Second Attempt To Repeal Pay-To-Play Law Fails On Introduction

For a second time in two months, an attempt to get rid of a municipal law places restrictions on campaign contributions by potential bidders in Roselle Park failed.

Last month, Ordinance 2464 – with its vague wording – would have raised the dollar amount of campaign contributions that a service provider could make to a local candidate without being prohibited from bidding on a borough contract. There is an existing ordinance, 2395, that places a political contribution limit of $200 on any individual, firm, or entity that wishes to bid for work in the borough. If any contribution is made over $200, that donor cannot bid for a professional contract in Roselle Park.

Councilman Elmarassy admitted that he did not write it and, to date, has refused to name the attorney friend who drafted the proposed law change”

Even though Ordinance 2464 was attributed to Fourth Ward Councilman Mohamed ‘Gino’ Elmarassy, he admitted that he did not write it and, to date, has refused to name the attorney friend who drafted the proposed law change. In the end, the bill did not even get introduced, being defeated by a 4-2 vote. Councilmembers Elmarassy and Joseph Petrosky were the only two yes votes.

At the July 21st Mayor & Council meeting, Ordinance 2467 was put on the agenda for introduction. This bill would explicitly repeal Ordinance 2395 altogether. When brought up for a discussion, Third Ward Councilman Ryan Kelly asked, “What would be the ramifications of that?”

Borough Attorney Richard Huxford explained, “The state standard would be, in essence, the Borough of Roselle Park’s standard.”

“And what are the state standards again?”, asked Councilman Kelly.

Mr. Huxford replied, “The limitation to an individual to a candidate’s committee would be $2,600 per election. Individual corporation or association would be limited to $2,600 to each candidate committee. Political Action Committee[s] would be $7,200. The county political party would be $37,000 and a municipal political party would be $7,200.”

Councilman Kelly asked about the reason for this particular ordinance, commenting, “Correct me if I’m wrong [but] one of the reasons why we’re kind of in a bind here to do this is because there were some issues as far as compliance and whether it was our fault in managing expectations or letting vendors know? Where was the hiccup?”

The councilman was referring to information provided in a previous Roselle Park News article which revealed that the borough auditor might have been in violation of Ordinance 2395 (link).

“I don’t know if this has anything to do with the issue that came up last meeting,” responded the Borough Attorney, “As far as I know, the council has found no fault of anyone as to any of the violations of the current borough ordinance. I don’t know who sponsored this so I don’t know what the intent was. I don’t know of any connection to the two.”

“So there’s no reason really,” said Councilman Kelly.

Fifth Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley remarked, “There’s a reason, we just don’t know quite what it is but I can surmise. The term pay-to-play kind of explains it.”

Can anyone on council offer a valid reason for why we would repeal this?” – Councilman Kelly

Councilman Kelly continued, “So, let’s say we stayed [on] track or did not repeal 2395 and amended it so we protected ourselves and were more diligent in managing expectations with vendors . . . and have that included in our RFPs, would that be something that would protect us more?”

Mr. Huxford stated, “If 2395 remains, the borough going forward knows what it needs to do and they’ll be diligent no matter who’s doing the oversight to make sure that everyone’s in compliance.”

To clarify the point Councilman Kelly stated, “Repealing 2395 would be repealing the cap we’ve set in place for campaign contributions that are allowed by professional services . . . to prevent any situations where someone may be influenced by money.”

He added, “Can anyone on council offer a valid reason for why we would repeal this?”

Councilman Shipley echoed the sentiment by stating, “I’m waiting to hear one.”

Mayor Carl Hokanson interjected, “If you go back to many years ago, we had the standard state [limits]. It was lowered to $200 as a way of a payback to the candidate that was running that year so now that the hostilities have now ceased, it’s basically bringing it back up to the standard state statute.”

This statement ignored and refuted the previous reason given by the mayor that it would be mean a loss of 5% in state aid. In reaching out to Mayor Hokanson, he clarified that he meant returning to the under $300 limit which would not potentially impact state aid.

