When are voters going to decide enough is enough?

The Record
August 4, 2009

I hope that I am not alone in feeling angry, frustrated and disgusted at the scene on July 23 as 44 handcuffed individuals — primarily public officials — in New Jersey were being ushered into court on corruption charges. After an entire school bus of assemblymen, mayors, council members and political operatives unloaded in front of the courthouse in Newark, the late night talk show hosts and Op-Ed Page writers across the state had their fill of material for the next few weeks.

But amid the assumption of “that’s just Jersey,” I have been left wondering: When are voters going to decide enough is enough? Is another gaggle of elected officials selling their offices and integrity enough to motivate every voter in the state?

For starters, New Jersey voters need to recognize that corruption is one of the main reasons that state taxes are so high. Corruption does not just tarnish reputations, it also erodes the hard-earned dollars of ordinary New Jersey families. Every time elected officials accept a bribe from a developer or a bidder on a state contract, they are inviting a higher cost for a service that New Jersey needs.

Let’s be clear: Corruption on the part of government officials is the hidden tax that all hard-working New Jerseyans are forced to pay. The cost of government contracts awarded based upon political contributions, conflicts of interest on the part of government officials and envelopes full of cash comes out of all of our pockets in the form of higher costs of government.

There are a number of reasons why we have been particularly susceptible to the weedlike growth of corruption. As one political observer noted, “New Jersey is divided into hundreds of tiny fiefdoms, where part-time elected officials…wield considerable power, and the heady mix of arrogance, control and promised payoffs dissolves the will of even the most determined reformer.”

Acting with impunity

To be sure, the abundance of government layers — from municipal to county and sometimes in between — and the countless commissions, boards and committees, give far too many people the sense that they can take their piece of the pie with impunity.

While this issue is a complex one that won’t be solved immediately, there are other, more straightforward steps we can take now to stop corruption in its tracks:

Completely end the practice of dual-office holding: The practice of public officials holding multiple offices creates conflicts of interest and worsens the deepening cynicism that the public has toward government service. Current dual officeholders in the Legislature were exempt from the ban that was recently passed, and that loophole must be closed.

Promote strong media: A strong and vibrant Fourth Estate tests government transparency and brings accountability to our elected leaders. While I’ve certainly had my share of frustrating experiences in the press, I recognize the benefit the media bring to voters’ ability to get the facts about issues, candidates and elected officials.

Vote. Of the 44 individuals arrested in the recent roundup, 19 were from Hudson County. The primary turnout in Hudson in the last election was a paltry 31 percent. At the end of the day, elected officials have continued their corrupt practices because no one has called them on it. We will not get corrupt hands out of our pockets if we do not follow the political process and get to the polls. The U.S. Attorney’s office has done its job well, but the rest is up to us.

Zero tolerance

Make no mistake, the parade of handcuffed politicians will continue until voters demonstrate with our actions that we will tolerate it no longer. It is time for voters to take a stand against egregious abuses of the public trust. The election this fall is the perfect opportunity for New Jerseyans to send this strong message. This fall’s election is the perfect opportunity for New Jerseyans to take a stand and fire those who have broken the public trust.

Over the past week, many have shrugged off the latest arrests, content to chalk it up to “good old New Jersey.” But I reject that characterization. It’s time we demand a government that works for us again.