Burmeister, a businessman whose firm was just hired by the county to provide counter-corruption courses to county employees, says he's been where the corruption is, has seen nearly every aspect of it from the business end, and knows he can make a difference in helping to stop it here in Hudson County. Aside from him, the rest of the Ethics Board members will be volunteers.
"I've spent 37 years in the business world, in New York and New Jersey, and I've survived," he said, recalling times when he had to deal with corrupt businesspeople, even some for whom he worked. "I'm no novice. I may not look it, but I've got street smarts. I've seen every kind of kickback scheme you can imagine."
Burmeister has served as CEO and sales manager of several companies in the graphic arts and printing industry for more than 25 years. He retired as president of a large commercial printing firm in 1998, after which he formed Metropolitan Leadership Strategies, a consulting practice specializing in human resources, strategic planning, sales training, and sales management issues within the graphic arts community.
He did his undergraduate studies at Columbia University and received a Masters degree in Organizational Behavior from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He continues to do graduate study in organizational development and industrial psychology.
As a member of industry trade associations, he is well known as educator and seminar leader. He is also the author of numerous articles on printing and related topics.
Setting up an alternative
Late last year, after two freeholders were indicted by the federal government, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise introduced an ordinance that established a six-member board made up of people with reputations for integrity and a significant knowledge of governmental affairs.
The ordinance fulfills a promise DeGise made during his campaign for county executive, and is part of an effort to reduce or eliminate corruption.
Although the state model upon which the ordinance is based would allow some public officials to sit on the board, Burmeister said the board hopes to shape the Hudson County version into one that will provide a positive antidote to the county's reputation for corruption.
He said Sunday-school lectures typical of ethics programs elsewhere won't suffice in Hudson County. "'That kind of thing won't fly here," he said.
In establishing the Board of Ethics, Hudson County is now among a handful of counties throughout the state with their own board, capable of investigating complaints against county officials. The board has the power to subpoena people and hire an attorney. It can also offer advice to public officials and county employees on proper ethical behavior. The last one is what Burmeister sees as the key to the program's success, providing the majority of county employees with an avenue to complain about possible corruption they see while working.
"'We have two goals," he said. "'The first is to acquaint the county with the ethical codes, to increase ethical awareness of what is right and what is wrong. The second is provide people with a place to take their complaints."
Burmeister, however, said this would not be a vehicle for political attacks, and that the board would seek to find out the truth about a situation, not to become a tool for people seeking to hurt other people unjustifiably.
As part of the ordinance, the county officials and employees would have to abide by a code of ethics - which would also be based on the state model. State law requires personal financial disclosure for its public officials, the forced establishment of blind trusts for those officials invested in companies doing business with the state, and disclosure of interests in companies that do business with the state government. The state regulations also covers a range of issues such as gifts public officials can take from a lobbyist, who a public official can represented as a lobbyist once out of office, and other issues.
The ethics board's powers include:
1. The ability to receive, hear and review complaints, hold hearings with regard to possible violations of code or financial disclosure requirements.
2. Issue subpoenas to obtain documents or require the appearance of witnesses in conjunction with an investigation or hearing.
3. Forward to the county prosecutor or the attorney general or other governmental agency any information concerning violations of county code or financial disclosures. This information could be used for criminal prosecution.
4. Enforce the provisions of the county code and financial disclosure requirements for local government officers or employees serving the county.
Any local governmental officer or employee may request and obtain from the County Ethics Board an advisory opinion on an activity or conduct as to whether it is in violation.
Changing the rules
Although not mandated, county employees can take ethics training courses, which will be designed and delivered by Burmeister's firm, Metropolitan Leadership Strategies, under the supervision of the county executive, his chief of staff or anyone either designates.
Burmeister is currently taking a survey of the ethical climate throughout the county, looking at patterns of behavior and how the county does business. Then, training will be provided on various levels of government from executive level down to give people the knowledge to recognize ethical misbehavior. After which, Burmeister will continue on as a consultant to the county executive to deal with ongoing ethical questions.
Dr. Paul S. Strauss, Dr. Robert Langs and others helped him put together what he hopes will be an ethics program that will meet the unique needs of Hudson County.
"The idea behind the program is to give workers the tools to recognize corruption so they can let us know it is going on," he said.
In this way, county officials hope to begin curbing the culture of corruption that has made subject of headlines lately, and to eventually weed out those people who engage in corrupt practices - so that at some point in the future, people will stop seeing corruption as an inevitable way of life.
"Most of the people who are engaged in such activities would not wish to have their children to engage in this kind of behavior, but we have to change the culture," he said. "'This way we change it bit by bit, showing people that there is a different way to do things."
Burmeister called corruption a kind of terrorism, one that robs taxpayers. He said the ethical program now in place will help root out that terrorism.