Councilman Kelly continued, “Even if there was kind of – potentially – malicious intent when it was passed, unintentionally, it created an environment in Roselle Park where we decide to be even stricter on our pay-to-play prevention. I just don’t see a reason why we would repeal this.”

Mayor Hokanson said, “It’s just basically bringing it back up to the state standard. Some municipalities have it, some probably don’t have it, [others] probably have it as stringent as we do.”

Councilman Shipley said, “But the question being is why us? I don’t care what anybody else does, why do we have to do that?”

“Again, that’s your decision,” concluded the mayor.

“So but therein lies the question,” continued Councilman Shipley, “Why would we do that? I just think it opens the door to a lot of, I mean those are some pretty big numbers, and the people can still make those contributions and still bid for contracts. That’s not healthy.”

It does help the candidates.” – Councilman Elmarassy

Councilman Kelly proceeded with the discussion, “Not to put anyone on the spot but Councilman Elmarassy, I remember at the last meeting you mentioned a lawyer had written this for us. Can you provide any other information or background as to what the purpose of this is?”

“I believe it does help, you know, us not harms us,” replied the councilman.

Councilman Shipley inquired, “Helps how?”

“It does help the candidates,” answered Councilman Elmarassy.

“Yeah, but then what are the other ramifications of helping the candidate?”, asked Councilman Shipley, “That’s the question.”

Councilman Elmarassy whispered, “Patience, I could talk to you guys.”

“No,” retorted Councilman Shipley, “You proposed it. I need some explanation as to why you want to do this.”

“Like I said,” reassured the councilman, “to help us.”

“Help us how?”, Councilman Shipley asked again, adding, “How’s it going to help the town?”

“I guess like the mayor explained,” said Councilman Elmarassy.

“That’s not an explanation,” stated Councilman Shipley, “That’s not answering the question.”

Councilman Kelly asked Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey about her thoughts on the bill.

“I intend to vote no,” was her response.

The Third Ward Councilman then touched upon the presidential campaign and specifically mentioned Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both Democrats, and how they planned to enact campaign contribution reform. The councilman used this specific example since Councilman Elmarassy, along with First Ward Councilman Eugene Meola and Councilman Joseph Petrosky, are all Democrats. Councilman Kelly concluded his comments with, “I’m kind of disappointed.”

With that, Councilman Shipley made a motion to table the ordinance. It was at this point that Councilman Kelly made a motion to postpone the ordinance until the 2017 Reorganization meeting. He was notified by the Borough Clerk and Borough Attorney that such a motion could not be made, especially since it would be a different council next year.

Councilman Kelly said, “I’ll rescind it. I think the point was made.”

The motion to table the ordinance was seconded but failed a majority vote with only councilmembers Elmarassy and Shipley voting yes.

Councilman Elmarassy inexplicably voted ‘no’ for his own sponsored ordinance.

The Third Ward Councilman continued with his quasi-filibuster by making a motion to open the meeting for public input. He was told that he could not make such a motion because the public hearing is reserved for the second reading of an ordinance when it is voted to be adopted. It should be noted that Robert’s Rules Of Order (RROR), which the municipality adheres to, does allow for such a suspension of the regular order of business.

Councilwoman Storey made a motion to approve 2467 for introduction.

When the vote was taken, along with councilmembers Kelly, Shipley, and Storey, Councilman Elmarassy inexplicably voted ‘no’ for his own sponsored ordinance. Councilman Meola – who previously voted no on Ordinance 2464 – and Petrosky voted yes to introduce it but the bill died on the floor.

This second attempt to remove reasonable limits on campaign contribution coming from some of the Democratic members of the governing body has to leave the public asking whose interest those members – Elmarassy, Meola, and Petrosky – are looking out for, the residents or their own since those benefiting from contributions will be politicians not taxpayers.