I am often asked how, exactly, one goes about reporting a municipal official to the proper authorities when that official has done something unethical. The object of this article is the explain the process the best that I can.
FIRST STEP: DETERMINE THE APPROPRIATE ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
For the vast majority municipalities, the enforcement agency is the Local Finance Board within the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.in Trenton. But, some counties and municipalities have adopted their own ethics codes and established their own ethics boards. A listing of these counties and towns is on-line here.
So, if you want to file a complaint against an official, you should first check the above link to determine whether or not you should file locally or with the Local Finance Board in Trenton. (Note: Several counties have their own ethics codes and boards. Those codes and boards cover only county officials, not municipal officials within those counties. For example, if you wanted to file a a complaint against an official in Lawnside Borough, which is in Camden County, you would file your complaint with the state’s Local Finance Board because Lawnside does not have a municipal ethics code or board.)
If the municipality the allegedly unethical official serves is NOT on the list at the above link, your complaint will be handled by the Local Finance Board.
If the municipality the allegedly unethical official serves IS on the list at the above link, you will have to consult the municipality’s ordinances to learn the procedure. Some listed municipalities, such as Hillsborough Township in Somerset County, have their ethics ordinances on-line. (See, Chapter 49 of of the Township’s code here. Some towns, unfortunately, do not have their municipal code books on-line and their web sites do not reference their ethics boards or code. In such a case, you will have to contact the municipal clerk for more information or perhaps submit an OPRA request.
SECOND STEP: DETERMINE WHETHER THE OFFICIAL’S CONDUCT VIOLATED THE CODE
The word “unethical” is sometimes used carelessly. Before filing a complaint, make sure that you can allege facts which, if proven, will constitute a violation of the ethics code that governs the official.
If the official that you wish to complain against serves a county or municipality that is NOT on the list mentioned above, he or she is bound to follow the code set forth in the Local Government Ethics Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5. I have put that code on-line here.
If the official serves a county or municipality that is on the list above, then you’ll have to get a copy of that county’s or municipality’s code to determine if a violation occurred. But, you may want to refer to the Local Government Ethics Law as a guide because county and municipal ethics codes must “either identical to the provisions set forth in [Local Government Ethics Law] or more restrictive, but shall not be less restrictive.” (N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.15 and 40A:9-22.21). So, if your official violated the Local Government Ethics Law he or she necessarily must have also violated the local or county ethics law.
THIRD STEP: WRITE UP THE COMPLAINT.
If you believe that the official violated the relevant ethics code, then all that’s left to do is write up the complaint and file it.
Each municipal and county ethics board has its own procedures for filing–you’ll have to check the local code. But, if the official serves a municipality or county that doesn’t have an ethics board, then the complaint can be submitted as a letter addressed to: Local Finance Board, P.O. Box 803, Trenton, NJ 08625-0803.
Complaints to the Local Finance Board MUST contain the following elements in order to be accepted:
1. State the point of the Local Government Ethics Law alleged to be violated;
2. State the name(s) and title(s) of the parties involved in the action and against whom the complaint is filed;
3. Set forth in detail the pertinent facts surrounding the alleged violative action;
4. Indicate whether the complaint concerns the complainant in any way and what, if any, relationship the complainant has to the subject of the complaint; and
5. Indicate any other action previously taken in an attempt to resolve the issue and indicate whether the issue is the subject of pending litigation elsewhere.
I have put the rule that governs complaints here.
Update 10/24/2021. When this article was written in 2009, e-mailed complaints were not accepted by the LFB. Since then, I have submitted several successful ethics complaints via e-mail to DLGS (at) dca.nj.gov. Complainants should get a written acknowledgement from the LFB within 30 days of filing their complaint.
Originally distributed January 29, 2009