Entries in reform (3)

Wednesday
Oct312018

Democrats oppose reform to prevent future solar scams

At last night's NJ Herald debate, Democrat candidate for Freeholder Patrick Curreri came out squarely against the reform that would have prevented the solar program that ended in a $26 million debt for Sussex County Taxpayers.  Four Freeholder candidates held the debate in Newton this evening, Democrat Howard Zatkowsky was absent.

Democrat Curreri opposed the steps taken by neighboring Warren County which has established the requirement of voter approval for discretionary county bonding for projects such as the one that became the solar debacle in Sussex County.  The reform has been so successful in Warren County that the county has been able to cut property taxes there.  In contrast, Sussex County has had to raise its property taxes year after year.

Warren County passed the reform in a 2013 ordinance which requires voter approval for bonding that exceeds 2 percent of the annual appropriations of the county.  As Freeholder Herb Yardley said:  "This ordinance would provide a check on spending.  It would slow down the process of acquiring debt and it would force it out into the open to be debated publicly and then voted up or down."

The reform being proposed is one that is already used by local towns.  In 2017, Newton voters shot down a school bonding referendum.  The voters of Newton had the opportunity to take on $18 million at a cost to them and their families of $337 per household for the next 20 years.  They weighed the benefits with the costs and said NO.  This reform places county government under the same discipline.  It is a reform that expands transparency and democracy.

At the close of the debate, Curreri had the opportunity to correct his position on reform, but when asked by Herald reporter Bruce Scruton directly, he reiterated his opposition to no borrowing without the approval of the voters.  Curreri said he OPPOSED the reform on live video and to the crowd in Newton.

Monday
Dec052016

APP/Gannett: Reform money-grabbing municipal courts

With the ACLU and the NJ Bar Association conducting major studies of the corruption endemic to the New Jersey municipal courts system -- and the Legislature about to tackle the problem with hearings scheduled for early next year -- America's largest newspaper group has added its voice to the call for reform.  Over the weekend, the Asbury Park Press/ Gannett published the following editorial (printed in full because of its importance).

 

Once again, blogs like More Monmouth Musings and Sussex County Watchdog are asking for your assistance in uncovering and exposing local municipal court corruption.  If you have anything to pass along confidentially, please contact More Monmouth Musings at artvg@aol.com or Sussex County Watchdog at info@sussexcountywatchdog.com.

 

EDITORIAL: Reform money-grabbing municipal courts

New Jersey’s municipal courts have increasingly become more interested in cash than justice.

 

That’s what a Gannett New Jersey investigation has found, reinforcing long-held concerns that local officials view the courts primarily as revenue generators. That motivation influences the development of local ordinances and penalties, and effectively pressures locally appointed prosecutors and judges to conduct court business with an eye toward maximizing fines.

 

The end result is a system that unfairly exploits residents to help balance local budgets. It’s a dirty business that needs to be cleaned up quickly, and to that end we’re encouraged by the reactions of some lawmakers, in particular Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Morris, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, who is already calling for a legislative examination of the court system in the wake of our report.

 

There’s nothing terribly new about the realization that money rules the municipal courts. We’ve heard such complaints for years, and rare is the person who hasn’t at some point railed against what feels like selective enforcement of traffic laws by police officers filling ticket quotas.

 

Disenchantment with the court system is inherent; people don’t often appear before a judge to contentedly pay fines they believe they deserve.

 

But as local budget burdens have increased, so too has the abuse of the municipal courts. For instance, in the Jersey Shore counties of Ocean and Monmouth, court revenue jumped 14 percent between 2010 and 2015. But perhaps more significantly, among the individual towns where increases occurred, the average hike during that same period was 39 percent. That tells us that while not every community is abusing the system, many are doing so outrageously, especially in smaller towns where the court revenue can build up to a substantial portion of the overall budget.

