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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 07/25/05        NJBiz online

Anger May Advance Pay-to-Play Reform

by Ingrid Reed

The uproar over the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on eminent domain should send a clear signal to New Jersey legislators that citizens really do care about preventing corruption among public officials-particularly in the form of pay to play. The anger at last months ruling, which upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development, could be seen in letters to the editors of various publications.

These letters made one sharp, clear point Developers and public officials cannot be trusted to wield this power fairly and therefore eminent domain cannot be trusted. The potential for abuse is particularly great when developers make political contributions to local officials.

This signal to lawmakers could not come at a better time. The New Jersey Senate is set to vote in lame duck session on a bill (S-1987) that would maintain the strong pay-to-play reform laws that have been enacted in 52 municipalities and counties across the state. The Assembly has already passed the measure.

According to the Citizens Campaign, a grassroots organization that is leading a drive for S-1987, unless its passed by next January these local reforms will be wiped off the books and superseded by a weaker state law that does not apply at the local Ievel.

Many letter writers felt that officials and developers will abuse eminent domain to the detriment of both homeowners whose property will be taken and citizens whose towns will be changed. Writers generally showed an awareness of the need for eminent domain for public purposes such as parks and roads. But eminent domain as the Supreme Court decided it injected a third party, the developer, into the process and provided no way to prevent a town from seizing property for what might be considered a fair price and then selling it to a developer at a much higher price without sharing the gain with the original owner. Other writers suspected that properties would be taken and turned over to developers who would reap all the gains.

Most letters assumed that eminent-domain decisions were made in private, rather than in public meetings, and that economic development projects were negotiated with insiders rather than through an elaborate process that required action by planning boards and governing bodies.

These suspicions can't be ignored in light of New Jersey's ceaseless bribery indictments and reports of large political contributions from developers and builders.

If unaddressed, this lack of public trust raises serious concerns about the states ability to achieve its redevelopment goals. Smart-growth policies and the state plan call for new housing, offices and commercial ventures to be built in redevelopment projects in existing communities as well as other venues.

The innovative state law that governs redevelopment projects recognizes that the risks involved can best be addressed when municipalities and developers form a partnership through a well-defined public process. However, this process has credibility only when it is fair and open, which is not the case when developers make pay-to-play contributions to public officials that undermine both the appearance and the reality of fairness.

The citizens who organized to win strong pay-to-play reforms through ordinances it municipalities and counties and through initiative, and referendum in eight others have charted the course for a better New Jersey. State senators can’t let these efforts die along with the chance for redevelopment to be seen as good for cities and towns and not just as an opportunity for a few self-serving individuals to enrich themselves.

The eminent-domain outcry is a loud clear reminder that the Public doesn’t trust developers and officials. Our legislators, and especially our senators, should address the concerns expressed by these outraged letter writers and begin to rebuild trust by voting to preserve local pay-to-play measures.