122 N.J.L.J. 1420
December 1, 1988
Conflict of Interest:
County Counsel Representing Clients
Before Local Boards in Municipality
Where His Father is Township Committeeman
The inquirer advises that he represents a municipality in
which a conflict is purported to exist regarding another attorney
(presumably of a different political persuasion), and that the
township committee instructed him to seek an opinion from us.
The target of the inquiry is the son of a township committeeman. He is also an attorney who has been politically active for a number of years. He had previously served as a committeeman and mayor. In 1981 he served as counsel to the Township Committee. He serves presently as attorney to the Board of Education and is county counsel. The Board of Education is an elective board. He has in the past appeared and presently appears before township boards, including the Planning Board and Zoning Board. He has in recent times instituted suits on behalf of clients, one against the Zoning Board and several against the Planning Board.
Culling through the material provided to this committee, a query appears containing several sub-parts:
Is the attorney prohibited from appearing before township bodies because (a) he is county counsel; (b) he is counsel to the Board of Education; (c) his father is mayor of the Township Committee; (d) he sued several township bodies?
We believe that he is not prohibited from appearing before municipal agencies other than the Board of Education for any of those reasons.
As early as 1964 in Opinion 41, 87 N.J.L.J. 285, this Committee held that a school board attorney for an elected board may represent clients before various municipal boards and may represent clients against the municipality in which the school district is located. A distinction was made as to attorneys representing an appointed board. That distinction is still valid.
Our Opinion 204, 94 N.J.L.J. 445 (1971) clearly held that county counsel may not appear in municipal courts located within the county, but that county counsel may handle matters for private clients before municipal bodies unrelated to county duties and may sue municipalities (and, therefore, bodies of the municipal government).
Opinion 360, 99 N.J.L.J. 1166 (1976) held:
Although care must be taken in dealing with both prospective clients and clients to observe DR 9-101(C), nevertheless, when an attorney's parent is the appointing power or participates in appointments, that relationship alone does not call for an inference of improper influence, and the attorney, or his associates, may appear before the public boards whose members are appointed by his parent.
The Opinion should be read for cautions contained therein.
Inquirer, who filed the required argument on the law, alluded
to Opinion 360, supra., but did not set out the holding contained
in the Opinion. For some reason he failed to refer to Opinions 41,
supra or 204, supra. His contentions are general, arguing that in
this case there is an appearance of impropriety. He does not cite
any of the Rules of Professional Conduct, but relies on general
statements contained in several of our opinions. We are of the
opinion that because each of the activities which the attorney, as
set forth in the factual situation presented to us is permissible,
all of them are permissible. The fact that he was required to
institute suit against several municipal bodies on behalf of his
"aggrieved" clients appears to confirm the fact that he, because of
his offices, is not influencing judgments in the town, and this
would seem to negate any thought of improper influence.