Sunday, July 10, 2011

Horse Sense: Before the Feds move in, put teeth into local ethics laws

Tick tock, tick tock everyone is watching the month of July calendar clock. As we do, it's best to use time wisely. The City Council is moving on a number of fronts in short order causing a deep burn within the Old Guard with a move to see municipal elections similar to most in the state take place in November.


As that's a direct reminder to them of the mayor's election back in 2009, it's sure to give them one long burn. But why stop there? The City Council right now needs to turn its attention to elected officials and its own institution and put some teeth into standards of behavior and accountability in Hoboken.


While the Administration marshaled efforts with numerous improvements in ethics reform, nothing speaks to the full public interest in mandated expectations of the council members and elected officials as a whole. For example, if a City Council member is picked up for a Federal crime, what can the public expect in terms of limiting their impact on policy going forward?

As one example, The City Council has yet to execute on addressing Councilman Mike Russo's bribe conspiracy discussion with FBI informant Solomon Dwek and begin the process of removing him from that base of vote buying power: the Hoboken Housing Authority. Did you notice the paid 'campaign workers' activities again in the last election on behalf of his political pal Tim Occhipinti?


Why wait? Does Hoboken need to again see the Feds taking elected officials away in cuffs before adding some stronger accountability to those holding the powers of the office?

Looking beyond, if a council member is arrested and indicted for a federal offense should they be entitled to act as a representative of Hoboken pending the outcome of the case? While the motto of not guilty until proven so must be given constitutional deference, there is plenty of room for the Council to act and protect the integrity of the office and demonstrate same for the public.


Any Hoboken elected official such as a City Council member arrested for federal crimes that speak directly to the integrity of the office are not entitled to a free pass based on a presumption of innocence. Most people working for an employer don't see such blanket protections in their jobs let alone for serious federal crimes and neither should a sitting City Council member or any Hoboken elected official for that matter.

A suspension from the Council pending the outcome of a federal case would be the first and primary means to protect the integrity of the office. Withholding pay pending the outcome of the legal matter is another condition that should be implemented as part of any such legislation. If the accused wins the case and is not convicted of federal crime, which in Hudson County is more fleeting than not, then they recover back pay for the time of the suspended pay. If convicted, they forfeit any right to the pay or to represent the public for that period.


While the City Council has an obligation to be fair to all its members, it's larger obligation is the accountability to the public it deems to serve. As the institutions have been battered over not years but decades in Hudson County, it's time to put some comprehensive teeth into ethical requirements for Hoboken elected officials.

With the former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell being convicted of bribery just this past week, do we need to be reminded how overdue this legislation is both here and in Hudson County?


Recall when Mayor Peter Cammarano was arrested and the transcripts of his bribes released his utter refusal to step down? Betraying the integrity of the office is a serious offense and requires leadership to set accountability and standards to hold office, not just the rights of the accused in a presumption of innocence. Again, the teeth required here is in addressing serious Federal crimes, not misdemeanors and measuring the rights to presumed innocence while at the same time protecting the public interest.


For too long in Hoboken and Hudson County, the scales of justice have been weighed favoring the official who betrays the public trust and subverts the very institution they were elected to serve and protect.


It's time to strike a better balance and implement accountable standards for Hoboken elected officials including City Council members. While any legislation impacting an elected official's authority after an arrest and indictment necessitate close legal attention and review, there's no reason legislation can't be quickly put in place when any Council member pleas to a serious Federal offense. Under such circumstances there can be only one remedy:
IMMEDIATE REMOVAL

Talking Ed Note: While the Administration has made a number of strong moves to fortify ethics in Hoboken, this is one area where further attention is required. Under its current makeup, the City Council will likely see four members (the Council of No) resist any such accountability (as always) and the remaining members may be split about constitutional legal defense.


In Hoboken, the seriousness of the integrity of the office is paramount and every avenue must be taken to strengthen those laws holding elected officials to accountability while they maintain the office.

So while any such proposed legislation may not pass easily, it's time for the Administration to take a close look at this and structure a policy that places equal importance for the integrity of the office with the rights of the accused.


There's no better time than now. Right now.


Update: Federal crimes are noted here based on the likely seriousness. If equally serious State crimes are included, so much the better.


Update 2: Legislation similar to this proposal has been considered at the State level for the past two years. Senator Sweeney called for indicted officials to be suspended back in 2009 noting service is a privilege not a right and more recently a bi-partisan group of Assembly members called for a similar proposal just this past March.


Based on these moves at the State level it's not altogether clear how municipal governments may or may not act along similar lines. Perhaps that's an answer worth further review.


For the record, MSV was unaware of parallel legislation at both the State and Assembly levels. Interestingly, some of the same thinking is reflected in both.


Even if legislation is not yet passed at the State level, a voluntary measure could be pledged at the municipal level one would guess. So if this City Council is so eager to hold special meetings for non-binding, invalid budget amendments, why not one pledging along these lines?

Photo courtesy NJ.com