Ethics: The 2010 Issue?
Certainly, as "The Soprano State" and the recent massive corruption scandal attest, there is much to be done to improve New Jersey's reputation as a steward of public resources. The 44-member corruption probe indicates examples of extreme self-interest at the public's expense, something the state can no longer tolerate. A lot of the corruption was related to development, and Jersey City last week received a report with eight recommendations to prevent unethical behavior.
Although the report focused on Jersey City, the recommendations can be applied generally to any municipality.
Plainfield has had a number of development proposals over the past four years, but only one , The Monarch, has materialized. Others have been rushed to approval or have proven to be unsuitable for the city. At this point, a visioning study is in the works to develop a broad consensus on what kind of development would be best for the city. While awaiting better economic conditions, city officials also have time to reflect on the best way to interact with developers.
The law firm that performed the audit for Jersey City, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter LLP, studied the development process and uncovered several ethical pitfalls to be avoided. Chief among them was dealing with developers one-on-one, outside an established process. To clarify the process for all, the firm recommended preparation of a guide outlining all its details, from where to start to what to present initially.
Plainfield previously had a deputy city administrator in charge of economic development, who could vet proposals for viability and explain the city's process for approvals. Since 2006, the process has been less clear, with multiple starting points. For example, one developer was introduced to the public in the context of the mayor's 100-day address, which gave the impression of being favored. Another developer showcased at public meetings turned out to be on the state debarment list.
A guide might keep the playing field level and avoid surprises.
Although it seems obvious, elected officials, land use board appointees and city staff should never accept anything from a developer. Ethics training for both officials and developers and sanctions for violations were recommended in the report. Roles of city departments should be spelled out in writing and developers should provide comprehensive background information. Even professional staff should avoid one-on-one meetings with developers and meetings should take place in official settings. Another recommendation for Jersey City was that meetings of its Tax Abatement Committee should be recorded and made public.
The Jersey City report cost $75,000 and called for specific action steps by the city and the Jersey City Redevelopment Authority. But ethics seminars and training are also offered by the League of Municipalities. Click here for an article on one such session.
However it is done, ethics awareness is likely to take on added importance when Chris Christie takes office. Even as the report was issued last week, more officials were indicted in the ongoing corruption investigation that resulted in 44 arrests, including many Jersey City officials. Click here to read press releases from the United States Attorney's Office, District of New Jersey.