The legislation hopes to end "pay-to-play," the practice of awarding professional services contracts to campaign contributors. According to a POG spokesperson, such practices can result in politicians approving overly expensive or unnecessary projects in exchange for campaign support.
The City Council considered three of the POG's proposals at their meeting Wednesday. The nine-member body did unanimously approve two of the petitioner's ordinances - the one for competitive bidding on professional service contracts and one for developer disclosure of contributions during Zoning Board applications - but it voted down the third, which would put tougher limits on political contributions from public contractors. This means that this third ordinance, which is the heart of pay-to-play reform, must now go to a public referendum in November.
Also, in a typical Hoboken-style political twist, two council members sponsored the introduction of a second ordinance to compete against the POG's exacting reform. If this second ordinance, which is almost taken verbatim from the state's law, is adopted at the next City Council meeting, then there could be two competing referenda on same ballot in November, which raises a host of legal questions.
State or strict
In June, a bill passed the state Senate and Assembly that would restrict businesses and professionals holding no-bid contracts of over $17,500 from donating to the candidates and party committees associated with the specific government that hired them. The Senate bill's primary sponsor was Sen. Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken).The state's bill was the result of years of tremendous political public pressure to curb pay-to-play.
It should be noted that it is illegal to give contracts to a company in return for a political contribution, but a direct correlation is often hard to prove. These new measures try to decrease the likelihood by curbing contractor contributions.
The result of the state proposals was a compromise bill that was hammered out in backroom negotiations, and support for the bill fell mostly party lines. Most Democrats supported the legislation, and most Republicans said it has too many loopholes and wasn't strict enough.
For example, the state bill exempts any government contract that is obtained through "fair and open" public bidding. Critics say "fair and open" could mean about anything from posting on the internet or a single advertisement in a newspaper. The vague language, they add, could make the reform ineffective.
Another example of possible loophole is that a professional doing business with the state would be barred from giving to the governor's campaign or to his political party, for example, but could still donate to county or municipal candidates.
Also, the state law could have limited effectiveness against "wheeling," the practice of transferring campaign money from one county political party to another. Wheeling would be banned from January until June, which would protect incumbents from interparty challenges, but would not be expressly prohibited before the November general elections. In a county like Hudson, where the county Democratic Party is an effective fund-raiser, this is a cause for concern among critics of the state bill.
The state ban does not go into effect until 2006.
Hitting the streets
Critics, which include several "good government" activist groups such as New Jersey Common Cause, support stricter pay-to-play reform. The helped mobilize local groups like Hoboken's People for Open Government in ambitious petitions drives across the state.
"[Our proposal] shuts all avenues for pay-to-play money to flow," said Common Cause representative Heather Taylor, who was at the City Council meeting Wednesday. Common Cause wrote the more rigorous pay-to-play on which the POG based their petition.
There are currently 15 municipalities in the state that have passed stricter public contracting reform legislation. Towns with local pay-to-play bans include Asbury Park, Bradley Beach, Freehold Township, Holmdel, Manalapan, and Marlboro. There are over a half dozen other towns that are close to voting on it.
"This will go a long way to leveling the playing field and to curb the undue influence that money has on politics," said local POG spokesperson Ann Graham.
Petitioner Helen Manogue added that Hoboken needs pay-to-play reform that is more encompassing than the state's.
"We need to pass one that doesn't have exceptions that you can drive a truck through," said Manogue. During the pubic hearing, Ron Hine, the executive director of the community group The Fund for a Better Waterfront, read aloud some of the city contractors who are also generous campaign contributors.
"Our government is based on the principle that it is for the people, and by the people, but this is being undermined by pay-to-play money," said Hine.
The City Council did unanimously pass two other reforms. The first will require open competitive negotiations for professional services contracts. Right now, there are many contracts that have always had to be open to public bidding, but certain special services have not been.
The second would mandate developer disclosure in applications for major zoning projects. This means that when a developer has an application before the Zoning or Planning Board, part of that application will list how much and to whom the developers in question have contributed.
Now that these measures have been approved, they will go into effect in 20 days.
But by a 5-3 vote, the council voted down the ordinance that limits political contributions from public contractors. Those council members who usually support the administration of Mayor David Roberts voted in the negative, while those that are anti-administration voted for the reform.
According to state law, this issue will have to go on the pubic ballot in the next general election, which is in November.
Those who voted against the POG gave several reasons. Councilman A. Nino Giacchi said that state has done the research and spent the time and money researching the matter, so Hoboken should take its cue from them. This was a sentiment that echoed by Councilman Michael Cricco. "It's just like the cell phones ordinance we passed," said Cricco. "We let the state take action and then we followed their lead."
Another concern that Giacchi raised was that the state bill, when it goes into effect in 2006, will make local reforms null and void. This was a position supported by the city attorney Joseph Sherman. But currently there is a bill pending at the state level to clear the way for local legislation. Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), sponsor of the state's pay-to-play bill, has introduced legislation that would prevent the superseding of local pay-to-play ordinances.
Councilman Christopher Campos, who sponsored the competing ordinance with Councilman Ruben Ramos, said that the POG's proposed pay-to-play reform might have the unintended affect of hurting poorer candidates. He said those persons with personal wealth could gain an unfair advantage.
Campos added that this is one reason he sponsored a second ordinance that mirrors the state's. Councilman Tony Soares, who supports POG's reforms, said that the submission of a second ordinance is a "slap in the face" to the 1,000 people who signed the petition. "Now these good citizens have to go battle with City Hall," he said. "They didn't ask for a watered-down version."
Another question raised was whether or not it procedurally correct for the council to introduce an ordinance with the intention of putting it on a referendum ballot. Traditionally, referenda come about when a group of citizens is not being heard by the governing body on an issue.
Also, there are legal question over whether it is proper add a second referendum specifically to compete with another referendum which the result of public petition drive.
Finally, what happens if both referenda pass?
According to Sherman, the one with the most "yes" votes would be enacted. But not everyone was so sure. Councilman Michael Russo has asked representatives from Common Cause to research the issue.