The legislation hopes to end "pay to play," the practice of awarding professional services contracts to campaign contributors. Such practices can result in politicians approving overly expensive or unnecessary projects in exchange for campaign support.
It is illegal to give out a government contract or permit just because someone donated money, but it can often be hard to prove a correlation. Thus, the referendum aims to cut down the amount that present and future contractors can donate to a candidate.
The state recently approved a weaker version of the law that curtails some campaign donations, but there are several loopholes.
For the past couple of months, a local good-government group called the People for Open Government (POG) in Hoboken collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition that would put tougher limits on political contributions here.
The City Council could have adopted the ordinance, but at a City Council meeting in September, by a vote of 5-3, the administration-backed council members voted it down. By state law it must now go on the ballot of the next general election, for the people to decide.
The polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. statewide Tuesday.
A 'yes' vote would mean...
There are currently 15 municipalities in the state that have passed stricter public contracting reform legislation. Towns with local pay-to-play bans include Asbury Park, Bradley Beach, Freehold Township, Holmdel, Manalapan and Marlboro.
If you vote yes, the measure will:
* Apply to all professional service contracts without exception.
* Apply to contracts awarded within two years of the donation.
* Limit contractors' contributions to city officials to $400.
* Limits contractors' contributions to county parties to $500.
* Include an aggregate donation limit of $2,500 of all local elections.
* Make no exception for emergency bids (the state law allows for exception).
* Apply to all 10-percent owners and partners or officers of a company.
A look at the system
To see how such a law might affect campaign fundraising in Hoboken, one wouldn't have to look any further than the fundraising documentation from the current or past administrations. Raising money from contractors is common and is not illegal. But in some cases, it gives the appearance that top donors can get contracts. It may also simply show that certain contractors like the direction in which an administration is going.
Donations from city contractors and developers have been a source of campaign income for Mayor David Roberts, former Mayor Anthony Russo, and former mayors Pat Pasculli and Tom Vezetti. It's also common in other municipalities and counties.
Fundraising for the ruling administration traditionally starts with the Hoboken Democratic Party, which for the past couple of decades has contributed heavily to incumbent mayors. During Russo's administration, the party was chaired by Russo's wife, Michele. In the April 27, 2001 campaign fundraising report before the 2001 mayoral election, Russo had a war chest of $534,078, with the Hoboken Democratic Party being by far the biggest contributor. The party contributed more than $132,000.
Many of the contributors to the party had contracts with, were employed by, or were developers with large projects pending before the city's boards.
Since 2001, Roberts, though various organizations, has raised approximately $1.4 million for his election campaigns, according to state election commission reports. Most of this money has come from companies doing business with the city, such as developers, engineers, planners and lawyers, bond brokers and financial advisors.
Ann Graham, the chair of the People for Open Government, said last week, "Our research shows a clear and convincing correlation from businesses who receive lucrative no-bid contracts from the city directly to the coffers of the current administration."
She added that pay-to-play is a hidden tax and the level of services the city provides is jeopardized by the practice. She said that in general, "By limiting the amount businesses can give elected officials and political candidates, we hope to create an accountable, transparent government in Hoboken."
She added, "Reform will return the business of city government to the citizens rather than the interests of large contractors. Citizens will have a voice in city policy decisions."
Roberts, council support referendum
While maintaining his distance from the pay-to-play controversy, Roberts said supports and will abide by the voters' decision on political contributions. "While I believe honesty and integrity cannot be legislated, this measure has my full support," said Roberts in a recent statement.
Some local activists said that Roberts has waited too long and should have supported the referendum much earlier. If he did, they said, the council could have approved the reforms in the first place, and the citizens could have avoided a time consuming and costly campaign.
At the last City Council meeting, the City Council, by a 9-0 vote, approved a non-binding resolution that encourages voters to support POG's pay-to-play referendum. Even the five members that originally voted it down in September now say they support POG's resolution and encourage Hoboken residents to vote for the resolution. Councilman Ruben Ramos, a supporter of the administration, echoed the statements of Roberts by saying that this will not be the cure-all.
"It's really an issue of personal integrity," said Ramos.
Just like Roberts, the administration-supported council members have also taken heat for not supporting this reform quickly enough.
Former Mayor Anthony Russo, who served from 1993 through 2001, was indicted last year for having accepted payments from a local accounting firm that had done millions of dollars of work for the city. He pleaded guilty and has not yet been sentenced. No one in the current administration, which has only been in office for three years, has been accused of any related matter - but members of the POG say that even the appearance or possibility of givebacks happening is important to prevent.