Monday, June 13, 2016

Ridgewood Mayor and Manager accused of violating Local Government Ethics Law for appearing in video that exhorts a "yes" vote on parking deck referendum.

"The public funds entrusted to the [Village government] belong equally to the proponents and opponents of the proposition, and the use of the funds to finance not the presentation of facts merely but also arguments to persuade the voters that only one side has merit, gives the dissenters just cause for complain."

Justice William J. Brennan, 1953

Following is a complaint filed by the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project with the Local Finance Board--the agency that enforces the Local Government Ethics Law.

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June 13, 2016

Patricia Parkin McNamara
Local Finance Board
101 S Broad St – PO Box 803
Trenton, NJ 08625-0803
(via e-mail only to Patricia.McNamara@dca.state.nj.us)

Dear Ms. McNamara:

We intend this e-mail to be our complaint against Paul Aronsohn, Mayor, and Roberta Sonenfeld, Manager, of the Village of Ridgewood (Bergen County).

In accordance with N.J.A.C. 5:35-1.1(b), following are the required elements of the complaint:

1. State the point of the Local Government Ethics Law alleged to be violated.

N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(c), which prohibits a local government officers from "us[ing" or attempting to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others."

2. State the name(s) and title(s) of the parties involved in the action and against whom the complaint is filed.

New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, John Paff (Project Chairman), Paul Aronsohn, (Ridgewood Mayor) and Roberta Sonenfeld (Ridgewood Manager).

3. Set forth in detail the pertinent facts surrounding the alleged violative action.

Mayor Aronsohn and Manager Sonenfeld appear in a video that exhorts citizens to vote "yes" on a June 21, 2016 referendum question which will, if passed, cause the issuance of $11,500,000 in bonds or notes to finance the cost of constructing a new parking deck.

Notwithstanding Mayor Aronsohn's statement in the video that its purpose is to educate and inform the public about this issue, the video goes well beyond providing neutral facts.  Rather, the video is clearly an advocacy piece intended to persuade Village residents to vote "yes" on the proposal. For example Mayor Aronsohn made the following statements at the noted times in the video:

  • 00:20 "This is an opportunity for us to come out again as a community to show our support for our parking deck, something that most of us believe that we desperately need here in Ridgewood."
  • 01:43 "The reason we really need a parking deck is three-fold" followed by: a) "a real quality of life imperative," b) anger over a lack of parking creates a "real public safety concern" and c) lack of parking imperils the "survival of our downtown."
  • 3:20 "For [the three reasons stated above] we really need a parking deck."
  • 10:37 "There's going to be one question on the ballot that day: 'Do you support this parking deck' and I hope you vote 'yes' because it's so important for our community."
Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld also stated at 01:35 that "As the Village Manager, I realize it's a parking crisis.  Yes, a crisis.  A crisis which will get worse if we do nothing about it."

In Citizens to Protect Pub. Funds v. Board of Educ. of Parsippany-Troy Hills, 13 N.J. 172 (1953), then New Jersey Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (who later became a Justice of the United State Supreme Court) ruled that school boards could use public funds to educate the voters on ballot initiatives provided that they didn't cross the line into advocating for or against the measure.  

The same principle applies in this case.  While Mayor Aronsohn and Manager Sonenfeld may certainly inform and educate voters on the pros and cons of the parking deck proposal, they are not allowed to use public resources (e.g. the Village website) to persuade voters.  Government officials' use of public resources to persuade voters is unfair because referendum opponents do not have access to those resources and have to use private resources to distribute their message.

We assert that Mayor Aronsohn and Manager Sonenfeld violated N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.5(c), because they used or attempted to use their official positions to create and appear in a video which is intended to secure an electoral advantage for proponents of the public question and impose an electoral disadvantage upon the proposal's opponents.

4. Indicate whether the complaint concerns the complainant in any way and what, if any, relationship the complainant has to the subject of the complaint.

Complainant has no interest in or relationship to this complaint greater than any other citizen or organization who wishes for all government officers and employees to comply fully with the Local Government Ethics Law.

5. Indicate any other action previously taken in an attempt to resolve the issue and indicate whether the issue is the subject of pending litigation elsewhere.

No other action has been taken previously in an attempt to resolve this issue and this issue is not the subject of any pending litigation.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I ask that you please acknowledge your receipt of this complaint within 30 days.

Sincerely,

/s/ John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project