In a November 14, 2017 unpublished (and thus non-precedential) opinion, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division ruled that four members of the eight-member Local Finance Board (LFB) were not statutorily authorized to rule on a Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL) complaint against a Franklin Township (Somerset County) Fire Commissioner.
According to the opinion and a January 13, 2016 LFB decision, the Franklin Township Ethics Board ruled in 2011 that Fire District 1 Commissioner James Wickman violated the LGEL by voting “to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed [in 2009] against the Commissioners of Franklin Township Fire District No. 1 in which he was also an individually-named defendant.” The LFB reversed the Franklin Ethics Board’s determination and vacated a $250 fine it had levied against Wickman. The LFB found that “Wickman’s limited involvement in the underlying sexual harassment litigation did not rise to the level of a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment [and] that Wickman did not use or attempt to use his official position to secure an unwarranted privilege or advantage for himself.”
Jeff Carter, a Franklin Township resident and brother of the woman who filed the underlying sexual harassment lawsuit, appealed the LFB’s decision to the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division found that N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.9 required that LFB decisions “shall be made by no less than two-thirds of all members of the [B]oard.” Accordingly, the panel ruled, “at least six of the Board’s eight statutorily-commanded members had to participate in the decision it rendered in this case.” Since only four members were present to vote, the Appellate Division found that “the decision is void,” vacated it and remanded the matter back to the LFB for further proceedings.