Bergen Grassroots, Inc., founded in the late Spring of 2013, is a New Jersey non-profit corporation, devoted exclusively to social welfare, and was specifically organized to provide an organizational focus to efforts to help Bergen County residents obtain information about, and assure that they are given an opportunity to develop an informed voice in, the county and local public policies that affect their lives.
Some of the key Bergen Grassroots, Inc. themes were preceded in Bergen County by a county trade association, “Bergen for Democracy” which itself was sometimes known colloquially as Bergen Grassroots. The initial thrust of Bergen for Democracy, created in 2005, was to address the terms of the U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus initially was most active in urging the American government to “Bring Our Troops Home”.
Several years after its founding Bergen for Democracy began also to focus on process issues at all levels of government and on domestic as well as foreign policy issues. In 2007, when corruption in Bergen County politics appeared to be the local lead news story almost daily, Bergen for Democracy began work on issues related to perceived corruption in local and county government and specifically to limit the electoral role played by political contributions made by private organizations aspiring to receive governmental contracts. It soon partnered with the statewide 501c3 Citizens Campaign’s organization to promote passage of model ordinances on this issue in Bergen municipalities and in the County itself. These model ordinances are commonly known as “Pay to Play” restrictions. For several years those associated with Bergen for Democracy urged the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders to adopt county pay-to-play legislation. Despite enormous opposition from the county’s political leadership, in November of 2011, the Freeholders did adopt a tough “Pay to Play” ordinance. Bergen for Democracy leader Paul Eisenman, though joined by diverse parties in this successful effort, was broadly given credit personally for this success.
Barely a year after this tough county ordinance had been passed, and before its policies had the opportunity to prove themselves or its provisions had been challenged in court, a newly constituted county Freeholder Board began in late 2012 to explore major revisions to this Pay-to-Play ordinance that were broadly interpreted to again open pathways to larger contractor political contributions. In very early 2013, the Freeholders passed successive “revised” ordinance versions, each vetoed by the current County Executive who said they weakened Pay-to-Play protections. This new Freeholder initiative began at the same time that Bergen for Democracy founder Paul Eisenman fell seriously ill and his followers tried in vain to take up his cause. Eisenman died in March 2013 and the Freeholders very soon thereafter succeeded in overriding the County Executive’s vetoes and the revised ordinance was adopted. The local press memorialized Eisenman but interpreted his death as likely being synonymous with the death of his reform initiatives. (Bergen for Democracy continues to exist today as a county trade association under the auspices of the living members of its original 2005 founders.)
However, within several months, some of those who had been active in the evolved Eisenman efforts joined with other newly recruited Bergen residents and sought to fill what they perceived as an organizational void – particularly as it related to the transparency and integrity of county and local government. They called several late Spring 2013 meetings designed to recreate county dialogue on the Pay-to-Play issues but soon focused on creating a new formal non-profit corporate structure. As is indicated in the Bergen Grassroots, Inc. mission and founding documents on this website, this new leadership officially created an organization that both narrowed the geography of the new organization’s work to Bergen County and its governments and broadened the range of policy concerns to those they perceived to be the most challenging for local governments, beginning with policies related to openness and transparency. The new organization’s Board first met on June 6, 2013 to adopt by-laws and set in motion the policies and activities discussed on this website.
Though its initial meetings focused on flood policy issues, BGR, Inc.’s initial public candidates forum (see picture and its caption below) was the best attended county candidate discussion in that election season and drew media attention (Bergen Record) when all of the participating candidates (from both parties) used the forum’s discussion period to commit to again strengthening the Pay-to-Play ordinance that had just months earlier been weakened by the Freeholder Board for which they were competing.
Republican Maura DeNicola, and Democrats James Tedesco, Chris Tully
and Lorraine Waldes (left to right) are introduced by BGR President Chuck Powers
at the October 3, 2013 Bergen Grassroots Forum for Freeholder candidates.
All four participants promised that they would work to tighten again
the County Pay-to-Play ordinance that was weakened in Spring 2013.
In sum, the leadership of the Bergen Grassroots, Inc., has created a new initiative to create what it believes is both unique and unprecedented: an organization devoted specifically to Bergen County to address a broad, non-partisan social welfare agenda where openness and transparency of governmental processes are seen as the prerequisite to more effective governance and improved provision of services to the most vulnerable Bergen County residents. Always and everywhere it seeks improved communication to affected constituencies of what local governments are doing and plan to do. And in addition it is actively working on three substantive issues: 1). How local governments can better address the mitigation and effects of river flooding particularly on the Hackensack. (BGR. Inc.’s task force on flooding is made up of concerned citizens, environmental leaders and public officials including the county flood coordinator and mayors from the top, middle and bottom of the Hackensack system – both Democrats and Republicans) 2). Educational forums on how the Affordable Care Act and the complex of local health care institutions are evolving to assure health care protection for all Bergen County residents; and 3). Studies of how municipal governments communicate with their residents and case studies of how reforms are being pursued in key county municipalities.
Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan leads Bergen Grassroots members
and several Bergen County mayors on a fact-finding trip
along the Hackensack River on October 26, 2013
Can such a novel county-wide non-partisan social welfare organization be effective in Bergen County? As noted earlier the organization’s first candidate forum was the place where a new tone to the Pay-to-Play debate was set. And so it is noteworthy that the first issue addressed in 2014 by the post-election Freeholder Board was an amendment to significantly strengthen the county Pay-to-Play law. As this amendment worked its way through the Freeholder process in January and February of 2014, it achieved near-consensus support from the Freeholders and from the County Executive. On February 17 Bergen Grassroots hosted a discussion that attracted a bi-partisan group of 3 Freeholders, the County Administrator, the local State Senate Majority Leader and the Communications Director of the Citizen’s Campaign. Out of that meeting emerged a clear depiction of why the Freeholders (this time in active cooperation with the County Executive) were again revising – strengthening – their county Pay-to-Play ordinance. But simultaneously the discussion identified the central importance of public access to information about electoral expenditures and contributions for achieving real governmental transparency (including but not limited to the relationship between electoral campaign contributions and governmental contractors). In Bergen County, like all New Jersey counties, public access to information on all electoral campaign expenses and contributions issues is completely dependent on the website operated by the State’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) – and its computer system is simply too poor to provide that access adequately. The issue of access and the importance of ELEC’s role was carefully parsed by all the participants on the panel. And that learning from the BGR discussion was then only one week later converted by several freeholders including the Freeholder Chair into a resolution unanimously supported by every Freeholder and the County Executive that urged the Governor and state legislature to fund the new ELEC IT system. The role of BGR’s discussion meeting was cited as the source of both the information and the occasion to create a consensus on an important governmental transparency issue.
Hence, although BGR is also focusing its efforts on other issues currently facing Bergen County residents, the issues related to open and democratic processes in county government, including protection against the use of political contributions to influence contractor choice, will remain bell-weather issues for this new social welfare organization, Bergen Grassroots, Inc.