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Grassroots group seeks rel to end pay-to-play

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Grassroots group seeks rel to end pay-to-play

Saturday, July 24, 2004

By Sarah N. Lynch

Journal staff writer

HOBOKEN- Although the state has already tightened legislation regulating political fundraising tactics, a group of Hoboken residents who believe the laws do not go far enough have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Over the last six weeks, members of the People For Open Government, a grass-roots organization, have been running petition drives in Hoboken asking residents to support three ordinances that would put hefty restrictions on political fundraising at the local level.

The move is an effort to put an end to pay-to-play, the practice of making political contributions with the expectation that in exchange, lucrative government contracts can be obtained from the people in power.

The petition drive was done to get the ordinances on to the Hoboken City Council's agenda, where they will be put to a vote.

"We've had comments from some people, including the city attorney, that tell us that what we're doing is irrelevant because the state passed a law, but that law does not go into effect until 2006 and our petition would go into effect in 2005. That's a whole year," said Ann Graham, the spokeswoman for People for Open Government.

"We don't want to wait that long and the state limits for contracts are much higher than the model ordinance that we want passed in Hoboken," she said.

Hoboken is one of several municipalities in the state in which petition drives have been started to address pay-to-play on the local level with guidance from organizations like Common Cause, a citizens' lobbying group, and the Center for Civic Responsibility.

A similar pay-to-play ordinance was defeated when it came before Bayonne City Council earlier this year.

Heather Taylor, the communications director for both organizations, said she believes that the bill passed by the state legislature will do little to stop the pay-to-play practice.

"They've closed one door and left two open, so state contractors cannot give to the state level, but they can still give to the county and municipal levels, Taylor said. "And it's the same thing if you want to get a contract on the local level. You can still give to the county and state level."

The three ordinances being proposed in Hoboken are all modeled after standards established by Common Cause.

The first deals with public contracting reform and caps an individual's contributions to a single candidate at $400. It also restricts donations to municipal or county parties to $500 and limits contributions by a business entity to $2,500.

The second ordinance calls for competitive negotiations when awarding the municipality's professional service contracts while the third requires all donors seeking municipal contracts to disclose their campaign contributions.

The petitions in support of all three ordinances received about 1,000 signatures each.

"According to state law, the number of petitions you need (to get an ordinance on the agenda) must be 10 percent of the number of votes received in the last New Jersey Assembly race in Hoboken," Graham said. "That number is about 479. We have over twice the number needed."

The petitions were turned into City Clerk James Farina on Thursday and the signatures must be validated within 20 days. If the signatures are valid, the clerk must submit the ordinances to the City Council for a first reading. If the council does not pass the ordinances, they would appear on the November ballot.

Supporters of the ordinance point to last week's Hoboken City Council meeting as proof of the need for pay-to-play reform. At that meeting, several professional service firms, which have made large campaign donations to Hoboken elected officials in the past, received sizable government contracts.

"I believe there may be a correlation between how much money each of the firms and persons have given to candidates in Hoboken and to the amount of money they received for contracts," Graham said.

"Each of the contributions that are given are then in turn placed inside the contract that's awarded, so the contractor will then put that contribution into the amount of money and it increases our taxes," she added.

For example, the Secaucus law firm of Scarinci & Hollenbeck received a $355,000 city contract at last week's meeting. According to data from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, since 2003, the firm has donated about $22,000 to the Hoboken Democratic Party and the Hoboken United - a political organization to which a majority of Hoboken City Council members belong.

Similarly, the law firm of Sarkisian, Florio & Kenny received a $300,000 contract from Hoboken last week. Between 2003 and 2004, the firm donated about $27,000 to the HDP and Hoboken United.

"It was a big pay-to-play session and it happens every July at the first meeting. They give out the money," said Bob DuVal, a member of People for Open Government. "Anyone who wants to know what pay-to-play is about should look at the agenda."

But Councilman Chris Campos defended the firms who received the contracts. "None of these firms have had anything to do with any blemish of integrity or service," he said.

However, Campos acknowledged that he too was concerned about the practice of pay-to-play.

"As a kid from my background and knowing how networks work, I don't want to see a situation where ordinary Americans are undermined by allowing only millionaires and wealthy people to hold elected offices," he said.

Hoboken Mayor David Roberts said he is still deliberating the contents of the proposed pay-to-play ordinances with other local officials, but noted that he wants to support the wishes of the community.

"I am for giving the public a greater assurance that the public officials are not being influenced by campaign contributions," he said. "And I also want to say that I am very proud of the people I serve with in public office and with the level of personal integrity that they exhibit in their duties."

Roberts also defended the city's spending on professional contracts during his administration.

"Since I have been the mayor, we have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on professional service contracts," he said. "We've saved on our legal professionals and we've saved on our auditors that work in the city."

Council President Richard Del Boccio pointed out that not everyone who received city contracts had made campaign contributions, noting a $7,500 contract to Gordon Litwin who was appointed special legal counsel to the city.

"I haven't heard of him in my life," Del Boccio said. "It was a recommendation from the residents. We heard he was good and we hired him."

Del Boccio said that while he supports the proposed ordinances, he still has some concerns about them.

"If you believe in the good job that the mayor and council are doing, that's a sign that you truly believe they are doing good things for the city and they have a right to support whomever they want," he said adding that it was both legal and fair for firms to donate to local campaigns.

But Councilwoman Carol Marsh, who also came out in support of the anti-pay-to-play ordinances, said she objects to the fact that professional service providers are almost fully funded in the city's temporary budget for 2005 while the city's group health insurance is not.

"They funded their campaign contributors almost fully," she said. "They voted to fund those for most of the year without funding group health. They didn't even fund three months (of group health) for the time span of the temporary budget."

The members of People For Open Government said they are keeping their fingers crossed as they wait for the ordinances to come before the council.

Sarah N. Lynch covers North Hudson. She can be reached at The Jersey Journal

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