Corruption has been a major problem for years in Trenton, but how can corruption be fought?
Journalist Nicholas Kusnetz, who worked on the State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of each state’s anti-corruption laws, says it is impossible to prevent all forms of corruption, but there are ways of making government more accountable.
“What you want to do is put in systems of transparency in place,” he said in a phone interview.
These systems of transparency include things like putting budget information online for citizen access and installing hotlines through which citizens can report allegations of corruption.
Trenton has the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), a state policy that allows citizens to access certain records upon request, which can be done online. The policy requires the citizen know exactly what they need and where it is in the public record. If the request is filed to the wrong record keeper it is discarded.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to fostering transparency in government, local transparency is dependent on the relationship between the municipality and the state that houses it, usually defined within the state’s constitution. This relationship is defined by whether or not the state constitution has a “home rule” clause, which determines how much hearsay the state government has in local affairs.
For example, Alabama does not have a home rule clause, meaning many local issues must be resolved at the state level. The many sections devoted to one-time local issues has resulted in Alabama having the longest state constitution in the nation.
New Jersey, however, does have a home rule clause, so much of Trenton’s local affairs lie in the hands of local government officials. Trenton’s structure of government is also determined by a charter, which gives local authorities even more leg room. This means that the means to fight corruption must come from local officials.
Some mayoral candidates are already drawing up ways to install these systems of transparency and other anti-corruption policies.
Jim Golden plans to give the recently installed Trenton Ethics Board the ability to look into lingering ties to older corruption cases and find a way to give citizens the ability to report city officials.
“Transparency in the Trenton government will be one of the Golden administration’s top priorities,” said candidate Jim Golden in an e-mail.
Golden also wants to install a new auditing system and make it available to the public. He hopes to make information available on the city website as well, including “budgets, tax records, meeting minutes, expenditures, public communications and other public records.”
“Our goal will be to make OPRA requests a thing of the past,” said Golden.
Eric Jackson says he will hire directors based on merit, not on how well-connected they are to him. These directors will be bound by an ethics code developed by Jackson and the City Council, which Jackson says will apply to both appointed and elected officials.
He also says he will usher his Cabinet to respond quickly and effectively to open records requests. Jackson also says the Cabinet itself will try to be “more transparent and accessible” to the public.
Like Golden, Jackson says he will use the city website to keep the public notified on certain things. He says he will focus on the “City budget, important development and planning decisions, and opportunities for public engagement.” Jackson also says he will use social media for the same purpose.
Candidate Oliver Leggett says the problem is less about transparency and more about the character of the government officer, referencing former Mayor Tony Mack specifically.
People seem to think transparency “envelopes the entire issue,” he said in a phone interview.
Leggett said he will tackle the problem of corruption by enforcing regulations that are already in place. Leggett mentioned public contracts specifically, stating that they shouldn’t be used as a way to push interests or give favors; public contracts should only be “necessary” and for the “public good” he said.
These policies follow the most recent effort to combat corruption in Trenton: the Trenton Ethics Board.
Last last August, the Trenton government created the Ethics Board, which consisting of six individuals –three Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent. The Board will have the twin duties of investigating allegations of corruption and giving advice to civil workers on how to behave while working for the Trenton government. On what?
The Board’s first act was the creation of an Ethics Code that all city officials are meant to follow, according to which no government worker is allowed to have outside business interests or accept special gifts in return for one’s services.
The six-person Ethics Board was requested by residents following the FBI’s investigation and indictment of former Mayor Tony Mack. This sort of call-and-response policy-making is fairly common in New Jersey.
Two years ago the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International gathered together a slew of experienced journalists to assess each state’s anti-corruption laws in the State Integrity Investigation. What they found was that New Jersey’s anti-corruption laws were the strongest of the fifty states, which may seem surprising considering NJ was the ninth most corrupt state in the country last year with a little under five convictions per 100,000 residents.
Kusnetz said that this was “in part due to that history of dirty politics.” New Jersey politicians responded to corruption cases by writing new anti-corruption policies. Even though Trenton makes decisions separate from the state, the Trenton Ethics Board is also an improvement made in response to scandal.
*The other three mayoral candidates not mentioned in this article, Kathy McBride, Walker Worthy, and Paul Perez, were contacted but were not available at the time.