October 9, 2004: Once upon a time, the small town of Hoboken, New Jersey had a market economy and a democratic government. Both were socially
imperfect and impacted by organized crime and political
corruption. Hoboken is now an oligarchical model city. One built
by massive transfers of federal, state and local taxpayer wealth
and ruled by an elite of developers, politicians and public
vendors joined at the hip by public money. But not everything
has changed: Hoboken is still impacted by organized crime and
Mile square Hoboken was the first swath of real estate in post
industrial Hudson County to turn golden. In the mid 70's,
developers willing to build or rehab property in Hoboken started
receiving tax breaks, low interest government insured loans
and federal and state redevelopment funding. For a few years,
this was reasonable policy. By 1980 it was obvious Hoboken's
doldrums were behind it. Yet a quarter of a century later,
the goodies keep coming.
Corrupt political machines have a long tradition in Hudson
County. In the 70's, it seemed as if their grip might be easing.
But massive infusions of revitalization dollars, along with the
trend to give local governments more say over how such funds are
distributed, poured new wine into old bottles. By the 80's,
a generation of politicians who began careers talking reform,
were walking like hoary machine vets. Doing pay-for-play.
Developers were paying for things such as state and federal
housing and transportation grants, tax abatements and favorable
land use decisions. Political contributions, gratuities and
outright bribes were the coin of the realm. Though the cost of
political grease was steep, the results were stellar. The strip
of Hudson County facing Manhattan is now one of the most valuable
stretches of real estate in New Jersey.
The more successful developers became, the more their political
clout grew. The gung ho atmosphere of government-for-sale
encouraged public vendors of county and municipal services to join the jamboree. Meanwhile the influence of voters over
their elected officials diminished.
Hudson County residents don't go gently into the night.
Reform struggles are constant. Some focus on specific issues--
such as the impact of massive tax abatements on the property
taxes of homeowners, or the public's right of access to a
waterfront developed with public money. Reform efforts sometimes
coalesce around political candidates. The success rate of the
latter is spotty at best. Some candidates turn out to be reps for
out-of-power factions of the same old crews. Even the genuine
sometimes morph into what they replace. The temptations to do
so are immense.
In Hoboken an attempt is being made to lessen temptation.
A group of Hobokenites called People for Open Government (POG)
has been working to put several reform ordinances on the Hoboken
ballot this year. One is an anti pay-for-play ordinance aimed
primarily at the public contract process. The
ordinance was drafted with assistance from Common Cause New
Jersey in accordance with the state's "Initiative and Referendum"
statute. Essentially, public vendors doing business with the city of Hoboken could not make political contributions to officials who have the power to grant no-bid contracts. The ordinance is careful to plug the holes, such as PAC and family
member donations, which typically render such measures toothless.
Over the summer more than 1000 registered voters in Hoboken
signed the petition to put the ordinance on November's ballot.
An impressive number considering that Hoboken is small and many
of its residents are NYC focused and uninvolved in local
politics. The pay-for-play ordinance was set to appear on the
ballot. It was time for the games to begin.
Round one: Members of the Hoboken City Council with the support
of Mayor Dave Roberts, a reform candidate elected in 2001, tried
to substitute a rewritten, watered down version of the ordinance
for the one crafted by POG. But the rewrite idea got tossed off
the playing field by a Hudson County judge.
Round two: Hudson County Clerk Javier Inclan, whose job it is
to oversee the county's election process, claimed that the
ordinance, as written, was too long to appear on the ballot
in November's election. Inclan posited
an innovative solution to the problem: dual voting machines!
One of which would be reserved for the pay-for-play ordinance.
The advantages of his idea were many. After standing on line to
vote in the presidential election and for other candidates in other races, plus
whatever state referendums might be on the ballot, Hobokenites
would queue up again to vote on the pay-for-play ordinance.
Less hardy voters wouldn't make it to the second box, thereby
weeding out the lazily civic minded from the truly devoted. The
time spent voting would give these more intrepid souls a reason
to trade a day at work for one spent relaxing in school
basements. Plus all the pay-for-play votes would wind up in
totally separate voting machines. Making tallying the results
much much easier.
Alas. Inclan's innovative plan was not to be. The spoil sport
court again intervened. A solution to the problem of the lengthy
ordinance was found in a process called "editing".
Perhaps dual voting machines was an overly ornate solution to
a simple problem. It's possible Hudson County Clerk Javier Inclan
went off on a mental tangent because he had too much time on his
hands. In August, the U.S. Department of State stopped accepting
passport applications processed by the Hudson County Clerk's
office. Birth certificates issued by the county as proof of
citizenship are also not being accepted. Due to an ongoing
investigation by the State Department and the U.S. Department of
Justice into the alleged sale of such documents. In early August,
Richard Boucher, a spokesperson for the State Department was
quoted by Associated Press: "The investigation has developed
facts indicating that we cannot rely on the accuracy of
information on passport applications that were processed by
the county clerk's office."
Though Hudson County Clerk Javier Inclan won't be processing
passport applications, issuing birth certificates for proof of
citizenship, or installing dual voting machines in Hoboken, he
still has his position as executive director of the Hudson County
Democratic Organization (HCDO) to keep him busy. Though being executive director is not as important as being the organization's chairman, the job is still demanding. As described in the New
York Times (12/14/03) the HCDO "is one of the most formidable
political machines in the nation". HCDO has its fingers in many
election pies. Back in 2002, when HCDO was seeking to overturn
unsatisfactory results in the Hudson County state senate and
state assembly races, Javier Inclan announced that volunteers
would examine election records from throughout the relevant districts,
looking for discrepancies in voter signatures and problems with
absentee ballots. The late Mayor Glenn Cunningham of Jersey
City, complained that the HCDO investigation was focused on
predominantly African American areas. Inclan said not so.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems a shame Javier Inclan
couldn't have rounded up another army of volunteers to go over
passport applications and birth certificates at the Hudson County
Clerk's office. Then the job might still be providing him with
enough work to keep his mind from straying into corridors lined
with multiple voting machines.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
"I am confident that Javier Inclan will serve in the position of
Hudson County Clerk with distinction. His commitment to public
service and exceptional intellect are unquestioned."
New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey upon his appointment of Javier
Inclan as Hudson County Clerk. Jersey City Online
"All crocodilians, no matter their size, are dangerous."
Ohio herpetologist John Robert Jonak, upon the capture of an
small alligator believed to be an abandoned pet, in a lake near
Mentor, Ohio. Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Hoboken anti pay-for-play ordinance can be viewed at:
People for Open Government
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