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The Crocodilians
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 political corruption.

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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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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