RED BANK: PAY-TO-PLAY RULES IN PLAY

money-full-columnElected officials would be permitted to vote on applications by their campaign contributors under a law change that’s up for a vote in Red Bank this week.

And the upper limits on what contributors can give politicians would soar to more than six times the current cap.

That’s according to an article in Saturday’s Asbury Park Press.

The proposed changes have baffled state Senator Jen Beck, a former Red Bank who favored an ordinance that went into effect after her tenure. That law would be gutted if the proposed changes are approved, she said.

“This only opens the borough to political influence and corruption,” Beck told Press reporter Larry Higgs. “It’s unclear to me why [Mayor Pasquale Menna] would move in that direction, when he supported” the existing ordinance.

Here’s the proposed amendment: RB Ordinance 2013-27.

It would raise, from $400 to $2,600, the maximum donation a vendor can make to each candidate for borough office. It also would free elected officials to vote on contracts sought by those contributors; under the existing law, such votes are prohibited as conflicts of interest.

From the Press:

It also eliminates requirements that developers report to which local candidates they donated money, when filing a development application for approval. That information is important because members of the Planning and Zoning Board of Adjustment are appointed by the mayor or council, and donation disclosure gives residents confidence in the approval process, Beck said.

“This insures that applications (for development) are vetted without bias. That was the reason for having developers report (contributions),” Beck said. “If you have nothing to hide, why not report who your contribution goes to?”

The Press said Menna was unavailable to comment on the proposal.

But Menna told the Hub weekly that the changes would help eliminate confusion by bringing Red Bank’s law in line with similar laws enacted by both Monmouth County and the state.

From the Hub:

“I think that this makes the entire process consistent and seamless so that people do not get jammed up into making mistakes,” he said after the council unanimously voted to introduce the ordinance on Nov. 25. “They know what the regulations are, because they are the same regulations for all levels of government. That, I think, is the easiest way to do it.”

Also from the Hub:

Borough Attorney Daniel O’Hern said Red Bank drafted its law at a time when no pay-to-play regulations existed at the state level. Since then, multiple layers of differing laws have been enacted and the process has become exceedingly complicated for vendors, he said.

“It has become very difficult to navigate for people who want to do business with municipalities,” he said. “You have to deal with a whole separate body of state statutes, and then you have to deal with the municipal statutes. From a legal standpoint, I think this is a cleaner way to do it and easier to apply.”

The state statute also carries significant penalties for vendors who violate the law, O’Hern added.

Beck told the Press that she finds Menna’s support for the changes “confounding,” because “Pat worked on it with me and we were proud that it was more restrictive than the state (pay-to-play statues). We made it one of the more restrictive in the state on purpose.”

The taxpayer advocacy group the Citizens Campaign has also blasted the proposed changes in a letter to Menna and the council, telling them that a repeal of the existing law “would send the wrong message to Red Bank taxpayers.”

Heather Taylor, the group’s spokesperson, tells redbankgreen:

They are misrepresenting what they are doing. They are simply repealing any regulation on contractors. When they say state law, they are speaking of the generic campaign contribution and disclosure law, which already is the rule of law for all campaigns in New Jersey, including Red Bank. Then there’s the fair and open process, which is also regarded as one of the weakest laws.

The council meets at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at borough hall, 90 Monmouth Street. Here’s the agenda: RB Council Agenda 121813