making local government more ethical

Why Yet Another Big New Jersey Municipal Scandal ?

My first experience with municipal politics in New Jersey, where I lived for nine years before moving to Connecticut, was accompanying some neighbors to a council meeting, because a couple of them wanted to speak about a change in zoning that affected the street we lived on. A neighbor asked the mayor when they could speak, and was told people would be alerted when it came time to speak. The council debated the issue and then, without a pause, started to vote on it. I rose in protest and had to insist, against people saying it was too late, that my neighbors be heard. They were finally heard, but not listened to.

An oversight? A minor ethical issue? Or the kernel of the latest in New Jersey's many local government corruption scandals, which hit the papers today?

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I believe that the arrogance of these town officials, their belief that they could get away with ignoring the views of their bothersome constituents, and the deep solidarity they exhibited (solidarity against public participation) are at the center of the 11 arrests made yesterday. Neither in my town's Council hall, nor in the cities whose officials were just arrested, does the public interest take precedence over personal interest. Black, white, or Hispanic, Republican or Democrat, all these officials, and all of their colleagues who knew, or had reason to know, what they were up to, all of them agree on one thing: that their interests are paramount.

This particular scandal involves bribes taken in exchange for promising municipal business to undercover officers posing as insurance brokers. The emphasis here should be on 'promising,' because in many instances the officials were not able to deliver. The votes promised were those of school boards and city councils in such towns as Pleasantville, Passaic, Paterson, Newark, and Orange. The sums of money were not particularly large: from $1,500 to $17,500, according to an article in today's New York Times.

The criminal complaints themselves can be found here.

The positions of the people arrested include: the chair of the State Government Committee, responsible for oversight and ethics legislation, who also happens to be mayor of Orange; a Baptist minister who is a state assemblyman as well as undersheriff in Passaic County; the mayor of Passaic, a former police officer; the chief of staff to the president of the Newark Municipal Council; a member of the Passaic City Council; and members of the Pleasantville School Board.

A couple revealing quotes from arrested politicians: 'I make the decision. And believe me, I've got the four votes on the Council.' 'I get to say, 'That's not the play we're running. This is the play we're running.''

One problem that shows up here is double dipping. It is not a cause of corruption, but certainly a symptom of the disease: individuals collecting too much power, or too much pay, or both, at the taxpayers' expense. Here's a good editorial from the Home News Tribune on the topic.

New Jersey just passed a law banning many sorts of double dipping, but the law grandfathers in all current double dippers. Here's an article about the law.

Another noteworthy aspect of this scandal is the fact that the real problem with kickbacks doesn't involve strangers offering bribes, but ongoing relationships with contractors whom politicians know well, and trust. A politician who takes a bribe from a complete stranger has an especially strong belief that he won't get caught, or a love of taking risks. It's the far more numerous politicians who would never take the risk of dealing with a stranger, but who are unfazed by conflicts of interest, who are more dangerous to our local governments.