 

MORE: Town profits spiked under municipal judge

 

Defenders of the current system fall back on some familiar tropes, none of which deserve much credence:

 

If the fines bother you, don’t do anything wrong: Such expectation of perfection is egregiously self-righteous. We’re not talking about crimes here, but such heinous offenses as a lapsed dog license or an expired auto inspection sticker. People make mistakes, and while penalties are needed to assure compliance, that doesn’t explain the size of the fines and the frequency with which they are applied.

 

This is about safety, not money: No it’s not. Safety may be the theoretical underpinning of most of these ordinances and traffic laws, but that’s not how the process plays out in practice. A prime example had been the automated red-light cameras calibrated to issue as many tickets as possible at designated intersections. Legislators mercifully scrapped that program, at least for the time being.

 

•Our judges and prosecutors are above reproach: While there are some bad apples, no doubt, this isn’t primarily about the court personnel. Even those with the best intentions understand that their marching orders from the local officials who appointed them are to squeeze residents for as much fine money as possible. That has to be in the backs of their minds, and their ability to continue in their posts may depend on that particular measure of success.

 

MORE: Judge Thompson suspended from nine Monmouth County jobs

 

Insulating the municipal judiciary in some fashion from those local pressures appears to be the most likely and most effective reform. Judges should not be forced to bow to local officials’ revenue grabbing just to keep their jobs; those who do the right thing and more definitively place justice first will merely be replaced, doing residents no good in the long run.

 

How best to achieve that independence, and overcoming what’s certain to be aggressive local resistance, remains the overriding question. The New Jersey State Bar Association has already been studying the problem, but has not yet released a report. Taking away local control of municipal judge and prosecutor appointments could be an option, as would a potential regionalization of the courts; under the current system, all fines from local ordinance violations go the municipality, while traffic fines are shared with the county. Spreading the fine proceeds more widely would reduce the local incentive.

 

Some locals who concede the value of the court revenue say it helps pay for services about which residents care, and that might otherwise have to be sacrificed — like trash pickup or snow plowing. That’s a convenient justification, but the perception would be different if the “sacrifice” was, for example, the trimming of some outrageous local salaries.

 

Regardless of the financial impact, however, a court system that emphasizes revenue collection to the degree of New Jersey’s municipal courts is failing residents. That has to change.


Wednesday
May132015

The one reform that would change everything

Ever wonder why a county official who claims to love his county turns around and votes in a way that harms it?  Ever wonder why an anti-tax Republican suddenly supports a Democrat tax-hike?  Ever wonder why some politicians appear to vacillate between competing interests? 

Usually, it comes down to money.

Sometimes you can follow the money.  In some cases, you can actually match up the change in an elected official's voting pattern with the change in who funds his or her campaign.  And when you do, it is more than a little shocking.  The drip, drip, dripping away of principled support for, or opposition to, some policy is replaced by the growing financial support from this interest group or that.

Sometimes the change appears sudden and radical, like when Senate President Steve Sweeney flip-flopped on the death penalty, same-sex marriage, and the Second Amendment.  But take a long look at the cumulative effect of those contributions and you will see that drip, drip, dripping away of moral resolve.  The train might take a long time to reach the station and you might not know it has until the whistle blows, but when it arrives it is jam-packed with hot, sweaty, money.

Often, too often, you can't follow the money.  Because in New Jersey, while an elected official must report his or her source of income -- like High Street Consulting for example -- the state does not require elected officials to report the "clients" of High Street Consulting.  If we knew who the clients of High Street Consulting were, we would know more about why the elected official who owns it behaves the way he does.  Under the current reporting requirements, an elected official with a firm like High Street Consulting could take money from a questionable source, something that would place him or her in a conflict of interest, and nobody would be the wiser.

Reforming this would shed light on the political alliances that tug an elected official this way or that.

Washington State has such a law.  For every business interest held, the state's Public Disclosure Commission requires public officials to list each corporation, partnership, joint venture, sole proprietorship, union, association, business or other commercial entity and each government agency that paid compensation to the entity.  It also requires what property, goods, services or other consideration was given or performed for the compensation.

This is real disclosure and it is desperately needed everywhere in New Jersey, but especially in the interdependent, incestuous political community of Sussex County.