Monday, January 16, 2017

Board Attorney: OK for Board to hire public relations firm that worked for majority of Board members' campaigns.

The 17th page of the Elizabeth (Union County) Board of Education's May 12, 2016 meeting minutes show that the Board retained by a 6-2 vote Strategic Message Management, Inc. as a vendor at a cost not to exceed $50,000.  According to Board member Daniel Nina, the firm was hired "on as-needed basis" at "an hourly rate when we need the firm to represent the district."

After a motion was made and seconded to hire the firm, Board member Carlos Trujillo wanted the record to reflect that the firm has done "political consulting work for seven members of this Board of Education."  Trujillo asked Board Counsel Jonathan Williams of DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick & Cole to confirm that there was no conflict "for anyone voting in the affirmative for this even though [the firm] has done work on the campaigns, the political campaigns of the Board members."  Williams assured Trujillo that no such conflict existed. 

Mr. Williams undoubtedly knows far more about the School Ethics Law than me, but it seems to me that public officials ought to be prohibited from voting to award public money to businesses that do work for them individually.  The law on the subject, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(c), prohibits a school official from officially acting on "any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment."  I think that a board member's business relationship with his or her campaign consultant is at least an indirect financial involvement that the public could reasonably expect to impair the Board member's objectivity.

To see all the pages of the May 12, 2016 minutes, as well as the minutes of other Board meetings, visit the Board's website.