Pay to play in Brigantine

Press of Atlantic City
September 8, 2011

Many small towns in South Jersey still operate like good old boys clubs, especially on the barrier islands. It’s all about pals, cronies and who went to high school with whom.

In a way, that’s sort of charming and somewhat understandable. This kind of thing virtually defines small-town life.

But times have changed. And when it comes to government – to spending the people’s money – awarding jobs and contracts to pals, specifically because they are pals, is unacceptable.

Are you listening, Brigantine officials? Because we promise, the people who elect you are listening. And they can’t be happy after reading Press staff writer Steven Lemongello’s Sept. 6 story about how, when hiring professionals such as lawyers and engineers, the city gives preference to those who live or have lived in Brigantine – even if the contract costs taxpayers more. It’s called a “familiarity clause.”

And, the way these things work, those same professionals then contribute lavishly to the political party in power – in this case, Republicans.

But the main issue here isn’t so much the familiarity clause that’s included in some ofBrigantine‘s requests for proposals from professionals. No, the real issue is Brigantine‘s failure up until recently to pass a pay-to-play ban – and the massive loophole that the state Legislature created to allow towns to avoid passing such bans.

Under this loophole, candidates and political parties in towns that have a so-called “fair and open” process for professional contracts can still get campaign contributions from those professionals.

Brigantine‘s process, even with the familiarity clause, is considered fair and open – and it’s a perfect example of why the state Legislature should close this loophole. Brigantine‘s very “familiar” lawyers and engineers have donated $17,000 in the past three years to the officials awarding them those contracts.

Last month, Brigantine finally passed a local pay-to-play ordinance. That’s good. It will at least diminish the tawdry flow of campaign dollars from the city’s professionals. But Brigantine‘s ordinance – which prohibits city contractors from donating more than $300 to candidates and more than $500 to political committees, and limits the total contributed from all partners in a firm to no more than $2,500 – is among the more liberal pay-to-play ordinances. The model ordinance caps all contributions from contractors at $300.

But as we said, the real problem is that “fair and open” loophole, which allows public officials in far too many towns and counties to continue to get campaign contributions from the people to whom they award lucrative contracts. State lawmakers should close it.

And Brigantine should drop the familiarity clause. These are supposed to be arm’s-length transactions. No one should have their hand in anyone’s pocket – or their arm around anyone’s shoulder.

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