Washington aims to cap some contributions

Township Committee introduces campaign finance reform measures.

By: Mark Moffa
   WASHINGTON — Mirroring the national political scene, the Township Committee has introduced campaign finance reform legislation — and at least one member thinks the measure is not good enough.
   The committee last week introduced an ordinance that would restrict the amount of money any business wishing to contract with the township could donate to a local candidate or to a Mercer County political committee.
   The measure restricts professional businesses from contracting with the township if they have donated more than $250 to any candidate for Township Committee or more than $500 to any municipal or county political party committee.
   Officials have said the restrictions would prevent the appearance of preferential treatment in contracting professional services. These services, such as the township attorney and the engineering and auditing firms, are hired by the Township Committee without a public bidding process.
   "If too much money comes into the system, then people become obligated to try to help the people who gave them the money," Mayor Dave Fried said. He said by limiting the amount of contributions, the township hopes to limit the amount of pressure or influence a firm could have over elected officials.
   The mayor said he believes Washington will be the first municipality in the state to adopt such a campaign finance reform law.
   Township Committeeman Jack Mozloom, however, had concerns about the ordinance. He said it should be more extensive, but also questioned the limits it would place on donations to the county committees.
   "I don’t know that we have a right to tell the township attorney that he can’t contribute to the Mercer County Republican Party," Mr. Mozloom said. "As far as I’m concerned, we have no right to restrict his ability to do that."
   But Township Attorney Dave Kenny, at the April 4 Township Committee meeting, said the committee’s intents are legal.
   "You are just saying you will not award a contract to someone who made donations in excess of these amounts," Mr. Kenny said.
   The committee recently interviewed candidates for its professional positions: Township attorney, bond counsel, engineer, auditor, public defender, prosecutor and housing board attorney. Mayor Dave Fried said he wanted to re-evaluate the township’s contracts to make sure there was no sense of impropriety in the awarding of contracts.
   The campaign finance reform ordinance was modified from its original version before it was introduced. The measure originally called for contribution limits of $400 to Township Committee candidates and $1,500 to any municipal or county political party committee. These were lowered to $250 and $500, respectively. State law establishes $1,500 and $2,500 limits.
   According to the ordinance, no professional business that has exceeded these contribution limits within a year of seeking a contract will be able to enter into an agreement with the township.
   No business is allowed to give any money to a candidate or holder of local public office or to a municipal or county political committee while it is under contract or in the process of negotiating with the township for a contract.
   The ordinance states contributions made prior to the adoption of the ordinance will not be considered a violation of the measure. Plus, a violation can be "cured" if the business seeks a reimbursement of excess contributions from a candidate within 30 days of a general election.
   Businesses found in violation would be prohibited from contracted with the township for four years.
   Mr. Mozloom said the law contains a "gaping hole" by not limiting contributions from real estate developers
   "This contract professional stuff is a drop in the bucket," he said. More money is donated from developers than contract professionals, Mr. Mozloom added.
   He said any entity having a financial stake in a decision made by the township should be included in the law.
Mayor Fried said he would support expanding the law, but he questioned the legality of limiting contributions from businesses not contracted with the township.
   Township Committeeman Doug Tindall and Township Attorney Dave Kenny agreed.
   "We only have the ability to control those entities which we hire," Mr. Tindall said.
   "I don’t think you can legally restrict contributions from developers and other companies," Mr. Kenny added.
   Mr. Mozloom said he will support the measure anyway, but will introduce an additional ordinance with restrictions for developers.
   Mayor Fried said he will support Mr. Mozloom’s proposal, but that it is more appropriate as a separate ordinance because the legality of the measure is questionable.
   As for the ordinance that was introduced already, the committee will hold a public hearing and might adopt the ordinance at its 7:30 p.m. April 25 meeting at the municipal building, off Route 130 North near Robbinsville-Allentown Road (Route 526).