OCEAN CITY — Some City Council members balked Tuesday at the idea of spending $22,000 or more in legal bills to get the city’s Beach Patrol chief to pay $200 in fines for alleged ethics violations.
Since its founding four years ago, the city’s ethics board has fined just one person, Beach Patrol chief Thomas Mullineaux, for allegedly changing scores on a lifeguard exam and exempting himself from running and swimming tests. He was fined $100 per alleged violation.
Mullineaux has denied any ethical wrongdoing and is appealing the 2009 decision, and its associated fine, in state Administrative Law Court.
Mayor Jay Gillian wants to disband the ethics board and rely on the state to handle any allegations of ethical impropriety, as most municipalities in New Jersey do.
City Council members quizzed Ethics Board Chairman Stanley Pszczolkowski about its potential to rack up high legal bills.
“Where do we draw the line on an appeal?” Councilman Scott Ping asked. “We’re trying to fine someone $200. We’re going to approach somewhere around $22,000 (in legal bills) when all is said and done. … When I look at this, what I see is the federal and state government going out of control. That’s how the federal government spends $3,000 for a toilet seat.”
Pszczolkowski said the board has spent just $1,600 since Mayor Sal Perillo created it in 2007. This money was used to hire stenographers and send board members to training seminars hosted by the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
But in pursuing the case against Mullineaux, the board accrued $5,000 in attorney fees and asked for about $15,000 more to see the case to its judicial decision.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman noted that appeals of future ethics board cases could be extremely expensive for the city.
But normally, Pszczolkowski said, the Local Finance Board handles these appeals at no additional cost to the city. The Mullineaux complaint was more complicated than normal, he said, prompting the board to forward the cast to the Administrative Law Court.
The volunteer ethics board has the power of subpoena, if necessary, and typically interviews the complainant, respondents and witnesses and holds a public hearing before rendering a decision, Pszczolkowski said.
Until recently, the board had the benefit of a pro bono attorney. But the Mullineaux case became too time-consuming for the volunteer counsel, he said.
Council made no decision Tuesday. Several residents lobbied council to keep the board in place.
City resident Ed Price has been a longtime critic of the ethics board for not doing enough in his estimate to root out unethical behavior. But he defended the board on Tuesday, comparing it to the oil filter in a car’s engine.
“The money spent on the ethics board is an investment in our city and our future. It’s like the money we spend on our audit,” he said.
Retired Beach Patrol lifeguard Michael Hamilton, of Somers Point, also lauded the ethics board. He was the complainant against Mullineaux. He said other checks and balances, including the city’s personnel office, ignored his concerns before he took them to the ethics board.
Ethics Board member Dr. Steven Fenichel pointed out recent examples of alleged unethical behavior in South Jersey, including allegations that U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, D-Camden, misused campaign funding on trips abroad.
He said local ethics boards are needed now more than ever in New Jersey.
“To take a citizen’s concern and say it’s covered at the state level is a way of saying we don’t want to be bothered by your ethical concerns,” he said.
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