UNION, NJ — When the New Jersey School Ethics Commission found Union Board of Education President Ronnie McDowell in violation of school ethics, McDowell said his violation was human error.
“I agree with the SEC’s final decision,” McDowell said on Saturday, Sept. 4. “Yes, I violated the School Ethics Act. Ethically, per the act, I was wrong. Morally, I’m OK with what I did. I was not the school board president when this ethics violation occurred, and the church had submitted a request to the school board to use the UHS parking lot. I do not know what type of reprimand I will receive.
“The only thing I can say in my defense is that I made a simple human error. There was no deceit involved, and no one received any unmerited benefit. The complaint stated that, because I have a financial connection to the church, I should have abstained from making the resolution and also from voting on it. In hindsight, I agree,” he continued.
The complaint, filed by Union resident Mervin Rose, alleged that McDowell, who is also a deacon at First Baptist Church of Vauxhall, serving as an ordained minister and subordinate officer, violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(c), which states that, “No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he … has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he … has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official.”
Due to McDowell annually receiving “gifts/reimbursements” or prepaid expenses from the church having an aggregate amount exceeding $250, Rose argued that McDowell violated the act when he moved and then voted to approve the First Baptist Church of Vauxhall’s request to use the district’s facilities. According to Rose, there exists a relationship that directly affects McDowell, creating a direct financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity by a member of the public.
Although McDowell admitted his role at the church in his motion to dismiss the complaint, he denied that, as a deacon, he received any financial remuneration whatsoever. Instead, because of his volunteer work/service as an “unpaid treasurer/bookkeeper and van driver,” McDowell said that First Baptist Church of Vauxhall gives him “a once-a-year honorarium/gift of $2,000.”
McDowell also denied that the once-a-year honorarium could reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment, although he admitted it may have been more prudent to err on the side of caution and not make the motion or vote to approve the First Baptist Church of Vauxhall’s request to use the district’s facilities. He maintains his board action did not violate the N.J.S.A. act. In response to the motion to dismiss, Rose advised the commission that, in a voicemail message from McDowell to Rose, McDowell acknowledged the legitimacy of the complaint, saying, “I do see your point.”
McDowell said, “The error he made was not allowing for another board member to make the motion” to approve the request to use the district’s facilities. To McDowell, regardless of whether or not he made it, the motion “would have been made and approved, which was indicated by its unanimous approval.” McDowell said in the documents that he believes Rose filed the matter to create fodder for a negative ad campaign for the 2021 Board of Education election, in which McDowell is running.
“The resolution I made was to allow the First Baptist Church of Vauxhall to use the UHS parking lot for an outdoor worship service during the pandemic,” said McDowell. “The service took place in October 2020, and all the attendees remained in their cars. Hence the need to use the parking lot. Also, this event was at no cost to the school district.
“My financial connection to the church is because once a year, I receive an honorarium from the church for volunteering as its treasurer/bookkeeper,” he continued. “I simply had not considered that at the time I made the resolution and voted. The resolution received unanimous approval from the school board. When I received this complaint, I informed the other members of the school board while in executive session. There was no way to correct my error, because the event had already taken place. I also informed the district that I did not want legal representation, even though, as a member of the school board, I was entitled to it. To me, this matter was too frivolous to warrant spending taxpayer money on legal services. So, I wrote my responses to the SEC.”
On Nov. 23, 2020, the complaint was served to McDowell via email. He was notified that charges had been filed against him with the School Ethics Commission, advising that he had 20 days to file a responsive plea. McDowell filed a motion to dismiss on Dec. 10, 2020. Rose responded to the motion to dismiss on Dec. 14, 2020.
At the meeting on Tuesday, March 23, the commission denied McDowell’s motion to dismiss. At its meeting on Tuesday, May 25, the commission voted to find probable cause for the alleged violation of the School Ethics Act. The commission disagreed that McDowell’s only error was making a motion to approve the request to use the district’s facilities and found he had violated the act when he moved and then voted to approve the request of First Baptist Church of Vauxhall to use the district’s facilities.
After it was found that McDowell violated the School Ethics Act, the commission found that a reprimand was the most appropriate penalty. According to Rose, the ruling speaks for itself.
“Because I realized my error, I am willing to accept it,” said McDowell. “However, the SEC believes the matter should be resolved. I also cannot help but feel like this entire matter was politically motivated, due to the fact that I am up for reelection to the school board in November. But maybe I’m making another human error.”