OCEAN CITY — The city’s ethics board received a mixed review Thursday night, but the majority opinion on City Council seemed be that it is an unnecessary waste of money.
Since its creation in 2007, the board has received a total of 11 complaints that have resulted in zero successful convictions for violations. The only case that resulted in the board issuing $200 in fines was ultimately dismissed but still cost the government more than $70,000 in attorney fees and a settlement.
The city has also spent several thousand dollars to operate the board in other years, paying for costs such as seminars for volunteers and professionals to assist the board.
That has made both city officials and locals question the point of the board, especially when the state Local Finance Board can already handle such complaints at no cost to the city.
“I don’t believe this is the right tool,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger said.
Council was close to disbanding the board last year, too, but chose to retain it at the request of residents. Some members of the public now appear to have changed their minds as well.
“If there is no deterrent, what’s the purpose of having an ethics board at all?” said resident Jim Tweed, who said he previously defended the entity but no longer does.
Council did not introduce or discuss any specific measure to take action on the board’s future, but Council President Michael Allegretto said the discussion would continue as the city’s budget is prepared.
Mayor Jay Gillian’s proposed budget includes no funding for the ethics board, whereas $20,000 was budgeted for the board last year. Allegretto noted that when not enough money has been budgeted for the board’s legal fees, that money has had to come from other sources in the budget.
Ethics boards have had troubled histories in other communities for similar reasons. Atlantic City disbanded its board only a few years after creating it, and it received inconsistent funding when it existed.
The state's Local Government Ethics Law was enacted in 1991 and allows counties and local governments to create their ethics board and create codes of ethics. Currently, only a small fraction of New Jersey’s municipalities and counties have their own ethics boards. Seven counties, including Atlantic County, and 37 municipalities, including Ocean City, Middle Township and North Wildwood have their own boards.
The only case the Ocean City ethics board pursued in its roughly six-year history was against Beach Patrol Chief Thomas Mullineaux, a case it ultimately dismissed after three years of investigation and litigation.
Ethics Board Vice Chairperson Stanley Pszczolkowski said the decision to drop the case was made after witnesses declined to testify publicly.
“Instead of exposing the city to more legal bills, we just made that decision,” said Pszczolkowski.
Councilman Peter Guinosso was the only councilman who publicly defended the board at Thursday’s meeting. He said it is beneficial to have an entity outside the normal processes of pursuing complaints against employees through their supervisors or human resources departments.
“I think it’s important to have this move forward,” he said.
At the end of the council meeting, several members of the public spoke in favor of the board.
Ethics Board member Donald Mullen simply asked the council to review the board's minutes and they would see the importance of the board.
Resident Michael Hinchman also said that there needs to be something in place for citizens to challenge the most powerful government officials.
"There are no checks and balances," he said.
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