125 N.J.L.J. 894
April 5, 1990
Conflict of Interest:
Counsel for Board of Trustees of
Free Public Library Practicing
Before Municipal Court and Boards
The Inquirer serves as counsel for the Board of Trustees of a
local Free Public Library. He asks whether, as an associate of a
law firm, he and his firm will be precluded from representing
private clients before a municipal court, planning board or board
of adjustment. We assume that he is referring to these entities in
the municipality in which the library is located. Obviously,
neither he nor his firm would be precluded from such representation
in other municipalities.
Free public libraries are created by and operate in accordance with the provisions of N.J.S.A. 40:54-1. They come into being by vote of the citizens of the municipality and are funded by the municipality from tax revenues based upon a formula set forth in the statute.
The Board of Trustees is comprised of the mayor of the municipality, superintendent or other person heading up the educational system and from seven to nine residents of the municipality who are appointed by the mayor. The Board of Trustees is a separate corporate entity with independent power to manage and operate the library, but it is an adjunct of the local government. Bd. of Trustees v. City of Union City, 112 N.J. Super. 484 (Ch. Div. 1970) aff'd sub nom Bd. of Trustees of Free Pub. Library v. Union, 116 N.J. Super. 186 (App. Div. 1971).
In addition to its power to manage the property of the library, the Board of Trustees may purchase and acquire land and buildings, with the approval of the municipality, and even has the power of condemnation.
While it is an adjunct of the municipal government and its citizen members are appointed by the mayor, the Board of Trustees is independent and not controlled by the governing body of the municipality. Thus it seems clear that representation by the Inquirer of the library's Board of Trustees should not preclude him, or his law firm, from representing private clients before the municipal court, planning board or board of adjustment of the municipality.
Since the library's Board of Trustees is independent, and its funding is mandated by statute and not subject to the discretion of the municipal governing body, it is unlikely that a conflict with the governing body will arise. Should such a conflict arise, the Inquirer will have to withdraw and allow the Board of Trustees to be represented by other counsel. Bearing in mind, however, that it is the philosophy of our Supreme Court that lawyers render public service, we do not believe that remote possibilities of conflict should restrict the Inquirer or his law firm from representing private clients before the municipal court or municipal boards. We do not believe that such representation would give rise to any appearance of impropriety. See Opinion 294, 97 N.J.L.J. 993 (1974) (general and historical discussion of the appearance of impropriety and conflicts arising out of representation of private clients by public attorneys).
The Inquirer also states that a private organization is being formed to establish a new public library which would lease the premises to the current Board of Trustees. He represents the private organization and quite properly agrees that there would be a conflict in representing that organization in any negotiations with the Board of Trustees. He states, however, that he believes he should be able to represent the private organization in connection with its development application. We agree, but caution that such representation must end when any negotiations ensue between the private organization and the present Board of Trustees.