A proposal to disband the Atlantic County Ethics Board and move its functions to the state ethics panel has broken down along party lines, with Democrats in favor of the idea as a cost-cutting move while Republicans backed the board as a necessary enforcement tool.
Democratic At-Large Freeholder Colin Bell, who proposed the measure at Tuesday’s Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting, said that since his first day on the board, “I’ve looked under every rock in the county to save a little bit of money.”
Only six counties in the state have their own ethics board, Bell said, and the county’s code of ethics is exactly the same as the state ethics law.
“I figured that the state (board) could enforce the same exact standards we’re already using,” Bell said Wednesday.
Only about $8,500 is allocated per year for the board’s expenses, but Bell said while “it’s not the biggest budget item we have, just because it isn’t big doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to save money wherever we can.”
Bell added that he has nothing against the current board.
“They have some great people, and it’s bipartisan,” he said. “But when you talk about the board investigating high-ranking county employees and elected officials, the average citizen might think that the fix could be in when they file a complaint against a county clerk, or sheriff or executive.”
If investigated by the state board, “no one involved in the local scene is involved in the process.”
Added Bell, “of course it was soundly rejected along party lines.”
Republican Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the move was not necessary for budgetary reasons, as any money allocated and not spent goes into the budget surplus.
“The money does not evaporate if not used,” Levinson said. “Last year, we spent about $4,000, the year before it was about $2,000, and we’ve had times where it was about $10,000. It depends on the amount of complaints we get.”
Levinson added that he looked into the state ethics board, which he believes is understaffed for an entity that handles complaints for 15 counties.
“We have the highest ethical standards in the state of New jersey in Atlantic County,” Levinson said. “And I’ve put four Democrats on a six-member board. I’ve bent over backward the other way. ... We feel people are better served by a county ethics board. There are circumstances where we believe people should get a timely answer.”
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