In an unpublished decision released today, a two-judge panel of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division dismissed a citizen’s appeal of a ruling by the Local Finance Board that a Somerset County fire commissioner “did not violate [the Local Government Ethics Law] when he voted . . . to settle a lawsuit against the [fire district] in which he was a named defendant.” The Local Finance Board is the state agency chiefly responsible for enforcing the Local Government Ethics Law.
The ethics complainant was Jeff Carter and the fire commissioner was James Wickman of the District 1 Board of Fire Commissioners in Franklin Township (Somerset County). In 2009, Wickman, the fire district and others were named as defendants in district employee Deborah Nelson’s discrimination lawsuit. The sole allegation against Wickman was that he did not respond to Nelson’s e-mail alleging that then Commissioner Robert Scheer subjected her to a sexually hostile workplace. On February 28, 2011 Wickman voted in favor of settling Nelson’s lawsuit for $150,000.
Carter, who is Nelson’s brother, filed a complaint with the Franklin Township Ethics Board contending that it was unethical for Wickman to have voted in favor of settling a lawsuit in which he was personally named as a defendant. (Disclosure: I served on the Franklin Township Ethics Board during the time Wickman’s ethics complaint was processed. However, because of my relationship with Fire District No. 1 (I served as a volunteer firefighter), I recused myself from all proceedings regarding the complaint against Wickman.) The Franklin Ethics Board agreed with Carter and on April 12, 2013 fined Wickman $250.00.
On January 13, 2016, the Local Finance Board reversed the Franklin Board’s ruling finding that Wickman didn’t have an active role in the lawsuit’s defense and didn’t face personal financial liability because the Board had provided him with a legal defense and a promise of indemnification.
Carter appealed the Local Finance Board’s January 13, 2016 ruling and the Appellate Division, in today’s decision, held that Carter had “not established any personal stake in the [Local Finance Board’s] decision” and that “absent any showing of particularized harm, [Carter] has no right to judicial review of” that decision.