107 N.J.L.J. 574
June 18, 1981
Conflict of Interest
County College Trustee
Practicing Before County Agencies
We are asked whether an attorney who is a trustee of a county
college by appointment of board of freeholders may appear before
the various boards and agencies of the same county without
offending the Disciplinary Rules.
The appointment to the county college was made under N.J.S. 18A:64A-8. That board of freeholders has adopted a Code of "Standards of Conduct of Officials and Employees of X County". The intent of that code is to prohibit any county official, appointee or employee from deriving any benefit from appearances before any of the county agencies. Counsel for the college has rendered his opinion that trustees of that county college are not governed by the Freeholders' resolution. To this conclusion the county counsel has agreed. The reason given for this conclusion is that a county college is an independent political subdivision of the county not subject to treatment as a county agency.
At issue is the question whether the presence of an attorney who is an appointed county official before a county agency creates an appearance of impropriety.
Our Supreme Court has held that a county college is an autonomous separate political subdivision of a county. Atlantic Community College v. Civil Service Commission, 59 N.J. 102 (1971), accord Bd. of Trustees Mercer County College v. Sypek, 160 N.J. Super. 452 (App. Div. 1978) certif. denied, 78 N.J. 327 (1978).
In our Opinion 77, 88 N.J.L.J. 453 (1965), we held that an attorney member of a Chapter 6 board of education was precluded from representing individual clients before the court and boards of that municipality. We pointed out that the Chapter 6 board member was appointed by the mayor, that the mayor of such a municipality sat on the board of school estimate with two governing body members, so that the municipality exercised some control over the board of education. In Opinion 37, 87 N.J.L.J. 190 (1964), we previously held that an appointed member of the local board of health should not appear before the court and agencies of that municipality on behalf of private clients.
While county college trustees are appointed by county officials, they are not under the kind of fiscal control exerted by municipalities in Chapter 6 [Title I] school districts. The county college derives most of its support from sources other than the county, Atlantic Community College v. Civil Service Commission, supra.
In applying the ethical consideration of an "appearance of impropriety" to the facts in this inquiry the question to be met is whether or not a reasonable knowledgeable member of the public (See Perillo v. A.C.P.E., 83 N.J. 366, (1980) will perceive that this attorney's representation of a private client before county agencies will involve a divided allegiance or a diminished professional commitment on his part; further that his position as a college trustee in some way gives him special influence before such bodies. There must be a reasonable basis, not a mere possibility of that "appearance of impropriety" in order to preclude such representation. (See In re Opinion 415, 81 N.J. 318 (1979) and our Opinion 466, 106 N.J.L.J. 518 (1980).
Given the independent role of a county college, we find no basis for proscribing this attorney's appearance before county agencies.