Among the first orders of business at the Local Finance Board’s (LFB) meetings is the consideration of complaints filed against local government officials for alleged violations of the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL). While the Board keeps minutes of the portions of its meetings where LGEL complaints are discussed, it has not posted them on the Board’s website. Rather, the Board posts transcripts of the other parts of its meetings on-line and requires the public to submit Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for the portions of the minutes that record the LGEL complaint discussions.
In a February 26, 2018 letter, however, LFB Chairman Timothy J. Cunningham promised that the Board will soon begin posting the minutes of the ethics portions on the Board’s website.
Cunningham’s letter was in response to my December 22, 2017 correspondence that requested on-line posting of the ethics minutes and for the Board to discontinue obscuring case docket numbers in those minutes. On the latter point, the Board’s practice is to not refer to an ethics case by its case number but by another number that prevents the public from knowing which case is being discussed.
For example, the LFB discussed at its September 13, 2017 meeting an ethics case brought against former Ridgewood Mayor Paul Aronsohn and Manager Roberta Sonenfeld, LFB Complaint No. 16-009. But, the minutes of that meeting did not refer to “LFB Complaint No. 16-009” but to another number (in this case, III.A.7). I argued that the use of the separate number made it impossible for the public to know which case was being discussed.
In his response, Cunningham defended the minutes’ use of a different numbering system as being necessary to keep the Board from “violating its confidentiality obligations.” The LFB has historically assigned paramount importance to the confidentiality interests of accused local officials and very little importance to the public’s right to know which officials are being investigated. In its rejection of New Jersey Foundation for Open Government’s 2015 request for earlier disclosure of the identity of public officials under LGEL investigations, the Board wrote that “[d]isclosure of unverified information . . . may impact a [government official’s] standing in the community or employment with a public agency.” Thus, ethics matters are kept completely confidential until a determination is made and ethics investigations often take years to complete.