Financial disclosure forms of 151 N.J. mayors missing from online database

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 A screen shot of one of the missing documents pages.

A screen shot of one of the missing documents pages.

As South Toms River clerk Joseph Kostecki searches for financial disclosure forms on New Jersey’s online clearinghouse, he’s coming up empty.  There are no listings for any officials from his town.

“One of the members doesn’t come up even though they filed,” he said. “It would be right here, but it’s not. The name’s not even listed.”

Kostecki said five out of seven officials submitted their forms.

“Obviously it’s not 100 percent accurate,” he said. “But it’s an attempt to bring some kind of transparency out.”

Under Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, state departments have attempted to increase transparency by making financial disclosures more accessible online.

In 2012, the state’s Department of Community Affairs began requiring all government officers, including mayors and council members, to disclose information on their place of residence, properties owned, jobs held and other sources of income.

Together this information helps to weed out potential conflicts of interest, misuses of power and cases of corruption.

The transition from paper to online filing has been a bit bumpy.

Broken links, errors messages and other technological errors have left the financial information of 151 of New Jersey’s 565 mayors unavailable, according to an audit conducted by NewsWorks/WHYY. That’s 26.7 percent unavailable.

Kostecki still keeps copies in South Toms River’s borough hall, but under the new system he’s no longer required to.  So for other towns the move to electronic filing might have made disclosures harder to track down than before.

Not all missing forms can be blamed on the new technology.

John Paff, treasurer of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, says a bigger issue is that some officials simply don’t file their disclosures at all.

“I’ve submitted probably, I would say, dozens of requests for financial disclosure rosters,” he said. “It was not unusual that I would find that maybe 10 or 15 local government officers had not filed their forms.”

The Department of Community Affairs would not say whether the mayors with missing forms failed to submit them or if it’s a technical problem.

Paff, though, said the problem is that the state relies on citizen complaints to identify missing forms.

“It seems to be up to citizens to go online with a list of all the people who were supposed to file and see which ones have actually filed their forms,” he said. “It’s not surprising that given the difficulty and the lack of enforcement, of a meaningful enforcement mechanism, that the mayors or some would say ‘well why should I file?'”

Over the last year, New Jersey’s Local Finance Board created a $100 fine for officials who don’t file and the Department of Community Affairs, the agency that oversees the process, says even those who do finally fill out the forms are supposed to pay it.

“When you allow people to file the forms and escape all accountability after someone files a complaint against them for not filing a form in the first place, that’s similar in my mind to apprehending a shoplifter and then dismissing the charges against them as long as he returns the merchandise,” Paff said.  That leaves little incentive for officials to disclose their finances, he said.

South Toms River clerk Kostecki says there could be a less devious reason for non-compliance. The financial disclosures contain home addresses and phone numbers for officials and their spouses.

“A lot of people feel it violates their privacy, and it’s understood,” he said. “There are some security [and] personal issues that they may not want to share with everyone, and once it’s out, it’s out there.”

State officials responsible for the online database would not speak to me for this story. But in emails, a representative of the Department of Community said two new staff members will review ethics complaints and are supposed to pro-actively enforce disclosure rules.

They’re also launching a new version of the filing system so officials can upload their own information directly to an online database, will be fully operational sometime this month.

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