We have a dynamic new team on Sussex County’s Freeholder Board. They’ve started on a lot of good work, but they’re still frustrated by the machinations of ghosts from the past – appointees and bureaucrats from previous boards, insiders with special deals, and assorted critters on the make (all looking to further feather their nests or a quick score at the expense of average taxpayers).
In striving to bring good government and fiscal responsibility to Sussex County our new Freeholder Board is encumbered in a way that past boards – those that included names like Oroho, Wirths, Space, Chiusano, Parrott, Vetrano, and Zellman – were not. And it’s the reason why then Freeholder Rich Vohden never got an answer as to how a $500,000 no-bid contract to “study” the solar scam, got handed to an insider law-firm whose principal had approved the scam in the first place.
It’s all a question of “advice and consent”.
Under the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, “advice and consent” must occur at a public meeting where qualifications are reviewed and discussed in public before taxpayers and the media. The power of executive administrators, appointees, and bureaucrats is thus checked – as is the ability of vendors to manipulate the system from inside.
The phrase, “advice and consent”, appears 15 times in the Sussex County Administrative Code, and for decades, “advice and consent” occurred openly before the taxpayers and the media at public meetings of the full Freeholder Board. But this didn’t suit some special interests who want to turn county government into their own personal ATM.
In August 2016, certain critters persuaded a majority of another Freeholder Board (very different from the Board we are fortunate to have today) to change the process of “advice and consent” in Sussex County. So they changed the county administrative code to read:
“Advice and Consent” shall mean communicating regarding an action with all members of the Board and thereafter acting pursuant to the direction of a majority of the whole.
No longer was a public process required. No longer must the Freeholder Board as a whole meet to achieve “advice and consent.” With this change, the County Administrator or some bureaucrat or appointee acting under his authority could circumvent the whole Freeholder Board and, behind the scenes, secure approval on a range of spending by simply claiming to have obtained the implied “consent” of three members of the Freeholder Board. He would then be acting with the “advice and consent” of the majority of the five-member Board.
The new definition creates a divide and conqueraspect to distort and defeat the process of “advice and consent”. It allows an unelected appointee or his unelected appointees to individually work on the members of the Freeholder Board and, once believing or claiming to have the consent of three of them, the remaining Freeholders are not needed. There is no opportunity for the members to discuss it in public, gain from the insights and wisdom of each other, hear the concerns and observations of the public, or be questioned by the media. The vote need not and may not occur at a public meeting. It is an opportunity for great mischief.
These private, isolated, individual conversations and claim of majority “consent” clearly defeat the purposes of the Open Public Meetings Act and the goals of “advice and consent”.
When a member of the then Freeholder Board requested a legal opinion on the change, the motion was defeated. In short, this change to the county administrative code created the opportunity for an illegal, bureaucratic, administrative kleptocracy. A situation that could, in theory, produce a feeding frenzy by the vendor-class at the expense of property taxpayers.
Luckily, the Freeholder Board elected new members – committed to transparency, reform, and good government – and so the worst impulses of the critters have been checked. Nevertheless, it is time to rip out the cause – root and branch.