EDITORIAL: Petition can pick up where council failed

EDITORIAL: Five-member committee meets to discuss local campaign finance reform.

   A group of local residents appears ready to sidestep the Township Council and change the way local elections are paid for.
   A five-member exploratory committee was slated to meet Wednesday night after the South Brunswick Post’s early evening deadline to discuss a petition drive designed to end the influence campaign cash appears to have on government contracts and the planning process.
   The committee is responding to the council’s inability to pass a local ordinance last year that would have placed significant restrictions on the amount of money that professional firms seeking contracts from the township or developers with applications before the township planning or zoning boards could give to local and county campaigns and party committees.
   That failure was irresponsible, given the amount of cash being spent. Local Democrats have raised and spent more than $300,000 in the three elections held since the township changed its form of government in 1998. Republicans have raised about $130,000 during the same time.
   This money — much of which comes from land developers, attorneys, engineers, planning firms and others who do business for the various local governments in the county or need an approval from a local board — acts as a virus in the system’s bloodstream, the infection weakening the link between the folks who are elected and the people they represent.
   That’s why the council spent numerous meetings last year discussing the contribution limits. That it passed on its chance to take the big shot should not prevent the community from seeing reform occur. The council charter approved by voters in 1997 includes a provision for initiative and referendum, under which residents can petition the council for new laws.
   Citizens can take the initiative by drafting an ordinance and collecting signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in the township, or about 2,100. They then present the petition to the council, which has the option to adopt the ordinance. If it declines, the ordinance is then placed before voters.
   This is the mission the exploratory committee appears ready to embark upon. The five-member committee — which includes two registered Republicans, a registered Democrat and two registered independents — has yet to set an agenda or write an ordinance.
   Our suggestion is that it use the ordinance that failed last year, which would have limited contributions from individuals who work for companies seeking public contracts or submitting development applications to township bodies to $400 a year to township mayoral or council candidates and $500 to local or county political parties. It also would have placed a $2,500 annual cap on contributions made to local campaigns and township and county parties by companies seeking to do business with the township and it would prohibit individuals and businesses from contributing more than $7,200 per election to political committees below the state level.
   Our only qualm about the committee is the involvement of former council candidate Joseph DelGuerico, who is vice chairman of the township’s Republican Party. This is not meant as a personal knock against Mr. DelGuercio, but we are concerned that his leadership role with his party will give the Democrats ammunition to taint the petition process as being politically motivated.
   This is too important a reform to let that happen.