DiBella offers plan to stop ‘pay-to-play’


Staff Writer

DiBella offers plan
to stop ‘pay-to-play’
Howell’s GOP
mayoral candidate also
proposes other reforms
Staff Writer

HOWELL — Councilman Joseph M. DiBella has presented a six-point plan that he says addresses "pay-to-play" and would bring much-needed reforms to local government policies.

Along with being a mid-term councilman, DiBella is also the Republican candidate for mayor in November.

DiBella says he developed the proposal because he believes public service is an "honorable profession" but that the public has lost faith in the process.

DiBella says his plan is intended to hold public officials to higher ethical standard while ensuring professionals looking to do business with the township will be "competing on a level playing field, as opposed to a field of political patronage."

Mayor Timothy J. Konopka, a Democrat, says DiBella’s proposal is well-meaning, but flawed. So does Republican Councilman Peter Tobasco, one of DiBella’s running mates when the two were elected to the Township Council in November 2002. Tobasco said DiBella’s proposal is too broad in its possible interpretations and narrow in focus.

Tobasco said while he was "encouraged that Joe is seeking integrity in government," he said there were "some real double-edged swords here [in pay-to-play reforms]," adding that flexibility was needed.

DiBella’s six-point plan addresses the so-called "pay to play" practice that has come under fire statewide. Pay-to-play is the practice of awarding no-bid contracts to professionals who contribute cash to political campaigns.

Included in DiBella’s six points is the requirement that all township professional services or positions be put out for competitive bid. He said this would uphold a high level of quality while controlling costs, and result in equitable bid specifications and eligibility standards.

Secondly, DiBella said he wants political candidates to be barred from accepting campaign contributions from any real estate developer. DiBella said under his proposal, no elected official or candidate for public office will be able to accept a contribution of any kind from a developer who has done or is in the process of doing business in Howell.

However, DiBella says that in the absence of state action, banning or limiting contributions from professionals is "meaningless due to the issue of wheeling."

DiBella characterizes wheeling as a process whereby campaign contributors get around campaign laws by making contributions to one political entity or county organization, which then funnels that money back to the originally intended recipient.

Konopka mused that "leveling the playing field" might not be possible unless some sort of public fund were established that would consist of set amounts that would be split by qualified candidates, who would not be allowed to spend any other monies than what the fund allows.

"This would prevent wealthy people and PAC’s [political action committees] from buying elections," Konopka said.

DiBella is also calling for the "tightening" of reimbursable expenses for officials and township employees.

DiBella said he wants a complete overhaul of the policy and procedures that govern business expenses and other reimbursable expenses that can be submitted by township officials or employees. He said his intent is to ensure that meals, trips, conference fees, subscriptions or any related items are carefully monitored or possibly eliminated altogether as eligible expenses for reimbursement.

Konopka said while it was necessary to keep a keen eye on reimbursable expenses by employees — "which is something we already do" — the idea of eliminating reimbursement altogether was unrealistic and unfair to employees who have to sometimes travel in the furtherance of township business or enroll in required educational seminars.

Referring to a recent scandal at the county level in which county officials were found to be submitting vouchers for alcoholic beverages and other "excesses," Konopka said, "We, of course, have to stay on top of things to make sure we don’t have the excesses happen that happened at the county level."

DiBella next called for barring elected officials and employees from accepting gifts of any kind. DiBella said under his plan, no elected official or employee would be allowed to accept gifts or tickets or dinners from any entity. He said gifts such as holiday baskets or tickets to events would be "strictly prohibited."

Tobasco said he disagreed and said the proposed rule is too vague.

Tobasco said many times since he took office he has received complimentary invitations to many events, whereby attending he is "making contacts, widening the vision and furthering the business of the town."

Konopka said during his eight years in office he has never received or advocated the acceptance of personal gifts by any township official.

However, he said, there were times when visiting dignitaries bestowed tokens as a gesture of friendship and respect. He said such items were accepted on behalf of the citizens of Howell and left for display at town hall.

DiBella said he also wants a review of the township’s current nepotism ordinance to ensure that elected officials and employees cannot use their position to assist any member of their family in securing employment or contracts with Howell Township.

Nepotism is defined as favoritism shown to relatives.

DiBella said he also advocates prohibiting former elected officials and their family members from accepting a position with the township for a least three years after the official has left office.Konopka said he believes that a "qualified candidate" for any available township position should not be "discriminated against just because a relative already works for the town.

"People should be hired or not hired according to their individual abilities, not for who they’re related to," Konopka said.

Tobasco said he agreed with the mayor’s observations on nepotism, noting the practice was not always a bad thing when a good work ethic has already been demonstrated by one employee and a qualified candidate is recommended and they happen to be related.

"I mean we should hire the right person for the job regardless of who they’re related to," Tobasco said. "The only consideration should be, can they do the job and do it well."

Finally, DiBella said he is calling for "tighter campaign contribution disclosure."

DiBella said he wants all candidates to provide copies of all election reports to the township clerk within 48 hours after they are due at the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). DiBella said this way residents can have instant access to the material during a campaign, rather than after.

In announcing the plan at the governing body’s May 18 meeting, DiBella said he came up with the plan in order to ensure that township officials are held "to the highest standards for personal and professional conduct."

Regarding a reform in government proposal of any kind, Konopka said, "I’m 100 percent in favor of reforms, but if you’re go­ing to enact reforms make sure it is a legitimate, concrete reform that’s going to make a real impact, not just political hyperbole."

Tobasco said for him the real is­sue is not the so-called "pay-to-play," but rather "integrity in gov­ernment."

Tobasco said as an elected offi­cial he should be allowed to tap into the talent of professionals he knows and trusts and not be pre­cluded from choosing someone be­cause they made political contri­butions. Just as flawed, Tobasco said, is awarding bidding contracts for professionals to the lowest bid­der.

"Sometimes you don’t want the lowest bidder," he said. "Anyone can submit a low bid to get the job. Will they be the best one for the job is the only concern I should have when I’m going to choose someone to do the peoples’ business."

Other members of the Township Council did not respond to a re­quest for comment on DiBella’s re­form proposal.

DiBella said at the meeting he would be presenting a formal pre­sentation of his plan to the govern­ing body within the coming weeks.