Fighting pay-to-play by redevelopers

The Times, NJ

Until now, the focus of reformers attempting to curb New Jersey's notorious pay-to-play system has been on the purchase of goods and services. They have sought to win passage of laws that eliminate politicians' opportunities to bestow no-bid contracts and favored treatment on businesses that give generously to political campaigns. But another area in which political favoritism can flourish is the redevelopment process; this is all the more true in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision giving state and local governments major discretion in condemning private properties for redevelopment purposes. Among the more than 50 New Jersey local ordinances that bar campaign contributors from eligibility for municipal work, only Hightstown's goes the additional step and extends the ban to redevelopers.

Now a good-government group, the Citizens' Campaign, has launched a statewide effort to end pay-to-play in the awarding of redevelopment projects. Last week, the organization unveiled a model local redevelopment ordinance and promised to release a proposed state law on the subject in the near future. The components include a ban on contributions by redevelopers to local and county candidates, elected officials and political parties from the onset of the redevelopment process to the completion of the agreement; a requirement that developers seeking variances or waivers from a town's regulations file a contribution disclosure form, and expanded transparency and accountability in the process.

Pay-to-play has powerful friends in public office in New Jersey, and even the modest gains that have been made against it remain in jeopardy. But as long as the Citizens' Campaign and other advocates of clean government keep fighting, there's hope.

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