Race to the stop

Fulop, Healy to introduce competing pay-to-play amendments this week

It’s a safe bet that Jersey City’s current pay-to-play law will be fine-tuned through an amendment that could be introduced this week. What’s unclear is whether that fine tuning will be in line with an amendment introduced by the administration of Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, or a separate amendment to be introduced by his political rival, City Councilman Steven Fulop.
The two are running against each other in the upcoming May 2013 race for mayor, and are trying to score points with voters by introducing competing amendments that seek to limit the awarding of public contracts to campaign contributors.
Healy and Council President Peter Brennan announced last week that they will introduce an amendment that would prevent donors to Board of Education campaigns and political committees from receiving certain city contracts. The amendment will also specifically include law firms, insurance brokers, and other businesses that provide professional services to the city. The Healy-Brennan amendment would apply to no-bid contracts, Healy explained, since “contracts that are awarded by bidding are not subject to favoritism for donors.”
Fulop, who sponsored the city’s current pay-to-play law and got it passed by the council over the objections of the administration, also plans to introduce a pay-to-play amendment this week, but said his version goes much further.

Two competing pay-to-play amendments from Jerramiah T. Healy and Steven Fulop will be presented to the City Council.
In addition to blocking school board donors from receiving certain city contracts, Fulop said his amendment will also include contributions made to state Senate, state Assembly, and Hudson County races, and will end the practice of “wheeling.” (Wheeling is where campaign donations are shuttled between different entities specifically to circumvent election finance laws. At present, the practice of wheeling is legal in Jersey City.)
Both versions went through several revisions last week and will be made available to the public at the Oct. 24 City Council meeting.
Healy believes the Fulop amendment is too broad.
“A [business that] has a contract with the city should not be barred from making contributions to every campaign, whether it be for state legislative office or county office,” Healy explained in a prepared statement.
“The mayor must really think the public hasn’t been paying attention for the last nine years,” Fulop told the Reporter in response to Healy’s proposed amendment. “After opposing pay-to-play reform, and having his deputy mayor, council people, and treasurer arrested for bribery, he is now trying to portray himself as a reformer with this weak legislation just seven months before an election. If he is serious he would support the more comprehensive reform.”
A number of Healy’s allies – including former Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini and ex-City Council President Mariano Vega – were arrested in 2009 as part of Operation Bid Rig for allegedly taking political bribes from a government witness who posed as a property developer. Beldini and Vega are currently serving prison sentences.

‘It’s not campaign finance reform’

Pay-to-play laws forbid campaign donors from getting contracts with a government body within a certain period of time after donating. This cuts down on the possibility of donating to a candidate specifically for the purpose of getting a contract.
With fundraising for the 2013 mayoral and City Council elections about to kick into high gear, both Healy and Fulop are eager to get out in front of pay-to-play reform, which has resurfaced as a major issue.
On Oct. 12, the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) held a $500/person fundraiser at New Jersey City University. Guests were asked to make checks out to either the HCDO or the election accounts of Hudson County Clerk Barbara Netchert, Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, or Assemblyman Sean Connors. It is likely that a portion of the money raised from this event will be funneled to Healy’s re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, there will be a $1,000/person Fulop fundraiser on Oct. 30 at Liberty House. Fairview Insurance Director Ryan Graham, whose company received a contract from the Jersey City Board of Education this year, has sent out e-mails asking people to support this upcoming fundraiser. Graham has made several campaign contributions to various candidates in recent years, including Fulop and School Board President Suzanne Mack.
Depending on which amendment is ultimately approved by the City Council, such contributions and contracts might be curtailed in the future.
Heather Taylor, spokeswoman for Citizens Campaign, whose organization has been working with Fulop and the Jersey City Board of Education to close gaps in their current pay-to-play practices, said the school board and City Council should avoid the temptation to ban every contribution under the sun.
“One thing to remember here is we’re not trying to do campaign finance reform. At the end of the day this is public contracting reform,” said Taylor. “This isn’t about who can we stop from contributing. We want to preserve the integrity of public contracts that are awarded by either the city or the school board. We’re trying to ensure that the Jersey City school district and administration are awarding contracts to the most qualified companies at the best price.”
The Board of Education’s policy committee is currently weighing a proposal that would ban the awarding of school district contracts to entities that contribute to City Council and mayoral candidates.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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