“Jefferson and a few others have said ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’… Thank you for your eternal vigilance. This new ordinance may have happened without your constant being here and without Paul Eisenman’s constant needling… I think it happened in part because of that. It also happened because of changes in the minds of elected officials – enough elected officials to make it happen.” (County Administrator Ed Trawinski specifically addressing Bergen Grassrooters in the Freeholder meeting audience immediately prior to the Freeholder vote to tighten the County’s Pay to Play ordinance, 2/19/2014.)
Chair David Ganz, referring to the Bergen Grassroots workshop two days earlier on how Pay-to-Play issues should be addressed at the state, county and local levels, said: “I just want to say, Chuck, that we agreed, those of us who were there Monday night, that we would work toward a resolution in which both the County Executive and the Freeholder Board jointly declare that this is best solved by a state statute. I circulated tonight the basic resolution … and we will be fleshing that out in the next week or so and hopefully in about two weeks or so it will be on our calendars”
“We are excited that you are not only going to take the lead at the county level itself but also that you are going to pursue this as a state-wide solution” said Chuck Powers, Bergen Grassroots President immediately responding to the Chair’s announcement during the pubic portion of the 2/19/2014 Freeholder meeting
The week of February 17 was, as the Bergen Grassroots Steering Committee had predicted it would be one of if not the most important weeks ever for the advancement of and commitment to county pay-to-play policy. It began with a Monday 2/17 Grassroots workshop panel on what best policies would be at every level of state government. This workshop brought together three Freeholders (Maura DeNicola, David Ganz and Tracy Zur), and the County Administrator (Ed Trawinski) and was chaired by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Heather Taylor, Communications Director for the Citizen’s Campaign. Among the strongest consensus items was the need for dramatic strengthening, funding and adequate computers for the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) to improve both contribution transparency and enable full enforcement. The week then ended with action reflected in the quotes cited above.
The Bergen Freeholder Board and the County’s Administration have found few areas of agreement recently – and perhaps no issue has created more fireworks than the differing approaches to pay-to-play (P2P) rules – rules aimed at reducing the corruption possibilities that arise when the contracts selected by public officials may be given to contractors who gave/are giving large contributions – directly or indirectly – to the electoral campaigns of the same public officials who make the contract decisions. Last Spring, after a bitter tug-of- war, the County Executive actually vetoed proposed P2P ordinance twice because of procedural matters, but the Freeholders (save one) eventually overrode her veto.
The February 19, 2014 Freeholder meeting was starkly different. By a 5-1 vote the Freeholders voted to amend the very weak P2P ordinance passed by the prior Freeholder Board last May. The amendment sharply reduces both the amount a contractor can contribute to a candidate and the total amount a contractor can contribute to political parties in any given election cycle. Further, it establishes a much more severe penalty for contractors who violate these contribution limits – up to 4 years disbarment from receiving county contracts. The Freeholders clearly view this amended ordinance as important. It was the first ordinance of the year (14-01) and it passed after the public hearing on the ordinance.
Below is a video of the proceedings from the Freeholder meeting that pertain to the Pay-to-Play vote and below that is how John Ensslin, Bergen Beat reporter, described these events in the Record on 2/20/2014
Bergen County freeholders tighten limits on political donations by no-bid contractors
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 20, 2014, 8:53 PM
BY JOHN C. ENSSLIN, STAFF WRITER, THE RECORD
Bergen County freeholders came close to full circle this week by approving a set of restrictions on campaign contributions that tighten limits on donations by no-bid contractors.
By a 6-1 vote Wednesday, the board approved a law that limits professional contractors, like lawyers, engineers and accountants, to contributing no more than $2,000 per election to a county political party. The measure also stiffens penalties for violators by banning them from doing any county work for up to four years.
Advocates of pay-to-play reform hailed the vote as restoring the spirit of the law that the board first adopted in December 2011.
But that original law was relaxed last year when the board voted to allow campaign contributions of up to $5,200 per election to a county political committee, a move that critics say gutted the intent of the original law.
“We’re very excited that you took another look at it,” said Chuck Powers, president of Bergen Grassroots, a citizen activist group that began pushing for a county pay-to-play law more than five years ago.
“You came up with, in our view, a much stronger answer to something that is extremely important in the battle that I believe we all share – against the political corruption that undermines not only integrity but the effective use of taxpayer dollars.”
Republican Freeholder John Felice – who sided with the majority when it revised the law last year – was the lone dissenting vote this time.
“I believe in my heart that the unintended consequences of this bill will be the exact opposite of the very good intentions,” Felice said prior to the vote.
Felice reiterated his position that the law will make it harder for people who are not wealthy to run for public office.
Maura DeNicola, the board’s other Republican, voted with the five Democratic freeholders, David Ganz, Joan Voss, Tracy Zur, Steve Tanelli and James Tedesco, to adopt the law.
“I’m very happy this is before us,” DeNicola said. “I feel we took a giant step backwards last spring.”
DeNicola recalled the late Paul Eisenman, who co-founded Bergen Grassroots, and predicted he would have described the latest version as “a half a loaf.”
“I can still hear Paul’s voice ringing in my head,” DeNicola said. “We will strengthen the law and hopefully over time it will be worthy of bearing Paul’s name.”
Zur defended the latest version as “more than half-a-loaf.” She said some of the changes adopted last year helped protect the law against constitutional challenges by limiting it to county races only, not federal, state or municipal races. She also said it removed ambiguities that made the original law difficult to enforce.
“I will continue to strive to get rid of that perception of impropriety in government,” Zur said. “I’m very proud of the action we’re going to take tonight.”
Earlier this week, several county officials took part in a discussion of pay-to-play laws where they found general agreement on the need for a pay-to-play law on the state level.
On Wednesday, Freeholder Chairman David Ganz said he was working with County Administrator Ed Trawinski, to draft a resolution in support of such a bill. Ganz said he hoped to have it ready by the freeholder’s meeting next week.