Mayor calls for Howell ethics committee to be revived

HOWELL – Mayor Theresa Berger wants to revive a local ethics committee that has not existed in Howell for almost 20 years.

Berger addressed the issue during the Feb. 23 meeting of the Township Council. The meeting was conducted in a remote manner during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

She said Howell had an ethics committee from 1996 to 2003 before it was disbanded because of expenses. The mayor said the committee spent a total of $14,000 on legal fees. She said it would not cost much to bring back the panel.

“We need people who work in the township that are trusted by the public. The viability and the stability of a representative democracy depends upon the public’s confidence in the integrity of its elected and appointed representatives.

“Whenever the public perceives conflict between the private interests and the public duties of the government, officer or employee, that confidence is imperiled.

“Governments have the duty to provide their citizens with standards by which they may determine whether the public duties are being faithfully performed, and to appraise their officers and employees of behavior which is expected by them when conducting their public duties,” the mayor said.

Berger said a municipal ethics board can provide residents with confidence that the decisions elected and appointed officials make are free from a preconceived or actual conflict of interest.

She said the ethics committee would be a bipartisan board of local residents who would review allegations of conflict and guide the enforcement of existing law.

Berger asked her fellow council members to consider her suggestion for the re-establishment of a municipal ethics board.

In October, resident John Hughes filed an ethics complaint against Councilwoman Pamela Richmond. Because Howell does not have an ethics board, the matter was referred to the municipal attorney for review.

In an email that was read during the council meeting on Feb. 23, Hughes wrote, “Four months have passed and I have never been contacted by the township attorney or any outside firm that may have been investigating the issue. Was this serious issue swept under the rug? If so, at who’s request?”

Hughes has alleged that Richmond violated a municipal code of conduct in several ways.

In response to the email, Township Attorney Joseph Clark said, “First, (Hughes’ complaint against Richmond) was not swept under the rug, and second, it is one of many complaints I have received against council members, board members and committee members.

“That is in addition to my regular duties as the township attorney which take up a significant amount of time. So I devote as much time to these issues as I can.

“I have asked outside counsel to look at it as well. I will circulate something to the governing body about the various issues shortly. I will reach out separately to Mr. Hughes in particular,” Clark said.

Richmond was not present during the Feb. 23 council meeting.