OCEAN CITY — City Council eliminated its local ethics board Thursday night after finding it too costly and not effective in its six-year existence.
The governing body voted 6-1 to approve an ordinance that removed the committee from the city code after an extended discussion during which several members of the public implored elected officials to keep what they called an important local watchdog. Councilman Pete Guinosso was the only councilperson to vote to keep the ethics board.
But the conversation largely hit on points brought up at previous meetings earlier this year and in previous years when the worth of the board was debated, and ultimately the majority of council decided it did not have enough practical effect to outweigh what it has cost the municipality.
“I think they had the greatest of intentions, and I don’t think they had the arms to win,” said Councilman Michael DeVlieger.
In its brief history, the board received 11 complaints, and the only case in which it found a violation ultimately cost taxpayers more than $70,000 in attorney fees and a settlement agreement. That ruling was eventually vacated.
Most municipalities in the state do not have their own ethics boards. Since the state Legislature enacted the Local Government Ethics Law in 1991 allowing counties and municipalities to create their own boards and codes of ethics, only a few have done so, and some of those have also ultimately decided to eliminate them afterward.
With the elimination of Ocean City’s board, seven counties and 36 municipalities have their own boards, including Middle Township and North Wildwood.
Without a local ethics board, ethical complaints can be handled by the state Local Finance Board. Cases appealed at the local level go there anyway, which is why Ocean City councilmen said the board was an unnecessary duplication of services.
“The idea that you’re going to run up to the state is doable but it’s impractical,” Guinosso still argued. “In fact, if you can have at this level, why not have it at this level?”
Of the people who spoke in favor of keeping Ocean City’s board on Thursday night, they stood behind the potential of the board to monitor government officials, and some said the board could have been run better.
Former Ethics Board Vice Chairman Stanley Pszczolkowski said vacant seats on the board often limited its effectiveness. He also said they have since revised their rules to help prevent other cases that could result in tens of thousands in legal fees and still end up being vacated.
“Did we make a procedural error? The answer is absolutely,” he said.
But Pszczolkowski also noted that sometimes duplicating services results in more effective service, such as having a local police department instead of relying on the State Police.
“Do we want Trenton policing Ocean City?” asked resident Julie Baumgardner.
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