Wednesday, March 23, 2005

An Ethical Diamond in the Rough

By Benson Chiles, member of the Atlantic Highland’s Planning Board


Many people around here know Atlantic Highlands as the “Jewel of the Bayshore.” It’s not an official slogan, nor is it always fitting. It does, however, accurately characterize the beautiful rolling hills, the colorful Victorian homes, and the big views of NYC and Sandy Hook that make Atlantic Highlands a special place to live.

The Atlantic Highlands Council has an opportunity to add another priceless feature to the Borough: ethics reform. For more than a year a bi-partisan committee worked hard to develop a suite of three ordinances that insure the highest ethical standards of conduct for town officials, developers who go before the planning board, contractors who bid on Borough projects, and professional service firms who want to do business with the town. Passing these reforms at tonight’s meeting will send a strong message that Atlantic Highlands is a jewel for reform.

Council members Stephanie Ladiana (D) and Lou Fligor (R) deserve credit for their hard work bringing these reform ordinances this far. Now it will fall to the full council to put them on the books. Mayor Peter Donoghue has publicly expressed support for the measures, and other members of the Council throughout the drafting process have offered sound suggestions for ways to strengthen them. Clearly, members of the Council understand the importance of these reforms in the larger political context, and tonight, residents will have a chance to reinforce that view during a public hearing.

The arrests and ongoing investigations of Monmouth County officials for ethical misconduct have brought increased public attention to issues of ethics in government. Now the challenge is how to convert this negative momentum into something positive, before even more voters are lost to cynicism and disgust. Senator John Adler, in a recent Asbury Park Press editorial captured the moment well when he said, the "implied quid pro quo of campaign contributions" is "one step removed from the worst example of corruption, which is taking bribes."

At every level of government, our elected officials have a choice to make: continue with politics as usual, despite deepening citizen concerns, or enact sweeping reforms that empower citizens and build public trust? The vitality of our democracy depends on the answer.

In Atlantic Highlands, the Borough Council stands ready to make the right choice. In so doing, it will not only raise the ethical bar of conduct for our small town, but it will join the dozens of other municipalities who have passed similar “pay-to-play” reforms. This coordinated action (thanks in large part to the “Citizens’ Campaign,” www.jointhecampaign.org) may strengthen the resolve of County and State officials to pass similar reforms. As Tip O’Neil once said, “all politics is local.”

But the challenge should not be underestimated. Barbara and Stephen Salmore, in their book New Jersey Politics and Government, describe New Jersey as one of “the strongest bastions of the individualistic political culture among the states,” where the “culture is expressed at its lowest level through urban political machines, boss rule, and extensive corruption.” If we can get real reform here in the land of “The Sopranos,” then other states and the Federal government should have the courage to follow suit.

“Pay to play” reform in tiny Atlantic Highlands may be like discovering a large ethical diamond in the rough. With a little polishing, the core nature of our community can be seen and admired by others. Other communities, in turn, need only to look within to discover their own ethical jewels.

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