The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs' Local Finance Board has issued the agency's final decision on a citizen's ethics complaint against Hopatcong Mayor Sylvia Petillo. According to last week's announcement of the Sept. 11 LFB ruling, Petillo broke the Local Government Ethics Law when she spent $2,316.11 of borough funds on a mailing to residents advocating a "yes" vote on a 2011 referendum.
Hopatcong resident Randall Paulenich lodged the initial complaint against Petillo in late 2011, and the DCA agreed with it. In March 2012, it asked the LFB to make a final investigation into whether Petillo used public resources for political gain when she used municipal funds to print, fold, stuff and send a letter advocating support for a November 2011 referendum while she was running for re-election.
The specific state law Paulenich and the DCA contended Petillo violated is NJSA 40A:9-22.5(c): "No local government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others."
The LFB authorized an investigation of the complaint in March 2012 after Petillo appealed the original decision. In May, Petillo issued her own response.
The mayor's reply noted that she did not vote on the ordinance to merge Hopatcong's Zoning Board of Adjustment and Planning Board into a single entity.
"Following the adoption of the ordinance and the question being placed on the November ballot," she wrote, "I decided to send a letter to the residents of the Borough of Hopatcong explaining the issue and advising the residents that I supported the passage of the ballot question in my role as Mayor of Hopatcong because I believed it to be in the best interest of the Borough."
Petillo called the claim that she violated the ethics Law "completely unsubstantiated" and "frivolous," adding that she received no personal benefit from writing the letter. She also said that while she was running for re-election at the time, she was running unopposed.
Still, the board determined that the text of Petillo's letter went beyond describing the impact of combining the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Planning Board into a single entity—it advocated for a yes vote on the referendum, which the LFB says is a violation of state ethics law.
As to punishment, Petillo had been fined $100 by the LFB in July, but the fine was waived due to the board's finding that “no personal financial benefit derived from this action,” according to board chair Thomas H. Neff, director of the Division of Local Government Services.
Petillo noted, in a Monday afternoon emailed response to Patch, that the ethics committee agreed that she was within her rights, as an elected official, to send the informational letter.
"What was in dispute was whether I could take a position on the outcome of the referendum," she said. "I hired and paid for my own lawyer to go through the appeal process being I disagreed with their initial findings. I didn’t read anything in the Ethics Law prohibiting any such action."
Petillo maintained throughout the process that the charges against her were vague.
"It took 10 months for the ethics committee to render a decision, which suggests that they had a difficult time with the issue and needed to find some supporting authority to back up their final decision," she said, adding that she paid for her attorney's work during the appeal out of her own pocket. "It seems they relied heavily on a 38-year old attorney general’s opinion letter. These opinion letters are not easily searched for guidance and are archived on the state’s site.
"I find it unfortunate that our Government Ethics Law does not provide a more detailed guide for elected officials so this type of situation would not occur."
Randall Paulenich, the citizen whose complaint two years ago started Petillo's troubles, noted that because the final agency decision found the mayor in violation, she can be recalled from office.
"This decision leaves the door wide open for anyone concerned about the future of the Borough of Hopatcong to have a voter recall," he said. "Communities across the nation have done it on much less and those public officials resigned before they were disgraced by a recall."
Paulenich calls on Petillo to pay back the $2,316.11 spent for the 2011 mailing—and he says she should step down.
"To avoid any more public embarrassment, she should resign and promise not to run for public office for another five years," he told Patch.