Pay-to-play ordinance expected next month

Lawrence council tweaks proposal wording.

By: Lea Kahn
   Municipal Attorney Kevin Nerwinski got his marching orders Tuesday night — tweak a proposed ordinance that would restrict the amount of money that a professional or business could contribute to a political candidate’s campaign.
   Mr. Nerwinski expects to return to Township Council with an ordinance for introduction at its Feb. 3 meeting. The council spent about a half-hour pouring over a proposed "pay-to-play" ordinance drafted by Councilman Michael Powers before handing it off to the municipal attorney.
   At least one of those tweaks is expected to be the elimination of "Mercer County party committee" from the ordinance. As it was presented Tuesday night, the ordinance would have forced donors to choose between contributing to a Mercer County election or a municipal election.
   Under state law, a governing body may award a contract without seeking bids to professionals such as architects, attorneys, engineers and planners. Pay-to-play ordinances ban or restrict the amount of money they could contribute to political campaigns.
   The issue of pay-to-play was raised during the Township Council race last fall. The Republican candidates — Robert Brackett, Colette Coolbaugh and Victor Murray — favored a pay-to-play ordinance. Democratic candidate Greg Puliti, an incumbent councilman who was serving as mayor at that time, suggested waiting for state legislation to address the issue.
   At Township Council’s New Year’s Day reorganization meeting, Councilman Rick Miller — the lone Republican on council — repeated the call for Township Council to adopt a pay-to-play ordinance.
   Mr. Miller sought to introduce a pay-to-play ordinance on Jan. 6, but Mayor Mark Holmes, Deputy Mayor Pam Mount and Councilmen Michael Powers and Greg Puliti — all Democrats — declined to act on it. However, they agreed to review the ordinance.
   The state Election Law Enforcement Commission calls for the name of a donor to be listed on campaign finance reports if the donor has contributed $400 or more. It also applies to political action committees. The Lawrence Township Democratic and Republican clubs have filed forms acknowledging they are PACs.
   The draft ordinance under discussion Tuesday night allows contributors to give up to $400 to each candidate for Township Council. That number is tied to ELEC requirements.
   To prevent large firms from circumventing the $400-per-contributor limit, the ordinance also sets a $2,500 maximum contribution from a firm. With such a limit for example, a firm with 10 partners or principals could contribute $4,000 — $400 from each partner.
   The proposed ordinance also would limit professionals or businesses to contributing a maximum of $800 to the township’s party committee or club organizations, or to the Mercer County party committee.
   It was decided Tuesday night — after some wrangling — to eliminate "Mercer County party committee" from the ordinance. Mr. Powers said his proposed ordinance was based on the Common Cause advocacy group’s model pay-to-play ordinance.
   Common Cause injected the county party committee concept into its model ordinance to prevent contributors from giving money to a county party committee, which in turn would funnel that money into a candidate’s campaign fund.
   Mayor Mark Holmes objected to including "Mercer County party committee" in the ordinance because it would force contributors to choose between donating to a municipal election or a county election.
   If a professional was "doing business" with Mercer County and a town, he or she could not contribute to the freeholder or county executive or county clerk or surrogate’s campaigns and to the Township Council campaign, the mayor said.
   "It gets too messy," Mayor Holmes said. "This is a local pay-to-play ordinance."
   Mr. Miller questioned whether ELEC could keep tabs on contributions. He pointed out that the state commission has to watch over 21 counties and 566 municipalities.
   Deputy Mayor Pam Mount said Township Council agrees that it is important for the public to know who has contributed to a candidate’s campaign — which is a function that ELEC already performs.
   "It’s all very open and transparent, which is the way we want it to be," Ms. Mount said. "I think in this town, we have always prided ourselves for using qualified professionals. It has nothing to do with contributions."
   Councilman Greg Puliti agreed that the professionals hired by Lawrence Township are screened and qualified. He said he is "proud" of the professionals that the township hires, adding that they are selected on the quality of their work.
   Pushing for the pay-to-play ordinance, Mr. Miller called on the council to "keep the public trust." This council has not broken the public’s faith in the governing body, he said.