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Hamilton Township’s Magically Disappearing Ethics Board

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“Misdirection is the key element. We can create a space where we give them something to look at to take their mind away from what they really should be seeing.” –Chris Conti

Cheshire Cat Disappearing in Alice in Wonderland

Like the Cheshire cat in Charles Lutwidge Dodgson Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Hamilton Township Ethics Board established in 2008 smiled at us from a press conference at the Municipal Building and then slowly disappeared.

Keeping in mind that an Ethics Board made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats by its nature, is non-partisan. Therefore, politically, it cuts both ways in terms of ferreting out corruption and unethical behaviors.

The Ethics Board was established “in order to  review all present and future actions of township government in order to keep ethical conduct “the highest priority” at town hall”, former council President Tom Goodwin, with Mayor Bencivengo in attendance, announced at the Ethics Board formation. He further stated that the Board will consist of a six-member bi-partisan group appointed by Council. In fact, here is the Trentonian article announcing the welcome news of this new board’s formation Hamilton takes steps to ensure ethics 

It never happened! In fact, funding for it was removed in the spring of 2011 (coincidentally at the same period of time of indicted Mayor John Bencivengo’s alleged solicitation and acceptance of a bribe).

While Trentonians clamor for the formation of an Ethics Board (Trenton residents demand ethics board as FBI probe widens) in their government, Hamilton Township has had one all of this while – well, technically, Hamilton Township has had an Ethics Board.

Now…. in Hamilton Township the Ethics Board has been a topic of conversation at Council meetings and in Letters to the Editor of the Times of Trenton for over a month. Yet Council refuses to act and instead allows the indicted Mayor’s office to deflect and misdirect those who demand that the Ethics Board be made active and allowed to carry out their mandate.

Background

– Technically, the Board exists in Hamilton via Ordinance 820.66

– The Administration proposed eliminating its funding in the spring of 2011 and Council agreed

– Aside from one appointment, Council failed to appoint board members to the Ethics Board,

Follow-up

At the July 17th Hamilton Township (Mercer) Council Meeting I asked about the status of the Board, the lack of members and the cancellation of funding. Council deferred to John Bencivengo’s political appointee, Business Administrator, John Ricci for a reply.

During that exchange, Mr. Ricci’s inaccurately claimed that (and I paraphrase) “the Board is under the preview of the Mayor’s office and not Council’s. As such, my line of questioning was misdirected”.   This was a wholly inaccurate declaration and I like to think that Mr. Ricci was mistaken in his statement that Council did not appoint members to the Ethics Board.

The ordinance, which established the Ethics Board clearly states that the Ethics Board reports to Township Council. After all  it is established to investigate the Administration so why would a body established by Council to investigate the Mayor and his appointees be appointed by the Mayor? You can read the Ordinance here:

http://library.municode.com/HTML/12709/level4/COOR_CH2ADGO_ARTVBOCOCOAG_DIV26MUBOET.html

I was disappointed at Council’s willingness to go along with Mr. Ricci’s claim on the Mayor’s authority over appointments to the Ethics Board. [Update: at the October 2, 2012 Council Meeting, Mr. Ricci claims that the “governing body” language of the ordinance establishing the Ethics Board refers to both the Mayor and Council, yet Title 40 of the Municipalities and Counties defines governing body as :the chief legislative body of the municipality”] The Council clearly is not familiar with the Ethics Board or the Ordinance that established it. In fact, on August 4th in a Times of Trenton Letter to the Editor, Councilman David Kenny repeated the misstatement by Mr. Ricci, which further demonstrates Council’s willingness to be led and not to lead this Administration through this ethical crisis: David Kenny’s Letter to the Editor: Ethics board went unused  

There was an excellent retort to Mr.Kenny’s erred letter by Hamilton resident, Rachel Holland that basically states Mr. Kenny should become more familiar with the laws he helps to pass.  Governing body fills spots on ethics board 

One Council member disingenuously stated that they could not find people willing to serve on the Ethics Board. So, rather sheepishly I raised my hand and said, “I volunteer” and so did others in attendance at that July 17th Council Meeting. No one on the Council dais took us up on our volunteer offers. If you the reader would like to volunteer to be on the Ethics Board please e-mail your council members and let them know of your interest.

Council President Kevin Meara KMeara@HamiltonNJ.com

Council Vice President Kelly Yaede KYaede@HamiltonNJ.com

Councilman Dennis Pone DPone@HamiltonNJ.com

Councilman Edward R. Gore EdwardGore@HamiltonNJ.com

Councilman David Kenny DKenny@HamiltonNJ.com

More follow-up

Despite Mr. Ricci’s erroneous claim that the Ethics Board fell under the auspicious of the Mayor’s office, I asked Mr. Ricci if the Mayor was going to reconstitute the Ethics Board by making the appointments and restoring the funding. Mr. Ricci responded that he did not know. So, I asked him to follow-up with the Mayor and he said he would follow-up with the indicted Mayor about reconstituting the Ethics Board. I then asked if he would follow-up with me. Mr. Ricci simply nodded.

Two follow-up e-mails from me to Mr. Ricci that were sent the next day July 18th and sent the following week July 24th, Mr. Ricci has not followed-up as he promised nor has he responded to my e-mails (attached below).

E-mails addressed to Hamilton Business Administrator, John Ricci.

An Ethics Board would have been very busy since 2008

The Mayor’s issue and former Planning and Compliance Director Rob Warney’s issues aside, over the past five years, an Ethics Board in Hamilton would have had work in front of them:

– The Pay-to-Play violation that was alleged when Remington Vernick was awarded a $20,000 contract while: one of their employees was serving on John Bencivengo’s Transition Team and the owner and his wife exceeded the campaign contribution limits. Because John Bencivengo’s administration did the investigation this issue became know in the Times of Trenton as the Violation of pay-to-play that wasn’t.

– The awarding of the contract to run the Ecological Facility, which resulted in a law suit by Britton Industries a midst their claims of bid rigging. Times of Trenton Article

– The accusations by an employee that the Personnel Director was unresponsive or worse when the employee reported harassment and discrimination in the workplace, which resulted in a $500,000 settlement. Times of Trenton article

– Various other employee discrimination and harassment claims that have gone to court.

– The surprise salary increase for the Mayor.

The point of this post is simple, you have the Ethics Board, Council and the Administration are confusing the issue with inaccurate comments and in Letters to the Editor, you have plenty of willing volunteers to staff it and there are and have been issues that would keep the Ethics Board active.

An Ethics Board is non-partisan – cuts both ways.

So, my questions are:

– why is Council ignorant of their own authority over the Ethics Board?

– why doesn’t Council stand apart of John Bencivengo and exercise the authority that they gave to themselves?

– why does John Ricci speak on a matter that is 100% under the purview of the Council?

– why does John Ricci fail to follow-up as agreed?

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2 Comments

  1. Kat says:

    To sum it up in a word–“Arrogance” on the administrations part. They think they’re untouchable. They don’t take well to being questioned, their rule is absolute…

  2. dankeelan says:

    I sent another e-mail to Mr. Ricci asking for an update to his follow-up about the Ethics Board. He read the message as I sent it Read Receipt. I did not get a reply yet.

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