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The Good Doctors of Jersey
June 7, 2005: We want reform said the voters of Hoboken, New Jersey when they passed an anti pay-to-play ordinance in November 2004. They passed it overwhelmingly. In a roughly ten to one ratio. Why did the ordinance matter so much to so many? Because in Hoboken, power grows out of the political contributions of those doing business with the city.

Though Hoboken is small (one mile square, pop: 40,000) the concern isn't that Joe Blow, pipe fitter, might place a few fifties in order to hunker down in the basement of city hall. Hoboken is the jewel of the New Jersey Gold Coast-- one of the priciest strips of real estate in the state. Yet it's also the land of permanent revitalization. Where another mega development project is always in the pipeline, typically powered by a blast of state and/or federal assistance. The focus is luxo rental or condo. Mainly hi-rises. Some get built under the proviso that the developer provide a certain number of subsidized "affordable" units, either on-premises or off-world.

The waterfront, with its killer view of Manhattan across the Hudson, was where revitalization began. Roughly 3 decades ago. Eventually the process moved further inland. With ziggurats rising in older low rise neighborhoods. Little open space now remains. Hoboken is surrounded by other cities. Unlike some of those cities, Hoboken has no large parks. It does have high taxes for small property owners, awesomely awful parking problems and an ancient infrastructure. Including post Civil War sewers that can't handle all the revitalization.

Hoboken's hi-rise residents tend to have a just-passing-through attitude. Their life is based in Manhattan: they don't get involved in Hoboken politics. Hence elections and ballot issues are voted on by a very small number of people. Who are typically outweighed by the massive clout, financial and otherwise, of some of the most powerful developers, real estate interests and political players in the state of New Jersey. The anti pay-for- play ordinance (or Public Contracting Reform Ordinance) was an attempt to restore balance to the political process. Members of the local advocacy group, People for Open Government (POG) were instrumental in the petition process that placed the ordinance on the ballot. POG's overall mission is to promote "open, accountable and transparent municipal government" and to curb "the undue influence of campaign contributions on public policy."

Hoboken's anti pay-to-play ordinance "prohibits professional businesses holding no-bid contracts with the City of Hoboken from making contributions to Hoboken candidates for public office." Businesses that don't hold contracts, but might wish to do so "can contribute but there are limitations."

Not exactly Red Guard stuff. Particularly considering how often no-bid contracts factor into political corruption in Hoboken-- and in Hudson County in general. But though the ordinance may not seem onerous to normal people, it's been a burr under the saddle of many New Jersey pols ever since first proposed. As the ordinance advanced, efforts were made to derail it. POG successfully fought those efforts in court. Now that the ordinance is law its opponents seem to have decided to treat it like an obnoxious guest. As in-- ignore or avoid it.

Hoboken Mayor Dave Roberts is currently running for re-election. In 2001 Roberts defeated former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo. Who was later convicted of pay-to-play corruption charges. Candidate Roberts promised to reform development and public contract practices. But little changed. Four years later the lions share of his campaign contributions, both direct and indirect, come from developers and entities doing business with the City of Hoboken. In his first attempt at re-election in May, Roberts failed to win a majority. In a field of 5 candidates he collected 3,803 votes. Roberts is set for a rematch on June 14th with councilwoman Carol Marsh, who represents many of the people supportive of the anti pay-to-play ordinance. Several candidates knocked out of the race also appealed to that constituency. But Mayor Roberts has a major advantage. A campaign war chest of close to $650,000.

According to a lawsuit filed in Hudson County Superior Court by People for Open Government, more than one third of contributions to Roberts came from firms holding no-bid contracts with the city. And in an attempt to circumvent the Public Contracting Reform Ordinance, a number of those contributions were made through intermediaries. The POG lawsuit is essentially demanding that Mayor Roberts enforce the ordinance against himself-- and against those who've allegedly contributed to him illegally.

One of the most prominent names on the list of dodgy donors is state Senator Bernard Kenny.

