Last Wednesday, the sounds of anger and disapproval rang throughout the Jersey City Council chambers. The Redevelopment Pay to Play Campaign Reform ordinance that many Jersey City residents had worked so hard to get passed was voted down. Only Councilmembers Steven Fulop (Ward E) and Viola Richardson (Ward F) voted yes while six others voted no -- Council President Mariano Vega abstained.
"Development is the big Jersey City topic," said Dan Levin, President of Civic JC, a non-partisan community based organization that promotes good municipal government practices. This was apparent -- not only from the crowd's shouts of dissaproval, but from Councilmembers' personal attacks against each other in the weeks prior to the vote. Even Mayor Jerramiah Healy got in on the act by writing a scathing letter to the Jersey Journal denouncing the ordinance as undemocratic.
This past summer, Civic JC, the primary group backing the reform, gave a presentation on it which impressed Fulop. After the presentation, Fulop decided to lend his support, because he wanted to put an end to the corruption that has been a constant in Jersey City's history.
The Redevelopment Pay-to-Play ordinance already exists in 14 other New Jersey municipalities, including Asbury Park, Edison, Hamilton and Woodbridge. The ordinance essentially bans developers looking to work in Jersey City from making political contributions from one year prior to negotiations up to the completion of the redevelopment agreement. Currently, public officials can award lucrative no-bid government contracts to individuals or organizations in exchange for campaign contributions.
“Redevelopment Pay-to-Play reform is a strong protection against political influence,” said Heather Taylor, Communications Director of the Citizens Campaign, a state wide non-profit, non-partisan organization that was consulted by Fulop and Levin during their attempt to get the Jersey City ordinance on the Council's agenda.
While Fulop, Levin, Taylor, and their supporters are looking to end political corruption in Jersey City, many working within Jersey City government see nothing wrong with Pay-to-Play politics.
“The money that I give to fundraising organizations comes from developer contributions,” said Councilmember Michael Sottolano (Ward A) at the January 24th Council meeting. Councilmember Mary Spinello (Ward B) added: “Money given by developers goes to the community.”
These councilmembers don’t think that they are doing anything wrong, and some believe that prohibiting developers from contributing is actually unconstitutional. Yet the ordinance would only ban developers from contributing when they are in “direct negotiations with the city,” according to Fulop. Still, most Jersey City politicians feel it's perfectly normal to take money from developers -- and think that they aren’t even slighty influenced by those contributions.
Since Jersey City is one of the fastest growing cities in New Jersey, it doesn’t seem as if the argument for or against Redevelopment Pay-to-Play Campaign Reform will end at the Council meetings. Even though the ordinance was not passed, the citizens of Jersey City do not seem to be giving up the fight.
“This was a positive first step and it’s going to be hard to get them to think differently but I think the people of Jersey City are willing to try,” said Levin. Civic JC is now working to get the ordinance on the ballot, and is collecting the 10,000 signatures needed to make that happen.
As Taylor noted, “It’s really up to the citizens to decide what the best future is for Jersey City.”