A citizens group's proposal for a pay-to-play ban in the township turned into a rather lengthy question-and-answer session between a proponent and councilman during Monday's Council meeting.
The end result: It appears South Jersey Citizens (SJC) will at least get an opportunity to pitch its proposal to Council in more detail, possibly as soon as Council's June 6 workshop meeting.
"I think we're obligated to look at that to see if we can mesh it into what the state has set forth for us to follow, and if we can improve upon that ..." Councilman Dan Hutchison said. "I'm not saying we're going to, but I'm saying we should at least look at it."
Beyond the obvious goal of potentially helping to reduce taxes, the underlying motive for the proposed pay-to-play ban is a simple one, according to SJC member Joshua Berry, a Broadacres Drive resident.
"In my opinion, someone who is expecting to get government money should not be able to donate (to political campaigns)," he said. "That should be a limit on free speech."
SJC has presented Council with a copy of the ordinance, which was crafted several years ago by Citizens’ Campaign. Should Council fail to adopt the ordinance, SJC plans to put it to the people through the initiative and referendum process.
Citizens' Campaign says nearly 100 New Jersey towns have adopted its suggested play-to-play ordinance.
Berry warned that failing to pass the pay-to-play ban might jeopardize shared-services agreements with Cherry Hill Township, which passed the model ordinance in 2008 and has joined forces with the township on a number of recent contracts.
"Contractors and vendors right now, dealing with a patchwork of laws, don't know what to do," he said.
Hutchison suggested SJC and other like-minded groups propose stronger statewide pay-to-play legislation to avoid the "patchwork" pitfall.
"By enacting more stringent pay-to-play ordinances than the state has currently enacted, we then make it more difficult to enter into shared-services agreements with other municipalities. So, shouldn't the focus be on getting the state to change its pay-to-play ordinance rather than 566 municipalities to change it? Aren't we approaching it from the wrong end?"
Berry agreed to contact Assemblyman Dominick DiCicco (R-4), whom he essentially labeled a like-minded supporter of pay-to-play reform, to pitch the idea that Citizens' Campaign's ordinance be considered on a statewide level. He is less than confident anything will get done in Trenton.
"Our Legislature: cowards," he said. "Everyone passes this locally, then it won't matter what the state does."
Hilltop Avenue resident Russell Burt opposes the proposed pay-to-play ban for many of the reasons offered by Hutchison as potential obstructions to getting business done.
"It's unnecessary and redundant," he said. "The state of New Jersey actually has the most restrictive pay-to-play policy—laws—in effect."
"Pay to play" is the label given to awarding campaign contributors with municipal positions or contracts. Gloucester Township currently has no ban on the practice. Thirteen other Camden County towns, including Cherry Hill, do, according to the New Jersey Department of State.
SJC's top argument in favor of pay-to-play reform is the perception that it feeds the so-called "good ol' boy network"—real or not.
"If you have a donor who has been giving large sums of money but is doing a poor job serving the town, will most people fire them? I don't know," Berry said. "I'm not sure I could. Maybe the seven of you are better than I am."
"The perception of government is that without a strict pay-to-play law, our government is for sale," he added. "I don't think that perception is reality, but certainly stopping that practice would help change that perception."
SJC is prepared to launch a citizens’ initiative in the event that Council will not pass its proposed pay-to-play ordinance. As a town governed under the Faulkner Act, citizens can petition Council to vote directly on an ordinance. If Council votes no, the issue becomes a referendum question during the next general election.
It would need about 1,750 township residents' signatures, amounting to 10 percent of the total votes in the last odd-numbered year general election, to move forward.
In other news from Monday's meeting, Gloucester Township Republican Municipal Committee Chairman Ray Polidoro called for Hutchison to apologize to Councilwoman Crystal Evans for his behavior during a heated debate between the two Council members at the governing body's May 9 meeting.
"Please pick your words and choose what you're saying carefully at the end of the (meeting), because, from now on, I'm going to remind our fellow residents what you have said at the prior meeting and left off at," Polidoro warned Council.
"This is the same councilwoman that was overlooked to serve on the Black History Month commission," he said. "It's ironic she wasn't asked to serve on that committee, but on a school budget (committee). Furthermore, finding out that she was being asked to be on this committee in the presence of the public ... it's a little edgy."
In explaining that he would not offer Evans an apology, Hutchison contended he was "shouted down" by Evans during the May 9 meeting while attempting to ascertain why Evans rejected the subcommittee position.
Of her decision to reject the position, Evans said during Monday night's meeting: "I did not want to serve. End of story. This is not 1959. I do not have to sit on the back of the bus."