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
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.
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
People for Open Government
Cottage Coalition, Camden: Property theft in New Jersey's poorest city
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