Township Attorney: No Conflict of Interest for Lockwood on Committee

A petition requesting that a member of the Township Committee “resign or be removed from the Township Committee” was delivered to Mayor Kristin McCarthy last October 19. The petition alleged a conflict of interest on the part of committee member Susan Lockwood.  The full Committee heard a report from its attorney, Ms. Kristine Hadinger Esq., at its regular meeting on January 28. Ms. Hadinger had submitted a memo stating that the alleged conflict does not exist. Ms. Hadinger reports that “Apparently, the issue has arisen as a result of some lingering dissatisfaction on the part of the residents regarding the Township Committee’s enactment of a stream corridor ordinance last year”.  Her briefing to the committee concluded with the statement that “quite clearly, simply the fact that you’re employed by these agencies does not disqualify you from being an elected official”.

Susan Lockwood is an employee of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The petition states the belief of its signers that “her state job and her membership on the Township Committee” is an “issue”. Ms. Hadinger’s research showed that this does not disqualify Ms. Lockwood from holding elective office in Delaware Township. Ms. Hadinger remarked: “It should be noted that at the State level, Ms. Lockwood is compelled to submit to a review of her outside affiliations and the State permits Ms. Lockwood to serve in an elective capacity in Delaware Township”.

Ms. Hadinger also noted the related issue of Township Committee member Alan Johnson, who is employed by the Hunterdon County Utilities Authority (HCUA) as the Director of the Division of Solid Waste and Recycling Services. He could as plausibly be suspected of conflict of interest, but the petition did not mention Mr. Johnson.

Ms. Hadinger’s memo states: “It is always possible that a particular situation might give rise to a conflict in which case the individual would disqualify him or herself from participation. Though speculative, some possible examples of such would be if NJDEP was taking enforcement action against Delaware Township for a spill. Ms. Lockwood might, in that instance, disqualify herself from participating in any discussion and decision making by the Township Committee on such matter. Similarly, were the HCUA to impose requirements upon municipalities for the handling of solid waste or recycling, it would be prudent for Mr. Johnson to avoid participation in the discussion of such matters by the Township Committee.”

As a further example given at the Committee meeting, Ms. Hadinger noted that Rich Madden, being a member of the volunteer Fire Dept., regularly abstained from Committee discussions of purchases of new firefighting equipment. Neither Mr. Johnson nor Mr. Madden were targeted by the petition.

To conclude, Ms. Hadinger cited a prior legal decision stating that “Local governments would be seriously handicapped if every possible interest, no matter how remote and speculative, would serve as a disqualification of an official. If this were so, it would discourage capable men and women from holding public office. … [T]o abrogate a municipal action at the suggestion that some remote and nebulous interest is present, would be to unjustifiably deprive a municipality in so many important instances of the services of its duly elected or appointed officials. The determinations of municipal officials should not be approached with a general feeling of suspicion, for as Justice Holmes has said ‘Universal distrust creates universal incompetency’”.

Members of the Township Committee voted unanimously to make public Ms. Hadinger’s confidential memo.

The State of New Jersey has a formal procedure for recalling elected officials from office, but the residents’ petition falls short of it on a number of points. None of the seventy signatories are part of a formal recall committee.  Their letter does not have the signatures of twenty five percent of eligible voters required for a valid petition. Nor does their call for a summary resignation or dismissal find any support in State procedure. Rather, in the event that the requisite number of signatures had been found for a petition, the next step would have been to place a recall question on either a special election ballot or the general election ballot.

Ms. Lockwood and running mate Kristin McCarthy defeated opponents Ken Johnson and Ron Bibbo (also a signer of the petition) by broad margins in 2005, winning over 1,200 popular votes, to Mr. Johnson’s 900 and Bibbo’s 600. The signatures of seventy residents are insufficient to overturn that vote. This episode may have intimidated Ms. Lockwood, but is not recognized under law as a legitimate process to remove her from elected office.