Ethics: Appearance vs. Reality
The ordinances are important milestones though one wonders why it took the administration seven and a half years to enact them. At the same time, beneath the immaculate surface of "good government" lurk many unaswered questions and ethical problems of which the public is largely unaware.
First, the mayor claims the borough has appointed, past tense, an Ethics Board. However, no such board has of yet been appointed, in spite of the recommendation having been made one year ago. Ethics Boards are required to be balanced with members of both parties, yet last year, the mayor recommended replacing Republicans with Independents on it because there are so few Republicans in town. I am a Democrat, but I find this disconcerting. If an Ethics Board is required to have representatives of both parties, then that is what ours should have. Making changes due to political expediency puts the whole endeavor in question. So does misleading the public by stating that an action has been taken when it has not yet been done--and appears timed to coincide with next year's election.
The composition of the Task Force on Ethics and Good Government also raises questions. Virtually every single member of the group is a supporter of the mayor who has faithfully displayed her signs and the signs of her candidates over the last seven years. This is not illegal, but its insularity and clear political bias detract from the objectivity such a group should embody. Even more problematic is the fact that the vice chair of the Task Force, Gerri Callahan, is the wife of an employee of Mayor Frank's husband, Mike Ambrosio, who received $6 million in no bid contracts from the state Board of Public Utilities Clean Energy Fund--the same $100 million fund that has come under heavy criticism for having little to no oversight and for doling out contracts to former employees and friends of the BPU leadership. Callahan's presence on the Task Force at the same time that serious questions are being raised about Ambrosio, who also serves on the Democratic Municipal Committee, Board of Directors of Main Street Highland Park, and as head of the Green Communities Task Force, is troubling at best, raising shades of the fox guarding the henhouse.
The ordinances also are far too limited in their scope. For example, the prohibition on nepotism should include a prohibition on hiring relatives of declared candidates for local office, not just relatives of people already in office. This is New Jersey, and it is all too easy to imagine deals being made where family members of candidates are hired before the election takes place and then grandfathered in once the candidates are actually elected. This is a serious loophole which has been brought before the council on several occasions but has never been addressed.
Then there is the statement by the mayor that she and the candidates she supports take no money from developers. This statement is highly disingenuous and very misleading. Why? Because the mayor and council members do take money from the Middlesex County Democratic Organization. In 2005, the Middlesex County Democratic Organization gave several thousand dollars to the Highland Park Democratic Municipal Committee. It is common knowledge that developers are the largest donors to the county party. Jack Morris, Michael Kaplan, etc., and the entire network of contractors involved in land development are the major contributors to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization. Until recently, so was John Lynch, whose donations many candidates and office holders are now returning or giving to charity. Are any Highland Park officials doing this with money previously received from the county party that originated with Lynch?
In light of this, I asked the mayor and council at the October 3 meeting to take a pledge not to take any money from the county party from now on. They refused to do so, stating the idea is "irrelevant." So they are effectively saying that taking money that clearly passes from developers through an intermediary (the county party) to them does not equate to taking money from developers. The outrageousness of this position is obvious, and it is an outright insult to the voters of Highland Park.
The mayor and council want everyone to believe they are pioneers in enacting ethics and good government ordinances. However, many municipalities in the state have already adopted such ordinances; many already have Ethics Boards, and most addressed pay to play at the end of 2005, as required by the state. It is true that so far no other municipality has banned dual office holding, but that is largely because their attorneys have advised officials that such a law must be enacted at the state rather than local level and that a local version would not stand up in court.
Mayor Frank is adept at presenting a neatly packaged appearance of good government centering on herself and marketing it as the most innovative on the planet. However, Highland Park voters are smart enough to look beyond the surface of a well packaged product and peel away the layers of deception. When they do, they will find a far more questionable and dubious reality.