The Chairmen Cometh

Though Hoboken has an in-house council, the city outsources much of its legal work. Senator Kenny's law firm, Sarkisian, Florio & Kenny, made over $1.2 million dollars from the city of Hoboken during Mayor Roberts' one term in office. State Sen. Kenny is also chair of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). An entity with state and national reach. And a closet full of stained sheets. But that's old history. In the Spring of 2005, HCDO, under the chairmanship of Rep. Kenny, pumped $152,000 into the Hoboken Democratic Party. Where Dave Roberts is chair. Using his own election fund Kenny also directed money to the Roberts Team (the slate of Roberts and several running mates) and the Hoboken Democratic Party.

That Dave Roberts be re-elected as mayor of tiny Hoboken also seems to matter to folks in Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas and New Orleans. From whence contributions have flowed. Though not all long distance interest is from out of state. Take Camden. Way down yonder in South Jersey. Across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. In Camden, state Senator Wayne Bryant tore himself away from helping revitalize the most dangerous city in the USA* long enough to have the political committee he controls send a check for $5000 to the Hoboken Democratic Party. You know-- where Dave Roberts is chair. Bryant allegedly contributed at the behest of state Senator Bernard Kenny.

The karma from this good deed zapped back on Rep. Bryant a few weeks later. Like Kenny, Bryant is an attorney. His Cherry Hill law firm, Bryant & Zeller, holds a major contract for work in nearby Camden. Bryant & Zeller will be helping the city acquire property in designated redevelopment zones as part of a $175 million effort to revitalize Camden, as authorized by the Camden Recovery Act. The Act, and the spending required to float it, was largely the baby of state Senator Wayne Bryant. In his official capacity on the Senate Budget and Finance Committee. Where Bryant is chair. Bryant also serves on the board overseeing implementation of the Camden Recovery Act. But as a non-voting member-- not as a chair. Though no doubt he'll be sitting on one.

Because of Bryant's instrumental role re the Recovery Act, ethics questions arose over his firm's related contract in Camden. An attempt was made to have the matter reviewed by the New Jersey Joint Committee on Ethics. Where state Senator Bernard Kenny is chair. The Committee declined to look into the case. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer** in 32 years of ethical discernment the committee has only disciplined 4 legislators. One being state Sen. Wayne Bryant back in 92. For renting property that he owned to the state.

ED Again

One of Camden's designated redevelopment zones is the low income and largely Hispanic neighborhood of Cramer Hill. While low income, Cramer Hill has wonderful waterfront views. Acquiring Cramer Hill may mean using eminent domain (ED). Aka the power of government to take private property for public use. (In theory, property owners receive "fair market value".) Low income property owners will be replaced by upscale professionals from Philadelphia across the river. Upscale developments will house the new residents and light rail will carry them to and fro. In Pennsylvania, the plan has raised some trepidation that Camden's drug thugs would commute via the same method. But since Philly and Camden have long been a regional entity as regards drugs, organized crime and public corruption the trep seems out of step.

Though oodles of public money have flowed into-- and out of-- Camden for years, myriad pols, developers, bankers and urban planners have declared that the Camden Recovery Act will definitely do the trick. Since some of the same players have presided over other Camden bonanzas oops recoveries this must mean practice make perfect. And the city's ailing municipal government being under state control until 2007 does give the experts a chance to really get in there and operate. Yet even the experts agree full recovery won't be felt for several decades. Cynics say don't show up with street clothes for Camden even then. Not so long as the doctors are sitting by the city's bedside in a fine collection of chairs.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

*Morgan-Quitno Press, 11/24/04. Morgan-Quitno rates cities of over 75,000 yearly. Camden was included in the crime rating as of 1998. It has appeared in the top 6 consistently. But in 2004 Camden knocked Detroit out of the top slot.

**Philadelphia Inquirer, 05/11/05, Ethics Panel and Wayne Bryant, Editorial/A shameful cop-out

Links

People for Open Government

Cottage Coalition, Camden: Property theft in New Jersey's poorest city

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Copyright (c) 2005 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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