(see this article for more reference.)
Today, in a triumph for the right of ordinary citizens to have their voices heard, New Jersey Appellate Court Judge Harvey Weissbard issued a published opinion reversing a lower court ruling that denied standing to the Hoboken civic group People for Open Government (POG). POG went to court in June 2005 claiming that the City of Hoboken had failed to enforce a local ordinance that restricts the practice of “pay-to-play” where companies are awarded lucrative municipal contracts as a reward for having made political contributions. In the 2005 municipal election, Mayor David Roberts was re-elected after collecting over $1.4 million in political contributions. POG charged that many of these contributions to the Mayor and his running-mates were illegal under the newly enacted ordinance.
On November 2, 2004, the voters of Hoboken had overwhelmingly approved this ordinance, entitled Public Contracting Reform, by a 10 to 1 margin. POG was the organization that petitioned the Hoboken City Council to pass this measure. When the Council refused, POG used the state’s “initiative and referendum” statute to place it on the ballot. The Court found that the plaintiffs’ standing was readily apparent particularly in light of their involvement in getting this ordinance enacted.
Represented by Attorney Roy J. Konray, plaintiffs Ann Graham (then president of POG), Robert Duval, Alice Crozier, and James Vance, filed suit against David Roberts, Mayor Of Hoboken; Ruben Ramos, Terry LaBruno, and Peter Cammarano, members of the Hoboken City Council; and the City of Hoboken.
Read the rest after the jump.
The lawsuit asserted allegations of illegal campaign contributions made to Roberts Team 2005 in violation of Hoboken’s 2004 Public Contracting Reform Ordinance, enacted to help eliminate “pay-to-play” – the practice of a business entity making campaign contributions to a candidate for public office or a public office holder with the hope of obtaining a government contract. The ordinance specifically places limitations on contributions made to local candidates or officeholders by professional business entities that have or would seek to have no-bid professional contracts with the city of Hoboken.
Business entities that violate the ordinance are in breach of contract and are further disqualified from eligibility for future city contracts for four years from the date of the violation. Violations may be cured by a return of the offending contribution by the receiving candidate or officeholder within a prescribed period of time.
The lawsuit sought to compel defendants to disclose prohibited campaign contributions to the City Council and to enforce the ordinance.
Plaintiffs were petitioners for the 2004 “pay-to-play” reform initiative. They gathered signatures from registered voters in Hoboken necessary to place the ordinance initiative on the November election ballot, which was passed by a 9-1 margin by the Hoboken voters and enacted that month.
Roberts Team 2005 was a joint candidates committee formed by the individual defendants for the Hoboken City Mayoral and Council-at-Large election of May 2005. The candidates were successful in gaining office in a run-off election the following month.
In April 2006, Judge Maurice Gallipoli of the Hudson County Superior Court, Law Division, granted summary judgment for the defendants, dismissing the complaint for lack of standing. Standing is the ability of a party to demonstrate sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged. As a result, the court did not resolve any of the issues raised by either of the parties regarding the interpretation and constitutionality of the ordinance. In December 2006, Attorney Renee Steinhagen of NJ Appleseed appealed this outrageous decision and the lower court’s holding that in order to have standing, POG would have to first demonstrate it had suffered a financial harm by Hoboken’s failure to enforce the pay-to-play ordinance.
The Appellate Division, in an opinion delivered by Judge Harvey Weissbard, reversed the judgment and remanded the case back to the Law Division. The opinion stated that a plaintiff’s particular interest may be accorded proportionately less significance where it coincides with a strong public interest. Additionally, all plaintiffs in this case were judged to be key players in the in the “pay-to-play” initiative and to have “a sufficient particularized interest in the enforcement of the ordinance, beyond their status as ‘mere taxpayers,’ to afford them standing to pursue this lawsuit.”
Weissbard stated that the ordinance was “designed to curtail the nefarious practice of ‘pay-to-play’,” and, in stark contrast to the earlier decision, wrote “we conclude that plaintiff’s standing is readily apparent…If Hoboken, through its elected officials, chooses to forego enforcement of this law, then who will force them to do so? The question answers itself. We see the present action as a legitimate effort to effectuate the will of the people as reflected in the initiative which led to the Ordinance.”
This decision has importance throughout the state, because municipalities that have pay-to-play ordinances now understand that their citizens can enforce the ordinance.
Pay-to-Play reform ordinances have been enacted in 91 municipalities in New Jersey.
POG is a nonpartisan political committee dedicated to the promotion of open, accountable, and transparent municipal government; active participation of Hoboken residents in municipal affairs; and curbing the undue influence of campaign contributions on public policy.