By Former Monmouth County Freeholder Amy Mallet
The first freeholder meeting of each year is very telling of a board’s priorities. In 2010, the Republican majority reversed the formation of a voluntary ethics board in Monmouth County. This year’s first regular meeting of 2012 witnessed a change in policy regarding Pay-to-Play which should be of concern to every taxpayer. Rather than instituting (or even maintaining) tighter measures on pay-to-play, this does quite the opposite. It has opened the floodgates by relaxing the rules for political donations from public contractors. The board has essentially removed certain obstacles from interfering with their political fundraising ability, an action voted upon just weeks prior to a major fundraising dinner. With a 5-0 vote, they rescinded a stricter county measure adopted in 2008 and took steps backwards in adopting the more watered-down state model. With a county budget consisting of over $300 million raised through taxation, there is a great deal at stake as millions of dollars in contracts are awarded regularly. This is a complete policy reversal for those freeholders whose bios, previous votes and statements boast their efforts in supporting the importance of reforming pay-to-play. If they previously supported anti pay- to- play laws at their local level, why not at the county level where the stakes are even higher!
After the dark days of Bid Rig in Monmouth County, the freeholders enacted a set of resolutions on ethics and campaign finance reform.These measures are more restrictive than the less comprehensive state statute. The language from the 2008 resolution which was just rescinded indicates that political contributions from those seeking or performing business within the county raise reasonable concerns on the part of taxpayers and residents as to their trust in government contracts. It continues by saying that in the absence of the state adopting comprehensive pay-to-play reform with anti-wheeling protection, and in the interest of good government, the (new) policy will avoid the perception of improper influence in local elections. Unfortunately, this has now been wiped away.There must be a firewall separating political campaign donations from public contracts. This self-serving action is not justified by claims that vendors wishing to obtain contracts are confused about the rules behind political donations. This should never be the focus, as it smacks of “pay to play.” Taxpayers and potential contractors need assurance that the field is level for all qualified business entities based on their merit, not campaign donations. The rules should not be changed to accommodate vendors who find themselves disqualified because of campaign donations. It is the responsibility of the vendor to know what consequences their actions carry. It is the responsibility of the governing body to select the most qualified vendor at the lowest cost. Minimizing the focus on political donations would also result in more proposals, leading to more competition and ultimately more competitive pricing.
Interestingly, just a few months ago, the freeholders received a three-page press release from State Comptroller Matthew Boxer, indicating the flaws in the state’s Pay-to-Play law and needs for reform in the system that contained many loopholes. He referred to it as an “essentially unregulated system of contracting”. An article in the ***ITALSAsbury Park Press**ENDTALS (9/15/11) also covered this issue. That did not stop this freeholder board from adopting this flawed state statute.This recent vote also lacks transparency. In reviewing the agenda, you would only see a title which reads “RESOLUTION RESCINDING RESOLUTION 08-397 AND ADOPTING N.J.S.A. 19:44A-1 et seq”. In contrast, the rescinded resolution from 2008 reads “RESOLUTION ADOPTING SPECIAL PAY-TO -PLAY RESTRICTIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICE CONTRACTS AND EXTRAORDINARY UNSPECIFIABLE SERVICE CONTRACTS”. This was an obvious attempt to keep the latest action out of the sunlight. If this vote was beneficial for the taxpayers and residents, why was there not even a mention of it during their meeting or perhaps a press release? Prior to their vote at the public portion of the meeting, I asked the board to tell the public how this benefits the taxpayers of our county. The freeholders were silent as there was no response to my question. I encourage all residents to read the agendas and click on the actual resolutions at www.visitmonmouth.com, which are posted on Tuesday evening prior to the public meetings held on the second and fourth Thursday of each month. If you have concerns, please voice them!We need elected officials to understand that their actions matter. It should never be forgotten that government serves the people. That should be the priority!