County Needs Ethics Board Now; Why Does Clifton Oppose Ethics Panel ?

Two River Times

By Arthur Z. Kamin

It is sad to watch members of the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders squabble 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, a longtime Republican insider, is not a babe-in-the-political-woods 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 a 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 be 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. Assail; retired former Superior Court Judge Alexander D. Lehrer; and former 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 of 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 wide-ranging 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….

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Filed under ethics, Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Operation Bid Rig, Two River Times

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