When the little engine that could
is climbing uphill for so long and suddenly finds itself on top, the look down must appear a bit scary. Last week’s People for Open Government (POG) meeting faced some of those sights having successfully made that climb.
The legendary Hoboken group has advanced a number of important local ordinances but faces new challenges. While there’s been major victories on some fronts such as the town’s pay to play laws, it’s also challenged to remain relevant in others and most recently credible in the eyes of some in the public.
Raising eyebrows in the Hoboken political community is a recent letter
from the organization where three of nine board members participated. Vice President Eric Kurta was frank during the meeting sizing up the public reaction, “We shouldn’t be involved in this going forward” adding he was well aware his own name is synonymous with POG having earlier served as its President for three years.
He highlighted the eruption from the public scrutinizing the letter questioning the ethics regarding Councilman Ravi Bhalla’s 2008 contract with Newark and its anticipation of a similar response to Councilwoman Beth Mason’s ELEC violations (as stated by ELEC
) from her mayoral campaign last spring. The letter posted on several local sites became a point of controversy itself – as it criticized Councilman Ravi Bhalla and demanded more
than an apology from both
the Councilman and the Mayor. Mayor Zimmer has no role with Ravi Bhalla’s law firm or issuance of any contracts from the city of Newark.
In a phone interview the day after the meeting, Vice President Eric Kurta sized up the group’s controversial letter from the rear view mirror. “In retrospect if I could have removed some things from that letter I would.”
Treasurer Ron Rosenberg noted distinctions of public perception indirectly in an email to MSV later stating: “In the next few months POG will be working with our city council and with the public to address these issues and strengthen Pay-to-Play laws in Hoboken and the State of New Jersey” Addressing the umpire role anticipated from some in the community he added, “…some in the public have erroneously concluded that POG is interested in adjudicating any and all ELEC violations…We leave this up to the folks at ELEC.”
Still there’s the image within the Hoboken activist community POG has and should work to support ELEC and do so consistently. Although this didn’t resonate in the meeting, some people in attendance supportive of Mayor Zimmer emphasized in off the record interviews POG’s objectives including oversight of pay to play laws were inoperable without standing behind ELEC.
Some of the two dozen attendees at last week’s POG meeting.
Yet the oversight role in the arena of local elections is complex, and there’s also the impossible standard of being seen as “an arbiter of fair elections” as Treasurer Ron Rosenberg stated during the meeting.
During the two plus hour discussion, not many ideas were echoed and picked up by others. Councilman Michael Lenz offered one of the few that did, gaining support in putting forward the Board of Directors should be more careful moving ahead when an email goes out and only two of nine board members respond. Several people agreed, saying five would be a reasonable benchmark before POG issue public statements in the future.
As for the elephant in the room, the question of Councilwoman Beth Mason’s ELEC reports, there appeared to be little desire even to mention let alone discuss the matter. As close to that third rail any came (Councilwoman Beth Mason was present but never said a word about the matter) was a brief mention of street money being part of the local election “culture” in Hoboken. Hoboken resident Tom Greaney took it a step further suggesting the same factors advancing compliance on filing ELEC reports may have similar impact if a stand is taken against the illegal practice. “POG provides clarity and transparency to how people conduct elections,” he said to MSV in an interview after the meeting. “Just the facts and nothing but the facts,” he added emphasizing the point.
One of the three objectives in POG’s bylaws is “to curb the undue influence of money on governmental decisions and local elections.” Although MSV brought this question up specifically, there didn’t seem to be energy or any willingness to tackle it. In fact there was a sense the agenda itself avoided that very question. Some of the topics unrelated to the mission statement of POG under the heading “accountability” included: SWAT why so slow, the 4.2MM retirement fiasco under Mayor Roberts, and engineering failures surrounding Sinatra Park’s field closure. Although none of these issues were discussed it was strikingly odd to see them on the printed agenda.
On a positive note, one of the useful items POG seeks to rectify is having a compliance officer on board at City Hall to examine and prevent pay-to-play problems. It’s been an ongoing effort and one the organization hopes to execute sooner than later. There’s a number of incentives for City Hall to fulfill this responsibility one among them the required review of professional service agreements may prevent politicization that erupted around the Condon contract. Recently Hoboken resident Perry Belfiore, a long time political participant on the Hoboken scene filed a complaint on that matter but an internal review by a compliance officer could have defused the prospect of such a complaint in advance, politically motivated or otherwise.
Ed Mecka, a founding member of the group summed up the current problem of the organization as almost inevitable considering the advance of reform and much of the movement supporting those taking elected positions in the City Council and mayor’s office. “Back in the day, we all worked with one purpose. Now nothing (partisanship) gets checked at the door.”
So what happens when you have a group operating with an us versus them and a little engine that could attitude over years and it advances much of its agenda and part of its team with it right up the stairs into City Hall? Well then you have POG – People Out of Government who want to get in. No matter how you square it, the girl left at the altar is going to feel jilted.
As the group looks to the future, the temporary stumble will be overcome with the energy of new members and the vitality of new objectives. Annual dues for members is only $25 and the next meeting is expected after the summer in September. Contact current Treasurer Ron Rosenberg at RonRosenberg@optonline.net.
Hoboken residents looking to make an impact can have no greater role than joining and participating than this one. For more information on POG, please see our link on the right column of MSV or click here