Victory for open government activists

Over the past several years, there has been a growing movement by good government activists to add transparency and openness to government, especially in monitoring campaign contributions.
In September of 2004, the Hoboken City Council passed an ordinance that requires all developers seeking variances, waivers, or exceptions from the City's conventional development regulations to disclose how much campaign cash they gave to elected officials, political committees, and political parties that fund City of Hoboken elections.   The same goes for developers seeking any development approvals within the city's redevelopment zones.

In the courts

That ordinance was recently challenged in New Jersey Superior Court by Cingular Wireless, a company that wants to install several wireless communication facilities in Hoboken.   Because several of the proposed locations for the antennas were in redevelopment areas, Cingular was required by ordinance to disclose what they have contributed to area politicians.

In October, Cingular filed for injunctive relief, restraining the city and the board from enforcing the ordinance. Lawyers for the corporation argued that the disclosure ordinance "effectively prevents Cingular's application from ever reaching the board for determination on the merits" of the application.

Cingular also argued that the ordinance is unconstitutional and imposes a "duplicative and unnecessary burden" for individuals who contribute to political campaigns.

In a strongly worded decision, Superior Court Judge Barbara A. Curran said that she recognizes that "reporting of financial disclosure information is complicated sometimes, but it is necessary and it does serve a public purpose."

The judge ruled that that the developer disclosure requirements in the city's redevelopment zones were not "arbitrary or capricious," and added that the Hoboken City Council has the right to ensure that the development process is as open and transparent as possible.

"Frankly," Curran said in her ruling, "in a city as densely populated as Hoboken, the money is to be made...within the blighted redevelopment areas."

Curran added that the "the opportunity for improper conduct or undue influences are ripe within the redevelopment area. The municipality has recognized that and is, through this ordinance, attempting to rectify that concern."

She added the law authorizes Hoboken to enact ordinances "to promote the public health, safety, morals and general welfare."

A major win

The Planning Board's attorney argued the city's position. In addition, the Citizens' Campaign, a non-partisan grassroots group dedicated to increasing the power of citizens and reducing the influence of political money, submitted an amicus brief to the court.

Harry Pozycki, chairman of the Citizens Campaign, said that the over the past several years, major redevelopment projects in the state have been tainted by the undue influence of large campaign contributions. He added that this case has upheld the right of citizens to know if large campaign contributions or sound public planning is driving redevelopment work.

"This ruling is a victory for the citizens throughout New Jersey that have been passing pay-to-play reform and developer disclosure ordinances," said Pozycki. "This is especially a sweet victory for the citizens of Hoboken."

Latest on pay to play reform

This is just one in a recent series of victories for local advocates of campaign finance reform. In December the state Senate unanimously passed legislation that will allow Hoboken's more stringent anti-pay to play law to override the weaker state version.

Last November, Hoboken voters, by a 9 to 1 margin, passed a citywide referendum limiting how much funding prospective city contractors could contribute to local political campaigns. The idea was to cut the expectation that people doing business with City Hall would be involved in "pay to play," or donating money in order to get work.

Giving money and getting city work as a result is illegal, but it is often hard to prove a correlation. Some contractors might donate to a city government they support. But if their donations are limited, there is a smaller chance that city officials will be influenced by campaign contributions.

Last year, the state Senate passed its own pay to play reform bill, which will go into effect in January. Normally, state law overrides local law, so there were legitimate concerns from government watchdog groups that tougher local laws could have been voided by the weaker state law.

State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Republican Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Mercer) sponsored legislation that would allow local governments to enact their own versions of pay-to-play reform and to allow existing local reforms to remain. The enabling legislation was sent to the floor of the Senate and it passed without opposition.

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