Independents reintroduce pay-to-play Town attorney to examine televised meetings

With the next Secaucus mayoral and Town Council election just over a year away, meetings of the governing body may be about to get very contentious, if last Tuesday’s meeting is any indication of what’s to come.

During discussion of the consent agenda, Councilmen Michael Gonnelli, Gary Jeffas, and John Bueckner took issue with a $20,800 professional service contract given to Dependable Power Sweeping, a street cleaning company that services Meadowlands Parkway for the town.

“I was disturbed that this contract was put out to bid,” Gonnelli said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I strongly believe this is something we can do in-house for less money.”

“Well, it was put out to bid, and I know there were some questions for [Town Administrator David Drumeler],” said Councilman John Reilly. “But I believe he has answered all the questions about the bid. And Dependable actually came back to us with a lower cost than their original estimate. So, I don’t know what the problem is here.”

Pay-to-play reintroduced

The Dependable contract came up again later in the meeting.

During the “new business” portion of the meeting Jeffas reintroduced the same pay-to-play ordinance the Independents failed to get passed back in December.

What has been become known as “pay-to-play” is the frowned-upon practice in which companies donate to political campaigns in the hopes that it will help them get government contracts later. It is illegal to directly give a business a professional service contract in exchange for a political donation, but when it happens it’s often difficult to prove. Pay-to-play laws attempt to cut the likelihood of that happening by limiting the circumstances under which political donors can get contracts.

In December, the Independents’ pay-to-play ordinance died after a 3-4 vote with Mayor Dennis Elwell, Richard Kane, John Shinnick, and John Reilly voting against it. At the meeting, the Democrats offered three reasons they opposed the measure. First, they questioned that any pay-to-play ordinance could really be enforced. Second, they argued that similar ordinances have faced legal challenges in other towns throughout the state. Finally, Mayor Elwell stated that he believed that Gov. Jon Corzine planned to introduce some type of pay-to-play legislation in Trenton in early 2008.

Jeffas, Gonnelli, and Bueckner vowed to push their ordinance again if a statewide law didn’t materialize within the first half of the year. At Tuesday’s council meeting Jeffas said, “Nothing has changed within the state. I don’t see any evidence that the governor is going to take action anytime soon on this issue.”

State budget concerns have been Corzine’s biggest priority this year.

When it became clear that Tuesday’s introduction of pay-to-play was about to meet the same fate as it did in December, Gonnelli revisited the discussion of Dependable Power Sweeping.

“I have copies of the mayor’s quarterly expenditures report and the first person listed as a donor is [Lawrence Scalzo of] Dependable Power Sweeping, who gave $1,000,” Gonnelli said. “The same person who earlier tonight got a $20,800 professional service contract donated to the mayor’s campaign. This is what we’re talking about. This is why we say we need to have a pay-to-play ordinance in Secaucus. We waited a year for the state to do something. And nothing has happened.”

Councilman John Shinnick blasted the Independents for what he called “an obviously orchestrated” attempt to blindside the other council members with their pet legislation.

“If you wanted to raise this, why didn’t it come up in caucus” Shinnick asked. “I thought we were trying to get past this. I’m tired of the politics of it.”

Gonnelli, Jeffas, and Bueckner have in the past been critical of Elwell when he has issued controversial statements and letters on the town’s behalf without first notifying the council.

The pay-to-play measure was again voted down, 3-4.

After the meeting, Drumeler said that if the Dependable contract was tossed due to pay-to-play rules, the town would have to pay $2,080 more for the next lowest bid.

Language of the ordinance

As campaigns have become more expensive, some businesses and businesspeople have donated large sums of money to candidates, political parties, and political action committees (PACs), seemingly in the hopes that they will be given special access to public contracts should their favored candidates win office. But this practice has been widely criticized because it gives the impression that public contracts, paid with taxpayer dollars, are up for sale. And when contracts are awarded to political patrons, voters wonder whether they are getting the best value for their dollar. In light of this practice, elected officials at all levels of government have been drafting laws to stem the awarding of public contracts to political donors.

The Jeffas/Gonnelli/Bueckner-backed ordinance would ban individuals who bid on Secaucus public contracts from making donations worth $300 or more to municipal candidates, PACs, or continuing political committees.

Groups of individuals, such as business partners or corporation principals, would be similarly barred from making political donations over $2,000. Public contractors found to be in violation of the law would be disqualified from receiving a contract for four years.

The contribution limits would have applied to professional service contractors and vendors, not developers. During the December 2007 pay-to-play debate Jeffas stated that he believes there needs to be a separate bill that deals specifically with developers.

Televised meetings discussed

As promised, the council discussed the possibility of videotaping and televising their meetings in the afternoon caucus session. The discussion lasted about an hour, according Shinnick, who is a member of the council’s Television Committee along with Jeffas and Drumeler.

Shinnick said the governing body has asked Town Attorney Frank Leanza to draft a report on the possible legal implications of broadcasting public meetings.

The council has been exploring since the beginning of the year ways that it might videotape and broadcast meetings of the governing body. Council members still must decide whether they will videotape caucus sessions or council meetings. If they decide to tape the council meetings they will also have to decide whether or not to tape the public comments portion of the meeting.

Jeffas and Drumeler have said that they expect videotaped meetings to be aired by the end of the year.

If this idea gets off the ground, meetings would likely be taped and aired later on Channel 32, a local public access station.

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