||New Jersey Libertarian Party
Open Government Advocacy Project:
Open Letter to Mayor and Council: My draft lawsuit against a planning board member
- Following is a letter that I sent this evening to Mayor Seader and the Borough Council. At issue is the slack manner in which the Borough and its officials comply (or more accurately fail to comply) with the Local Government Ethics Law. The draft lawsuit referred to in the letter is on-line at:
John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party\'s
Open Government Advocacy Project
February 25, 2012
Hon. Robert J. Seader, Mayor and members of the
Dunellen Borough Council
355 North Ave
Dunellen, NJ 08812 (via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dear Mayor Seader and Council Members:
I write both individually and in my capacity as Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project in an attempt to get Dunellen Borough officials to comply with the Local Government Ethics Law’s Financial Disclosure requirements. To that end, I’ve attached a draft civil complaint that I intend to file with the Middlesex County Superior Court on Monday, March 12, 2012, unless compliance—at least by Planning Board and Recreation Commission member Randee S. Staats—is achieved. I realize that threatening a lawsuit might seem like a drastic measure, so I’d like to explain why I find it to be necessary.
As part of my work for the Libertarian Party, I routinely check to see if municipal officials across the state are filing their annual Financial Disclosure Statements, and if so, whether they are filing them completely and correctly. I checked Dunellen’s compliance last summer and found, unfortunately, that twenty-four (24) Borough officials had not complied with the filing requirements. (See Exhibit pages 1 through 7 of my draft lawsuit for a copy of my June 24, 2011 complaint with the New Jersey Local Finance Board against those officials.)
I recently selected one member of those officials who did not file his 2011 financial statement and who was named in my June 24, 2011 complaint. The official I selected was Mr. Staats, in part due to unverified information I have that he is Mayor Seader’s brother-in-law. (see footnote) I filed an Open Public Records Act request for Mr. Staats’ 2009, 2010 and 2011 Financial Disclosure Statements.
In response, I learned that Mr. Staats made no 2009 filing and, as outlined in my draft lawsuit, his 2010 and 2011 filings contain virtually none of the information that the Ethics Law requires to be publicly disclosed, e.g. his sources of income, business interests owned, real estate owned, etc. (Mr. Staats’ 2010 and 2011 filings are attached as Exhibit pages 8 through 11 of my draft lawsuit.) In sum, and almost comically, Mr. Staats’ “Financial Disclosure Statements” disclose absolutely no financial information regarding him or his household.
The Legislature passed the Local Government Ethics Law because “[t]he vitality and stability of representative democracy depend upon the public\'s confidence in the integrity of its elected and appointed representatives.” N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.2(b). One of the law’s objects is to require Local Government Officers (but not Local Government Employees) to report their income sources so that the public can detect possible conflicts of interest.
Suppose, hypothetically, that Mr. Staats’ wife Joanne works for a company owned by an applicant seeking the Planning Board’s approval. Had Mr. Staats filled out his Financial Disclosure Statement properly, the public, having been put on notice of the sources of his family’s income, would realize that it would be a possible conflict for Mr. Staats to vote on or participate in this application. By not properly completing his Statement, Mr. Staats, in his hypothetical case, would have deprived the public of this important knowledge and thus undermined the Legislature’s intent.
Dunellen Borough is not a family business. Rather, it is a government agency that is supposed to take seriously the legal obligations that govern it and its officials. Municipal clerk Robins ought to be watching these financial filings like a hawk and should immediately notify the Mayor and Council if any Borough official fails to file his or her Financial Disclosure promptly or completely. Any official who, after notice, fails or refuses to file a complete and accurate Statement should be removed from his or her position.
My threatened lawsuit, in my view, is not an overreaction given the unacceptably poor and slack manner that the Borough and its officials have been complying with the Financial Disclosure Statement filing requirements. And, in case you’re wondering why I don’t take my complaint to the Local Finance Board, I recently learned that it has just two employees covering Ethics Law enforcement in every municipality and county that does not have its own ethics board—approximately five hundred forty (540) government units. There are so many officials and so much noncompliance and so little enforcement that it takes years, literally, for a complaint against a non-filer to be investigated and adjudicated.
This letter is not only about Mr. Staats. Rather, please accept it as an invitation to discuss this issue with Mr. Robins at your March 5, 2012 meeting and devise a mechanism that will ensure that Financial Disclosure Statement filing requirements are a Borough priority that will be rigorously enforced going forward.
As for the lawsuit, the last thing I want to do is file it. The taxpayers certainly don’t need that expense in addition to all the other tax burdens they endure. But filing it is exactly what I’ll do if Mr. Staats doesn’t file either his properly completed 2010 and 2011 Financial Disclosure Statements or his letter of resignation from both the Planning Board and the Recreation Committee by Friday, March 9, 2012.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. I ask that you or Mr. Bruder notify me on or before March 9, 2012 of whether or not Mr. Staats will comply with the law.
/s/ John Paff
(Footnote) My information, which I have not verified, is that Randee Staats’ sister, Karen, is Mayor Seader’s wife. I would appreciate it if Mayor Seader would confirm or dispute this information.
cc. John E. Bruder, Esq., Borough Attorney
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