Ocean City —
Council members advocated a more thorough vetting process for Ethics Board candidates at their March 22 meeting.
Formed in 2007, the Ethics Board is comprised of volunteers appointed to investigate complaints against city employees, elected officials and businesses with relationships to the city and rendering their decisions according to the city’s ethics code.
Originally composed of six members, the Ethics Board’s numbers have dwindled down to just three current members: Joan Farrell, James Rybicki and Steven Fenichel. Joseph Orlando and Richard Waddell left the board. Orlando resigned last spring and a volunteer has not been appointed for his seat. Waddell was appointed to the zoning board in December, leaving another vacancy. Council hasn’t renewed Board Chairman Stanley Pszcolkowski’s position on the board, which expired at the end of 2011.
Last year, the board requested additional funding of $22,000 for the Ethics Board to hire its own attorney to represent them during a hearing before an administrative law judge over an appealed decision.
In 2009, the board found Beach Patrol Operations Manager Thomas Mullineaux violated the city’s ethics law, but Mullineaux appealed the board’s rendering to the local finance board, which moved the case to an administrative law judge. The case will be heard this May.
Council and the city’s administration initially rejected the Ethics Board’s request, saying the $22,000 was too expensive.
Council debated whether to dissolve the Ethics Board, but following public opposition, council decided to keep the board.
Before heading into a closed session to discuss Ethics Board appointments on March 22, Councilman Keith Hartzell asked for a more thorough vetting process for potential board members.
“If we’re going to have a board in this town that’s going to oversee ethics and determine people’s futures and possibly ruin their lives ... and we’re going to look at two or three resumes and make up our mind in five or ten minutes, that’s just wrong,” Hartzell sid.
Hartzell said the city should conduct background checks on potential board members and spend time developing criteria for board members including education, community experiences and background.
“With all of this talk about ethics, no one’s really walked up and asked us how we do it. They just wanted an Ethics Board and didn’t really say how to do it or what to do with it. I find that alarming,” Hartzell said.
He said the city should appoint a committee of council and citizens to determine what an Ethics Board member should be and their qualifications.
“I feel very uncomfortable discussing brief resumes tonight in a short period of time and possibly making an appointment,” Hartzell said. “We need a more transparent system and certainly not behind closed doors.”
Councilman Scott Ping supported the Ocean City Police Department performing background checks on prospective Ethics Board candidates.
“We should review our process as far as picking people for the ethics committee right now before we move it forward and just put people on there without knowing backgrounds and their qualifications,” Ping said.
Councilman Roy Wagner disagreed, saying it wasn’t necessary for background checks. Wagner said when the Ethics Board was established, he was a member of the original committee who interviewed and selected candidates.
“I don’t think we have to go into a lot of stuff as if we were hiring them to cover the gold in the bank,” Wagner said.
“It’s their reputations. To me, that’s more than gold in the bank,” Hartzell said. “My reputation is worth more than anything I own, anything I cherish.”
Hartzell said the Ethics Board has the power to damage reputations, and because of this, the selection process should be more thorough and circumspect. He said ideal applicants would be the “best and the brightest” with no connections to council or the local government.
“The problem with these boards is it’s always people that we know. Actually some of us call people and try to get them to apply, so it’s still a little club of people getting on boards. Maybe for some of the boards that’s okay, but not for this one,” Hartzell said.
Councilman John Kemenosh called the candidates “outstanding people”, and advocated council work to get the board operational.
“The number of convictions are slim, but this is our Ethics Board. You guys voted for it. Let’s work with it and let’s get it done so that there’s not a delay from up here,” Kemenosh said.
Councilman Tony Wilson said council should re-appoint Pszcolkowski so the Ethics Board could have a quorum to conduct business.
“I don’t want to drag this process out, not even for another minute. I want to move forward with it and get someone on that committee,” Wilson said.
Wilson supported improving criteria for selecting Ethics Board members.
Council President Michael Allegretto said in the past, council received the candidates’ resumes and asked about experience and expectations. He said council was slated to discuss three prospective candidates that night.
Fourth Ward council candidate Pete Guinosso, who brought cases before the Ethics Board, said they were “extremely professional.”
“I have utmost confidence in the performance of the board right now,” Guinosso said. “I feel strongly anybody on the Ethics Board would and should have the utmost integrity. I have yet to find anybody on that board that didn’t fit those qualifications,” Guinosso said.
Hartzell said he still wanted to examine the applicants’ criteria and qualifications at a later date.
“When you only have two or three people in a town of 12,000 apply, there’s a problem. I’m just not going to slap people on because they apply, but I’m not going to slow down the process,” Hartzell said.