Failed Ordinance Raises Questions On Pay-To-Play Contribution Limits

An ordinance that was included in the agenda for the June 2, 2016 Mayor & Council meeting but never got past introduction raises questions on one councilman’s motives about local campaign contribution limits and the effectiveness of the original ordinance.

Ordinance 2464, which was ambiguously titled “AN ORDINANCE ADOPTING N.J.S.A. 19:44A-1 ET SEQ. AND REPEALING ORDINANCE NO. 2395 AS CODIFIED I SECTION 2-4 OF THE BOROUGH CODE”, had even more vague language that gave no indication of its true purpose. In effect, the law would have raised and – according to bill sponsor and Fourth Ward Councilman Mohamed ‘Gino’ Elmarassy – even eliminated the limit of allowable campaign contributions that a vendor/contractor/service provider could make to a local political candidate without being prohibited from bidding or providing a service through a borough contract. To add to the concern about a lack of transparency, Councilman Elmarassy stated that a friend had drafted the ordinance but never said who that friend was nor that person’s interest in changing the laws of the borough.

The councilman was contacted via phone and continued to refuse to name his attorney friend and stated he would call back to explain the reason as to why an unnamed attorney would have an interest in municipal political contributions. Councilman Elmarassy has never returned such a phone call.

The ordinance had vague wording, such as where it stated that it “effectively protects the tax payers and residents of the Borough of Roselle Park” and that adoption of the ordinance would “be in the best interest of the Borough of Roselle Park”. Nowhere in the nine paragraph ordinance was there any explicit mention of removing the provision that prevents any contributor who donates over $200 to a candidate or officeholder from being able to provide professional services in Roselle Park.

The over 20-minute discussion began with Third Ward Councilman Ryan Kelly requesting a clarification on a question brought up during the public comment portion of the meeting about the New Jersey statute cited in the ordinance. While the original ordinance itself, Ordinance 2395, cites NJSA 40A:11, the new ordinance cited NJSA 19:44A-1. It was that question which had Borough Attorney Richard Huxford respond that Councilman Elmarassy was the bill’s sponsor and Mr. Huxford clarified things by stating, “It was basically the state pay-to-play ordinance as to lowering the threshold from $300 to a lesser amount.”

The borough attorney stated that council in 2013 decided to put the threshold at $200 and also indicated that if anyone went above that threshold of $200 then that person or that company or that entity was unable to bid for a threshold contract. If this new ordinance were to be adopted, Ordinance 2395 would be repealed and the borough would be bound to the state pay-to-play statute which – as long as the borough’s process is fair and open – could allow a contractor to contribute above $300 up to the amount allowed by law and still apply for professional services contract. The upper limit was later stated to be $3,500.

“When I read this ordinance I requested a translation,” stated Fifth Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley.

Councilman Kelly asked jokingly, “Do you have that translation by chance?”

Councilman Shipley continued, “In repealing this, it goes back to the municipal portion of the state statute, [and] would allow a person to contribute up to – what is it – $3,500.”

Councilman Kelly pondered aloud if the new ordinance was approved, then someone could make a political contribution of $3,500 and could still bid. He added, “I’m good. I think that’s clear enough. I mean, I guess theoretically then, I would be able to market myself for higher political contributions.”

The councilman then put on the record that he previously voted a couple of years ago to approve the current ordinance which limits contributions to $200. He along with Mayor Hokanson and Councilwoman Storey are the current sitting members of the governing body who approved Ordinance 2395.

“We all did,” Mayor Carl Hokanson stated, adding, “Everybody’s entitled to their political donations to political parties which is fine but my main concern was . . . if we go over the $300 we could possibly lose our 5% state aid and I don’t think the taxpayers should be subject to that loss because of political parties.”

Kenneth Blum, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), explained further that the reason for the first ordinance, Ordinance 2395, was to have the municipality answer ‘yes’ on a Best Practice checklist which would impact state aid if the 50 questions do not collect enough points. Mr. Blum also stated that there was no guarantee that this particular question would be included in following years’ checklists but that the municipality could always use all the points it can get.

“Could we still answer yes on that question at 300?” asked Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey.

“No, not as is,” responded the CFO.

The Borough Attorney stated that according to Councilman Elmarassy, “This may be tweaked down the road.”

