TOMS RIVER – It was determined by the School Ethics Commission that a Board of Education member did not violate rules when she endorsed candidates on social media.
On August 20, 2022, Lisa Contessa, who is one of the Toms River representatives on the board, posted support for a few candidates in the board race on Facebook.
Melissa Morrison, who went on to win the Beachwood seat in the 2022 election, sent screenshots of Contessa’s endorsement of her rival to the School Ethics Commission with a complaint. Contessa’s post said things like Morrison “heckles parents” and always challenges the superintendent.
Morrison said that the post violates two codes, one that a board member shouldn’t take any private action that might compromise the board, and another that a board member shouldn’t fall in with “special interest or partisan political groups.”
In response, Contessa wrote that Morrison “does not provide a single fact as to how the post either damaged her reputation and character or hurt the integrity of the … Board,” especially since Morrison won her election.
Contessa went on to say that Morrison failed “to provide any factual evidence that Respondent (Contessa), through the social media post, took any action that had the potential to compromise the Board.”
“As a general matter, a school official does not violate the Act merely because he/she engages in social media activity. Instead, the Commission’s analysis is guided by whether a reasonable member of the public could perceive that the school official is speaking in his or her official capacity or pursuant to his or her official duties,” wrote Robert Bender, chair of the Commission.
He went on to say that Contessa’s statements had nothing to do with official board business so that means they would not be regarded by “a reasonable member of the public” as an official position.
“I filed the complaint out of principle and before the election. I decided that whatever the outcome would be, I wouldn’t appeal it,” Morrison said when The Toms River Times reached out to her. “I believe in accountability and responsibility. As an elected official, singling out a private citizen and posting on a social media platform to discredit their character, integrity and reputation is disheartening. Sometimes, actions have unintended consequences.”
Contessa also responded to this newspaper: “The Facebook post in question is one where I endorsed a candidate other than Mrs. Morrison to represent the Township of Beachwood. Melissa felt I defamed her character and didn’t preface my post with the disclaimer ‘This is my personal opinion and not that of the Toms River Regional Board of Education.'”
“The School Ethics Commission dismissed the motion stating that it failed to set forth sufficient facts to establish violations of NJSA 18A:12-24.1(e)(f). The SEC found that a school official does not violate the act merely because he or she engaged in social media activity. Rather, the analysis must be guided by whether a reasonable member of the public could perceive that the school official was speaking in his or her official capacity or official duties. They found that because the social media posts at issue were on my personal Facebook page, and there was no real connection between the Facebook page and my relationship to the Board, a reasonable member of the public could not possibly perceive that my social media posts were being made in my official capacity.”
“So there was no ethics violation by me. This again, was an attempt at political theater to have something negative to state about me when I run for re-election. Nothing there,” she said.
The complaint was filed on November 4, 2022. There was some legal back and forth, as these matters often have, before it was heard on March 21, 2023 and decided on April 25, 2023.
One of the jobs of Board of Education members is to pay the district’s bills. By law, they have to abstain from anything that might present a conflict of interest. When two board members – Contessa and Morrison – abstained from a bill for Madden and Madden, a law firm, it raised a red flag. The Toms River Times investigated.