The Times, Trenton

Trenton Residents Lobby For Creation Of City Ethics Board

The Times of Trenton — Wednesday, August 1, 2012

By Erin Duffy / The Times

TRENTON — A group of residents are lobbying for the creation of a city ethics board, saying Trenton would be well-served by a watchdog commission keeping an eye on city government, especially as the FBI continues to investigate City Hall.

"It's a step I hope city council powers and citizens will embrace," Marge Berkeyheiser, one of the leaders of the effort, said at last week's council meeting. "It reinforces the rules of government with a watchful eye. It shows the city, our city, that we are serious and earnest at cleaning up our reputation at a time when we need it most."

With the help of the New Jersey Citizen Action organization, Berkeyheiser and other volunteers drafted a model ordinance establishing the board. After sitting at City Hall for months awaiting review, that ordinance was introduced for a first reading last Thursday and is scheduled for a vote at council's next meeting.

"I had almost given up hope it would ever come around," Berkeyheiser said.

The board would consist of six members appointed by council, with no more than three members of the same political party participating. The board would have the power to adopt a code of ethics governing city employees, elected officials and appointees, initiate and hold investigative hearings on possible ethical breaches and even issue subpoenas and search warrants.

Any employees or elected officials found guilty of violating the code could be fined $100 to $500 and face a variety of disciplinary actions, including suspensions or firings.

Ethics board supporter Vertulie Massenat said the board has been in the works for over a year and is not simply a reaction to the FBI investigation that led to raids on City Hall and Mayor Tony Mack's house last month. Mack has maintained he has not violated any public trust.

"It's a wonderful way of getting citizens involved in the public process," Massenat said. "It sets a tone for city employees. It reinforces the oath that everyone takes and residents will know someone is watching."

Even before the FBI raids, residents and council members have raised questions over the last two years about hiring and appointments in the city under Mack. Allegations of cronyism, theft, harassment and discrimination have cropped up in several whistleblower lawsuits filed by current and former city employees.

"There's too much going on and it's been throughout (Mack's) whole administration," Berkeyheiser said.

At the same time, other local ethics boards have had little success holding governments' feet to the fire.

A Mercer County ethics board was dismantled years ago amid complaints it accomplished little. The county's Democratic leadership replaced it with an Inspector General's office, which was budgeted approximately $145,000 in 2012, but has been called ineffective and unnecessary by Republicans. The office has revealed little publicly about its investigations of government fraud and waste.

Hamilton's all-Republican council formed a bipartisan ethics commission in 2008, but the board has not been funded the last two years and barely exists with only one appointee, township Democrats have charged. It has not been active even as Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo was indicted on federal extortion, money laundering and other charges last month.

Berkeyheiser said the proposed Trenton ethics board will succeed only if council appoints independent thinkers of integrity, not just city employees or politically connected types with potential conflicts of interest.

"Like anything else, it will be as good as the people you have in it," she said. "If you have good, ethical people on this board, yes, you'll have good ethics and they'll be able to do a lot. If you don't have good people on this board it will be a waste of time. It will be a sham."

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