It was at this point that the Fourth Ward Councilman made the explicit statement, “It’s unlimited contribution and it’s, I believe, good for both parties also too so I think it’s good.”

“Oh it’s good for both parties but . . . it’s about the town and, right now it’s a protection of, how do I put it, political influence,” retorted Councilman Shipley.

When Councilman Kelly asked what was the intended purpose of this new ordinance, Mr. Huxford replied, “I would have to defer to Councilman Elmarassy. I know he said a friend of his drafted it.”

Mayor Hokanson interjected at this point, “It was basically [$]300 years ago it and we lowered it down to [$]200. Over the years it’s hindered to the point that after $200 you couldn’t do anything. So now with this we can…”

“Unlimited,” repeated Councilman Elmarassy, interrupting the mayor. He later stated, for a third time, “It’s unlimited, basically, the contributions.”

Mr. Huxford stated that the governing body in 20013 made clear its intention that anyone who went over $200 could not make an application to provide a service to the municipality.

Councilman Shipley made a motion to table the ordinance so it could be tweaked.

“Can we table it forever?,” asked Councilman Kelly. He later took back his motion, stating, “I will withdraw that and vote ‘no’ on tabling it so I can vote it down”.

First Ward Councilman Eugene Meola entered into the discussion by saying, “I think Roselle Park loses a lot of good people that want to work for the community but they can’t because they donated money in the past and [in] past elections. They’re still good businesses but because they just happened to donate money, even if they donated money to both parties, they’re restricted from doing any work in the community. Even if they’re independent. This is, I think, breaks off of that.”

Bernie Sanders would be extremely disappointed.” – Councilman Ryan Kelly

“The point is integrity,” said Councilman Shipley, “It just opens a Pandora’s box to a lot of things.”

“If this was Congress I would agree with you but this is,” answered Councilman Meola.

“Well, wait a minute, this is our town,” interjected Councilman Shipley, “This affects your life, your family’s life, anybody who’s in this town. Everything that we do and the decisions we make affects everybody we love.”

Councilman Meola responded, “But this is not written in stone. It can be changed every year.”

“But that’s my point, it’s not going to be changed,” stated Councilman Shipley, “We need to discuss it now. We are making a very serious decision. This is a serious piece of legislation as it were. It’s not a small thing.”

With that, the mayor called for a vote on the motion to table the ordinance. The motion to table Ordinance 2464 was denied by a 4-2 vote with only councilmembers Shipley and Storey voting to table it. The original motion to introduce the ordinance still needed to be voted on.

“This is for introduction right?,” asked Councilman Meola, “We’re still going to have a public portion, more than one, at least two more times, right?”

It was brought to his attention that there would only be one public hearing before adoption. He then stated that by the second reading the governing body would have more answers and tweaks, adding, “We don’t have the answers at 9:15 at night. I agree with you, we’ll work on it. This is not going to die.”

“Now is the time,” was Councilman Shipley’s response to that statement, “There’s some serious ramifications to doing this. We need to understand and the public needs to understand because this is going to affect them.”

Councilwoman Storey asked Mr. Huxford, “If we vote in favor of this, can tweaking be done between now and voting at the next vote or do we have to start all over?”

“In all likelihood we’d have to start all over again because I’m sure if there’s any tweaking it would be substantial,” was the borough attorney’s answer.

Councilman Kelly moved the matter forward by stating, “Motion to deny, please. Bernie Sanders would be extremely disappointed.”

The vote to deny Ordinance 2464 had a 4-2 with only councilmembers Elmarassy and Joseph Petrosky voting to introduce it. If the issue is brought up again, a new ordinance number will need to be assigned since this particular proposed bill basically died on the legislative floor.

“It’s back to the drawing board,” concluded the mayor.

At its core the major concerns with the ordinance, or any possible future versions of it, are the following:

  1. What is the need to increase the contribution limit from $200 to $3,500 or – if what Councilman Elmarassy repeatedly stated were to pass – unlimited contribution
  2. Why does Councilman Elmarassy refuse to name the friend who drafted the ordinance or that person’s interest in threshold contracts in Roselle Park?
  3. How does increased political contributions to politicians benefit the residents of Roselle Park?

A copy of both ordinance – 2395 and 2464 – are available below for review. A follow-up article will be forthcoming to ask if the original ordinance, 2395, is a paper tiger.

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