Bergman said they would support such an ordinance, but wanted a quasi-board to be considered along with it.

Pszczolkowski was not reappointed to the city’s ethics board for 2012.

“It would have been nice for somebody to call me,” he said of not being reappointed.

He said volunteers spent holiday weekends working on cases; three new volunteers brought fresh energy and enthusiasm.

Joan Farrell is now the acting chairwoman.

“I assumed this role when council failed to reappoint our chairman,” she said.

The board, she said, remains with three members and is unable to conduct business.

“It appears that council may be hoping the board dies on its own,” she said. “I believe it is time for either a public execution or life support.

“It may be easier to just shut the board down, settle the appeal by revoking the finding and save money in the budget,” she said. “But you have not been elected to do the easy things; you have been elected to do what is best for the city.”

Farrell asked council to take a stand, “whatever that may be.”

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