Residents will now get to vote on the measure on Nov. 2 on the same machine as they vote for the president. Controversy had erupted when Hudson County Clerk Javier Inclan announced that two machines would be required to accommodate the 3,900-word public question for campaign reform in Hoboken. The entire question had been sent to him by the Hoboken city clerk's office. The situation was so odd that even Inclan said he'd never heard of any county or municipality in New Jersey using two separate machines because of a referendum. Pay to play is the practice of awarding professional services contracts to campaign contributors. Such practices can result in politicians approving overly expensive or unnecessary projects or contracts in exchange for campaign support. While the practice is illegal, it can be difficult to prove a direct correlation.
Representatives for POG, fresh from fighting in court to keep a second "competing" play-to-play reform off the ballot, said that using two machines would frustrate and disenfranchise voters, and would unnecessarily confuse the issue.
For the past couple of months, POG has obtained more than 1,000 signatures on a petition that would put tougher limits on political contributions in Hoboken from public contractors. They are hoping to end even the appearance of pay to play.
On Monday, with their lawyer Renee Steinhagen of the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, POG was ready to go to court again. But shortly before the hearing with Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli was scheduled to begin, a settlement was reached between the county's lawyers, the city, and POG.
All parties agreed on the new ballot language written by POG. The group proposed a simple question and an interpretative statement to be placed on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The question and the statement were approved by Hoboken City Clerk James Farina, Inclan, POG, the Committee of Petitioners, and Joseph Sherman, attorney for the City of Hoboken.
Steinhagen said that in the 1990s, there were six Hoboken referendums for one election, and all of them were short enough to fit on a single ballot.
The wording will now be: "Shall the ordinance entitled, 'Public Contracting Reform,' submitted by citizen initiated petition and setting limits on campaign contributions by businesses seeking to receive no-bid contracts from the City of Hoboken, be adopted?"
An interpretative statement will follow the question on the ballot.
Under the surface
"When [POG] threatened to return to court, we were able to avert a situation where scores of voters could be disenfranchised on Election Day," said Ann Graham, the spokesperson for POG. "Imagine the long lines of voters waiting at the polls during morning and evening rush hour."
Both Inclan and Sherman have maintained that the controversy over two machines was not a political attempt to muddle the referendum, but was due to the technical limitations and length of the referendum.
"There is absolutely no conspiracy and no attempt by the administration to subterfuge [their referendum]," said Sherman Thursday afternoon.
Inclan said that he was required by law to put on the ballot the ordinance that was certified by the Hoboken City Clerk, which was the 3,900-word version.
Inclan said that he could not make a change without appealing to that same city clerk. Conversely, Sherman said it was really up to the Inclan to decide how the referendum appears on the ballot.
But given the history of the ordinance, members of POG worried that behind the scenes politics were at play. Two council members who support the mayor had, at one point, proposed a weaker reform referendum to compete with theirs. But on Friday, Sept. 24, Judge Gallipoli ruled that the City Council could not put their competing "pay to play" referendum on the November ballot.
In yet another interesting twist to the saga of pay-to-play reform, Councilman Michael Russo reintroduced the stronger pay-to-play reform bill to the City Council Wednesday night. If the council was to approve it, would eliminate the need for the referendum. However, the council could repeal it later.
In a teary-eyed plea to the council, Russo said that this is right thing to do and the right time to do it.
"I have personally seen, firsthand, how this concept affects people," he said. His father, former Mayor Anthony Russo, last week pleaded guilty to accepting bribes for his action on contracts after a 10-year federal probe. He is facing 24 to 30 months in prison.
Michael Russo said Thursday that he understands that taking bribes and accepting campaign contributions from contractors are different, but that one can often lead to the other.
"We need to draw a line," he added Thursday. "The more and more a big developer or attorney donates, the more temptation sets in and the lines begin to blur. After a while they start asking questions like, 'Do you want $5,000 in cash and $5,000 in campaign contributions?' "
Russo is part of a three-member council faction that supported the stronger measure and generally criticizes Mayor David Roberts.
POG would still rather have the measure stay on the ballot. That's because when the City Council passes an ordinance, the governing body reserves the right to modify it at any minute, but a public referendum must stay unchanged for three years.
"After the election, the council is likely to rescind their ordinance," said Graham, "but when we prevail on Nov. 2, the council is prohibited from repealing this law for three years."