A letter prepared by outside counsel states that the City of Hoboken should consider repealing their stringent pay-to-play rules in favor of the statewide regulations since the current law is unenforceable and therefore not helpful in preventing corruption.
“Hoboken’s limit set forth in §20D lowers the permissible contribution of a union by $2,100.00 for an individual candidate and does not contain any statement or explanation within the ordinance as to the relationship between this amount and the legitimate governmental interest,” Raymond Hamlin, of the Paterson law firm Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, wrote in a September 3rd letter to Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia.
“Further, it is being alleged by entities within Hoboken that this limit is prohibiting them from effectively advocating for their interests. I opine that this extreme decrease in the permissible contribution amount has a strong possibility of being found as unconstitutionally low if challenged in that it prevents candidates and political committees from amassing the resources necessary for effective advocacy … ”
Hamlin explains that his law office began reviewing Hoboken’s pay-to-play ordinance after Hoboken Municipal Supervisors Association President Joel Mestre alleged that the local legislation is unconstitutional since the maximum contribution limits prevent the union from being able to advocate effectively.
However, adding further confusion to the matter is that in an email forwarded to HCV on Tuesday, Mestre wrote to the city council on August 1st that he would like to rescind his July 24th letter, specifically requesting for “no action to be taken at this time.”
Under state guidelines, the maximum contribution a union can make to an individual candidate is $2,600, while the most they can donate to a political group or entity is $7,200.
However, under Hoboken’s current pay-to-play law, a political action committee, which would include unions, can only write a $500 check for an individual candidate.
“I opine that this extreme decrease in the permissible contribution amount has a strong possibility of being found as unconstitutionally low if challenged in that it prevents candidates and political committees from amassing the resources necessary for effective advocacy, and there appears to be no justification for the significant reduction or any close relationship between the governmental interests and the greatly reduced amount,” Hamlin wrote.
He also notes that there are significant issues with the enforcement portion of the policy, noting that there is no definitive language to explain how the City Clerk, or anyone else, would be able to force candidates to pay fines up to “four times the amount of the contribution.”
Additionally, Hamlin is critical of banning “redevelopers” from making political contributions, since the definition and time frame on the books are quite broad.
“The current version of the ordinance would prevent a redeveloper from entering into a redevelopment agreement in 2020, if said redeveloper’s adult child made any reportable donation to a Hoboken elected official in 2010 (the year the property was approved for an investigation),” he states in the letter.
“Although there is a slight chance that the redeveloper’s child made a donation ten years prior to the redevelopment agreement with the intention that said donation would give his father to have preferential treatment in the future, it is just as likely (if not more likely) that said grown child made the donation in support of his own political speech and did not have any idea of the future redevelopment agreement.”
He continues that such legislation would not be helpful in “preventing corruption at the time a redevelopment agreement is entered.”
Hamlin concludes that adhering to the state guidelines would likely only take “future legislation” being passed by the city.
Hoboken spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri said that the legal opinion is being taken into consideration, but that no decisions have been made at this time.
“Given the legal opinion received by the city, the council and administration will contemplate potential modifications to the pay-to-play rules, if any, in the coming months.”
Therefore, it seems unlikely that the city would push for a pay-to-play law repeal before the November 5th municipal elections, given that five incumbents are seeking re-election and Mayor Ravi Bhalla is officially running candidates against four of them.
The legal opinion comes at a time when rumors of a super PAC getting involved in the Mile Square City this fall are swirling, however, getting the group to confirm as such has proven nearly impossible.
NJ Community Initiatives is chaired by Louis Venezia, the chief of the Bloomfield Fire Department and the mayor’s brother, according to a July 29th filing with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
“The organization’s agenda is to strengthen New Jersey communities by promoting social justice issues and to independently support candidates on a local and state level who share the organization’s vision for a better New Jersey,” the filing says.
When asked for comment, Venezia directed media inquiries to Timothy White, of River Crossing Strategy Group.
However, when reached by HCV, White said he was not a spokesman for the PAC and was not working with the group at all due to a conflict.
After reaching out to Venezia again to inform him of White’s comments, HCV received an email from Sean Darcy, a principal at Round World Consulting, about three hours later.
“New Jersey Community Initiatives is still evaluating where they will be supporting candidates and no determinations have been made at this point,” he said in an email, not responding to a phone call or text message seeking further comment.
Nevertheless, multiple sources, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said that the current plan is for the PAC to be involved in the Hoboken council races.
According to the aforementioned ELEC filing, the group estimates raising $150,000 this calendar year, approximating that $100,000 will be spent on “New Jersey election-related activity” in 2019.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information.