The City Council is preparing to vote on a set of proposals designed to clean up Hoboken’s elections – but even some of the proponents of the legislation say they are doing it with an additional goal in mind: Stop Council President Beth Mason, and her wallet.
An ordinance that appeared on the council agenda last week, but was tabled, would tighten up the language of the city’s “pay to play” legislation, which regulates donations to candidates from contractors, developers, and professionals. These laws, which have been passed in many cities all over New Jersey, prevent those donating over a certain maximum from being hired by the politician or his body of government once elected. The intent is to make sure contractors are not rewarded with taxpayer-funded contracts because they financially supported a certain candidate.
But Mayor Dawn Zimmer on Thursday referenced last November’s heated special election in Hoboken’s 4th Ward, where a candidate supported by Zimmer lost out to a candidate financially funded by Zimmer’s political rival, Council President Beth Mason.
“We didn’t hear any complaints when I gave to Carol Marsh’s campaign.” – Council President Beth Mason
With the addition of Occhipinti, Mason and her allies now hold a 5-4 majority on the council against Zimmer’s allies.
The new legislation would target, among other practices, the practice of “wheeling,” or using political action committees to get around state laws limiting how much one person can donate.
More complicated than a simple change
Much of the proposed changes address housekeeping issues and are a tightening up of the existing legislation. But the Zimmer administration added a provision to the new ordinance that was not previously seen by the original writers of the legislation, a non-partisan group called People for Open Government (POG), before the information was publicly released.
The surprise provision is labeled “Article II Political Contributions.”
Article II would deem donations from a PAC outside Hoboken greater than $500 to be illegal, according to Zimmer, who plans to add this language to the ordinance.
Currently, PACs can donate $8,200 to a candidate, and individuals can donate up to $2,600.
The legislation also attacks self-funded PACs, from both inside and out of Hoboken’s city limits.
“Whenever any individual shall provide 75 percent or more of the annual funding of any committee, said committee shall have a reduced campaign contribution limit of $500 per candidate, per election, to any candidate for Hoboken municipal elected office,” according to the proposed legislation.
When asked on Thursday at a press conference where the 75 percent number originated, Zimmer referenced November’s election, specifically Mason’s donations to Occhipinti.
Zimmer has said the entire package would ensure a fair election in May, when six of the nine council seats will be up for grabs.
Zimmer also cited imprisoned former mayor Peter Cammarano, who was jailed for taking donations from a government informant posing as a developer. She said that she was concerned that outside developers will have a large, unfair impact on future Hoboken elections. Cammarano’s campaign took more than $100,000 from outside developers in Hoboken.
POG unhappy with addition
A member of POG expressed concern last week that the legislation is in jeopardy because the group is now in the middle of a political battle.
Mason, while no longer an active member, is one of the founding members of POG.
Alice Crozier, a founding member of the organization, said the new anti-wheeling legislation has “nothing to do with pay to play.”
“Our objection [to Article II] is that we want the council to pass the pay to play ordinance,” Crozier said last week. “[Wheeling] is another subject that takes a lot of time.”
According to Crozier, POG recommended changes and worked with the administration to present a tightening of the rules, but did not develop the controversial Article II.
“Whenever someone wants to run for office, work for a campaign, or enter the political scene, they have to leave POG,” Crozier said. “We don’t want to be seen as taking a side.”
POG is also concerned that the addition would result in the law being challenged, if passed.
Eric Kurta, a former POG member who helped write the proposed legislation without the anti-wheeling provision, did not wish to comment on the proposed ordinance, as he has recused himself from POG to run for council in the 1st Ward in May against Councilwoman Theresa Castellano. Castellano is allied with Mason.
Ron Rosenberg, a member of POG, said he’s extremely happy the mayor has been open to reforming pay to play, but believes campaign finance reform should be addressed separately.
“It should not be expedited [as one ordinance],” Rosenberg said. “The two issues should be separated and addressed differently.”
Is Article II a rider?
Mason has accused the administration of attaching Article II to the pay to play provision as a “rider.” A rider is something added to a bill which does not have a relationship to the main portion of the legislation.
When asked if the two items could be separated into different ordinances, Zimmer said she believes it’s important the two be addressed now before the May election, and not become buried by the council.
Councilman Peter Cunningham, a Zimmer ally, is the sponsor of the bill, and believes the issues of wheeling and pay to play reform are connected, and belong on the same bill.
“If you look at some of the other ordinances that have been passed on wheeling, they do fall under pay-to-play ordinances,” Cunningham said, referring to laws in Marlboro and Atlantic County.
“I don’t think Councilwoman Mason did anything illegal [in November] but she undermines the spirit of the law that puts a cap at $2,600 per person by self funding her PAC and then wheeling it into a campaign,” Cunningham said.
Councilman Ravi Bhalla also acknowledged that the “catalyst” for article II of the ordinance was Mason’s donation to Occhipinti.
“What she did was perfectly legal,” Bhalla said. “The problem is that the Masons were able to wheel their personal funds through the committee to circumvent the law, simply because her campaign committee is self-financed.”
Mason: It’s unconstitutional as written
Mason said she doesn’t feel she needs to go on the defensive, and said what she did isn’t considered “wheeling” because she’s not seeking contracts in return for her donation.
Mason herself pushed several reform measures as a citizen, before she joined the council.
She said that attorneys looked at the ordinance as it is written, and that they have advised her that it is unconstitutional.
Zimmer disagreed, saying the bill was written with the city attorney’s office approving it.
Cunningham said the legislation will go through a subcommittee before it is presented to the council again.
Mason said the new provision is just being put in place because Zimmer’s team is not getting their piece of the pie anymore.
“We didn’t hear any complaints when I gave to Carol Marsh’s campaign,” Mason said.
Mason said she supports campaign finance reform, but not the way it’s written now.
“We have a falling waterfront,” Mason said on Thursday. “What are we doing with this stuff?”
Zimmer believes the issue is important, as do her council allies, who said the bill will make sure Hoboken no longer has questionable elections like in the past.
To read articles and investigative reports about Hoboken’s past elections, check the archives at www.hudsonreporter.com.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com