Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 4, 2015

NJ Appeals Court Finds Town Board Member Had a Prohibited Conflict of Interest in Voting for Salary Increase for Spouse’s Supervisor

Sherry Scull served as a member of the Town Council and despite her husband’s employment with the Pemberton Township Water Division, she voted for the Communications Workers of America Salary Ordinance that increased and established the salaries of twelve supervisory positions, including the water superintendent. The Township Solicitor’s office subsequently reviewed the matter after the public questioned whether Scull should have recused herself from voting on the contract. The Solicitor’s office ultimately ruled that the appellant had no conflict of interest. Complaints were received by the Local Finance Board alleging that Scull violated the Local government Ethics Law (N.J.S.A. 40A-9-22.5(d)). The Board issued a Notice of Violation, concluding that both Scull and her husband had personal involvements in the Ordinance that might have impaired the objectivity or independence of judgment. Scull then requested an administrative hearing to contest the determination and the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and the Local Finance Board found she violated the Local Government Ethics Law when she voted to adopt an ordinance that increased the salary of her husband’s direct supervisor. Scull appealed to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

In an unpublished decision, the appeals court held that Scull had a direct personal interest in the approval of the contract because the contract included an increase to the water superintendent’s salary, and for this reason the appellant should have recused herself due to her husband’s employment under the water superintendent. Despite the appellant’s argument that the constraints imposed by the civil service regulations prevented the water superintendent from inflicting direct control over her husband, the Court determined that the appropriate standard is whether the personal interest of the official may have the capacity to exert an influence on her decision in a matter where a conflict exists. Specifically, the Court noted that Scull’s husband could receive overtime, increase in salary or regular work hours, and overtime if the water superintendent authorized it. The Court concluded that even if the Scull did not specifically intend to use her office for the benefit her husband, the key is the existence of the conflict, and therefore there was a direct personal interest due to the potential to undermine the public’s confidence in the objectivity and impartiality of the local government.

Scull v. Local Finance Bd., 2014 WL 2440783 (NJ Sup. Ct., unpub. 6/2/2014)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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