Friday, August 28, 2009

MEANWHILE, ACROSS THE HUDSON

Bonamo: Democracy, New Jersey style
Tuesday August 11, 2009, 2:18 PM

FROM THE downtown Jersey City waterfront, you can see the Statue of Liberty standing stoically in the harbor. One of the world’s most powerful symbols of democracy stands with its back to Hudson County and the rest of New Jersey beyond it.

FROM THE downtown Jersey City waterfront, you can see the Statue of Liberty standing stoically in the harbor. One of the world’s most powerful symbols of democracy stands with its back to Hudson County and the rest of New Jersey beyond it.

Based on the events of the past few days, that stance is perfectly understandable.

After the stunning arrest of 44 people, including 29 New Jersey public officials, on corruption charges, many have wondered why such a poor excuse for democracy seems to persist, if not flourish, in the Garden State.

Some say the rapacious weed of state corruption grew along the Hudson County waterfront, where new development flooded money into cities such as Jersey City and Hoboken that have well-known histories of less-than-ethical politicians who were less than able to fight off financial temptation.

This cash fueled the campaign coffers of local politicians, stoking the kind of arrogance and feeling of invincibility that reportedly led former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano to say, “I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still gonna win 85 to 95 percent of [certain ethnic and senior voters]” during a meeting in a diner where he was allegedly negotiating a bribe with the federal government’s confidential witness.

But in the same way people left the cramped confines of urban Hudson County for the suburbs, corruption radiated outward as well. The arrests of the mayors of leafy-green Secaucus and Ridgefield attest to the fact that civic sleaze, unlike a lack of parking spaces, is not easily fled.

The fact that the former mayors of Paterson, Newark and Camden have or are serving time in jail is not an urban legend. Add the recent alleged involvement of rabbis and a human organ trafficker and you have a surreal result that could be reported just as easily in the entertainment section of the newspaper as on the front page.

Except it just isn’t funny.

No easy solutions

The question of how to get people to stop laughing is not an easy one to answer. With 566 separate municipalities and more than 600 school districts checkering the state’s 21 counties, New Jersey’s many layers of government leave so many crevices for corrupt officials, vendors and builders to put down roots that it’s next to impossible to shine a light on all of them.

The watchful eye of the state’s media has had its focus narrowed by financial cutbacks. The New York and Philadelphia television stations usually give scant coverage to their backdoor state with no network affiliate of its own. And New Jersey’s newspapers have fewer resources to devote to the serious investigative work that could lead to serious change.

That change is supposed to be effected by our elected officials through meaningful ethics reform. But New Jersey’s entrenched party machines are conduits of power that can generate formidable get-out-the-vote efforts for candidates, or can short-circuit their hopes.

Once on the inside, many of the newly elected ask themselves a question: Why be Mr. Clean if it means cutting myself off from the cash that greases my ambition?

This sorry state of affairs has yielded an opportunity for voters to cut out the cancer in New Jersey’s body politic. Despite the defiance of the mayor of Ridgefield and other recently arrested officials regarding resignation, more elections (perhaps recalls) will inevitability come, some sooner rather than later. In the long term, voters may consider initiatives that reduce the number of New Jersey’s municipalities or weaken the links between money and politics. But voters can make a more immediate impact upon a system that led to 44 people being paraded in handcuffs.

Electoral payback

Payback at the polls is the only way to punish politicians who ignore you most of the time, waste your tax money and then take an envelope full of cash with their Taylor ham and eggs. Payback at the polls is also the only reward for those who get involved in politics to do the public good — of whom there are many.

By definition, home rule, the sacrosanct concept that led in part to New Jersey’s multiple municipal scandals and Bergen County’s 70 separate municipalities, implies voter participation. Judging from recent reactions at meetings and protests in Hoboken, Ridgefield, Jersey City and Secaucus, it can also provide a venue for voter outrage.

Remember that anger. Home rule is rule by the people or rule by criminals in waiting.

Or rule by criminals still in office.

Mark J. Bonamo is managing editor of the Hackensack Chronicle, part of the North Jersey Media Group. Send comments to grad@northjersey.com.

Based on the events of the past few days, that stance is perfectly understandable.

After the stunning arrest of 44 people, including 29 New Jersey public officials, on corruption charges, many have wondered why such a poor excuse for democracy seems to persist, if not flourish, in the Garden State.

Some say the rapacious weed of state corruption grew along the Hudson County waterfront, where new development flooded money into cities such as Jersey City and Hoboken that have well-known histories of less-than-ethical politicians who were less than able to fight off financial temptation.

This cash fueled the campaign coffers of local politicians, stoking the kind of arrogance and feeling of invincibility that reportedly led former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano to say, “I could be, uh, indicted, and I’m still gonna win 85 to 95 percent of [certain ethnic and senior voters]” during a meeting in a diner where he was allegedly negotiating a bribe with the federal government’s confidential witness.

But in the same way people left the cramped confines of urban Hudson County for the suburbs, corruption radiated outward as well. The arrests of the mayors of leafy-green Secaucus and Ridgefield attest to the fact that civic sleaze, unlike a lack of parking spaces, is not easily fled.

The fact that the former mayors of Paterson, Newark and Camden have or are serving time in jail is not an urban legend. Add the recent alleged involvement of rabbis and a human organ trafficker and you have a surreal result that could be reported just as easily in the entertainment section of the newspaper as on the front page.

Except it just isn’t funny.

No easy solutions

The question of how to get people to stop laughing is not an easy one to answer. With 566 separate municipalities and more than 600 school districts checkering the state’s 21 counties, New Jersey’s many layers of government leave so many crevices for corrupt officials, vendors and builders to put down roots that it’s next to impossible to shine a light on all of them.

The watchful eye of the state’s media has had its focus narrowed by financial cutbacks. The New York and Philadelphia television stations usually give scant coverage to their backdoor state with no network affiliate of its own. And New Jersey’s newspapers have fewer resources to devote to the serious investigative work that could lead to serious change.

That change is supposed to be effected by our elected officials through meaningful ethics reform. But New Jersey’s entrenched party machines are conduits of power that can generate formidable get-out-the-vote efforts for candidates, or can short-circuit their hopes.

Once on the inside, many of the newly elected ask themselves a question: Why be Mr. Clean if it means cutting myself off from the cash that greases my ambition?

This sorry state of affairs has yielded an opportunity for voters to cut out the cancer in New Jersey’s body politic. Despite the defiance of the mayor of Ridgefield and other recently arrested officials regarding resignation, more elections (perhaps recalls) will inevitability come, some sooner rather than later. In the long term, voters may consider initiatives that reduce the number of New Jersey’s municipalities or weaken the links between money and politics. But voters can make a more immediate impact upon a system that led to 44 people being paraded in handcuffs.

Electoral payback

Payback at the polls is the only way to punish politicians who ignore you most of the time, waste your tax money and then take an envelope full of cash with their Taylor ham and eggs. Payback at the polls is also the only reward for those who get involved in politics to do the public good — of whom there are many.

By definition, home rule, the sacrosanct concept that led in part to New Jersey’s multiple municipal scandals and Bergen County’s 70 separate municipalities, implies voter participation. Judging from recent reactions at meetings and protests in Hoboken, Ridgefield, Jersey City and Secaucus, it can also provide a venue for voter outrage.

Remember that anger. Home rule is rule by the people or rule by criminals in waiting.

Or rule by criminals still in office.

Mark J. Bonamo is managing editor of the Hackensack Chronicle, part of the North Jersey Media Group. Send comments to grad@northjersey.com.

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