On November 13, 2017, the New Jersey Local Finance Board (LFB) issued Notices of Violation to Ridgewood Village’s (Bergen County) former Mayor and Manager for authorizing and appearing in a video that advocated only one side of a referendum question that was pending before Village voters.
The Notices of Violation, issued against former Mayor Paul Aronsohn and former Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld, both arose out of a June 21, 2016 referendum question which sought $11,500,000 in bonds or notes to finance the cost of constructing a new parking deck. Under New Jersey law, government officials may use public resources to educate–but not to persuade–voters on public issues.
The LFB found that the video was persuasive and not purely educational because it advocated only one side of the question and “urg[ed] citizens to vote ‘yes.'” Using public resources to persuade voters to vote “yes” on a referendum is unfair because the referendum’s opponents do not have access to those resources and have to use private resources to distribute their message.
Aronsohn and Sonenfeld, by supporting and appearing in the video, were found to have “attempt[ed] to use [their] official position[s] to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for [themselves] or others in violation of N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(c).”
The ethics complaint against Arohnson and Sonenfeld was filed on June 13, 2016 by John Paff (the author of this article) and the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project. The complaint and a link to the video are on-line here.
Both Aronsohn and Sonenfeld have the right to an administrative hearing as well as the right to appeal the violation to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court.