Red Bank introduces pay-to-play ordinance

Mayor calls ban on contributions


Staff Writer

After months of preparation, the Red Bank Borough Council introduced an ordinance to cap campaign contributions from certain entities at its meeting last week.

The ordinance would limit political contributions — including in-kind contributions from individuals with professional service contracts that are not subject to public bid — to $400 to any council or mayoral candidate, or $500 to any political party committee.

Companies with professional services contracts with the borough will be limited to a total of $2,500 in contributions to both borough candidates and political party committees.

Professional services contracts not open to public bid include borough attorneys and engineers.

The ordinance stipulates that a professional business must wait one full calendar year between making a contribution in excess of the prescribed amounts to be eligible for any contract to be awarded to it.

Any contributions made before the effective date of the ordinance will not be subject to the regulations. The ordinance will become effective immediately upon being passed by the council.

It is up for final vote on Oct. 12.

A clause in the ordinance would allow businesses to rectify a contribution violation of the ordinance, if, within 30 days after the general election the business entity notifies the mayor and council in writing, and seeks and receives reimbursement of the contribution from the borough candidate or borough or Monmouth County political party committee.

The practice of making large political contributions in exchange for lucrative contracts is known as “pay-to-play,” and the borough is one of a growing number of municipalities that are adopting measures to stop the practice.

“Citizens need assurance that we’re operating with good government in mind and that we’re taking every step to assure them everything is on the up and up,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Beck in a telephone interview earlier this year when the issue began to build momentum and be discussed at the council level.

The new ordinance will also require that any professional business seeking a contract in the borough must provide a certified statement in writing that it has not made any ordinance-violating contributions for the year preceding the contract negotiations.

The ordinance bars contributions during the process of negotiations.

Any business that knowingly conceals or misrepresents contributions given or received will be disqualified from eligibility for future borough contracts for a period of four years from the date of the violation.

The ordinance states that it should be interpreted liberally to “serve the reasonable concerns of taxpayers and residents.”

“The ordinance should be interpreted to prevent and defeat actions that are taken to avoid or evade the policies of this ordinance,” it reads.

Beck, along with councilmen Robert J. Bifani and Arthur Murphy III, formed a committee to draw up the ordinance, aimed at reassuring residents of the borough that the ban was a priority of the council.

“It was a bipartisan effort,” said Beck at the council meeting last week.

Murphy said the committee met three times over the summer and discussed at length different versions of the ordinance that are currently in place in other Monmouth County municipalities.

According to Murphy, Red Bank would be the 10th town in the county to adopt such an ordinance, but the state law concerning this issue is still changing and expanding.

“We looked at many different town ordinances, and we picked what we thought would fit with our town and what was probably going to remain constant with the state,” Murphy said. “We will adapt the ordinance as needed to keep up with the state. As the state progresses and changes, so are the towns able to do that.”

One concern about the ordinance was voiced by Councilman John Curley, who asked if the ordinance addressed “spin money,” which he said are contributions made by other county entities to local campaign efforts.

Beck said that the committee was able to agree that Monmouth County Political Action Committees (PAC) should have limitations placed on contributions.

If a Monmouth County PAC contributes in excess of $2,500 to a municipal candidate or party committee, then an individual contractor working for the borough cannot contribute more than $400 to any candidate or $500 to any political party committee. The limitation of $2,500 would also apply to professional businesses in this case.

“The law is evolving at the state level,” Bifani said.

Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. said the committee did a good job and that it is the first step in a process.

“The entire council unanimously supported a pay-to-play ordinance,” said McKenna. “We’re taking a very big first step. If we have to take it in steps, at least we’re moving forward.”

McKenna also said that this is not just a local problem, but that it effects every aspect of the government.

“It’s a national problem, not just a municipal problem,” said McKenna.

The form for the ordinance was based on one drafted by Common Cause NJ, a grassroots, not-for-profit public interest group that has been promoting and distributing the ordinance to municipalities all over the state.

Beck said she sees many similarities between the ordinance from Common Cause NJ and the recent executive order of Sept. 22 distributed by Gov. James E. McGreevey’s office.

Although this order also allows a 30-day window to request and receive reimbursement for contributions, it has zero tolerance for contributions, allowing none for gubernatorial candidates and sitting governors from professional businesses.