Hughes noted thatin his first campaign for county executivefour years ago he promised to help the residents of Hamilton and other Mercer County communitiespreserve open space and increase active and passive recreation areas. The expansion of Veterans’ Park is an example of that promise keeping. But Hughes also had other goals that quickly put him at the forefront of reform-minded government officials before it became so fashionable in New Jerseyto be a reformer.
Mercer County Democratshad their eyes on the countyexecutive seat, and the considerablepatronage and power thatgo with it,for years. Despite a strong county Democratic Party, Republicans Bill Mathesius and Bob Prunetti held the executive’s position for over two decades. When Hughes beat popular county clerk Cathy DiCostanzo in 2003, giving theDemocrats thecounty executive postto go along with control of the freeholder board, somearea partisanswereeager to obtain county jobs and contracts. And yes, the new county executive did exercise the prerogatives of his office. But Hughes also began a campaign on ethics reform and government transparency that, in his words, has made “…Mercer County government for the people, not for the people in power.”
That latter statement wasan affirmation of Hughes’ ownvaluesand a mild rebuke of his Republican predecessors. Harry Parkin, an official in Prunetti’s administration, was convicted of misconduct in office, and Mathesius frustrated opponents and allies alike with his imperial style as county executive. Despite some controversies in the GOP-era, Mercer County government was anything but a superfluous layer of government that counties are sometimes called. Rather, it was widely regarded as a positive force that built Waterfront Park and Sovereign Bank Arena and opened new andpopularpublic golf courses. In addition, Prunetti worked closely and on a bipartisan basis with Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer on economic development and housing projects in the city.
Nonetheless, Hughes inherited several challenges when he assumed office. The county’s geriatric center faced complaints about patientneglect. The county correction facility was, like most, overcrowdedand had some embarrassing security breaches. The historic county courthouse building was in disrepair and in need of replacement, a project that will cost $60 million or more. Toss in aserious gang violence problem, especially in Trenton, competing calls for more economic growth and openspace, and ongoing pressures to keep county property taxes down, and the new county executive had a lot on his plate.
Significant progress has been made atthe geriatric facility which is now rated as one of the best in the state. Hughes insists that the county will begin building a new courthouse in the near future. Hehas also spearheaded a regional violent crime interdiction task force to deal with gangs in Trenton and the suburbs. Economic growth remains a priority, andHughes cites the expansion of the county’s free trade zone and more grants for small business incubators and high tech companies as ways to increase jobs and clean ratables in Mercer.County government’s”greatest accomplishment” in recent years, however,is the fact that it has saved 17,000 acresof open space,no smallaccomplishment in one of the state’s smallest counties. In the meantime, Hughes and the all-Democrat freeholder board have been able to reduce the county propertytax rate.
Reflecting on his first term, Hughes says his biggest challenge when taking office was assuring integrity in county government. Heproudly points outthat Mercer was the first county government in the state to enact pay to play reform. Mercer County government is also more transparent these days because it includes all contracts, nonprofessional and professional, in the fair and open bidding process. In addition, Hughespushed forcreating a new inspector general’s positionin Mercer County government to assure that county officials follow the law andspend taxpayer dollars as appropriated.
As he looks to the future, Hughes plans to make county government “more accountable”by making more information and services available to citizenson the Internet. Heis committed to helping county government and area municipalities and school districtssave moneythrough more shared services initiatives. Mercer County is sponsoring a conference on the topic next month and isseeking a grant from the state for a shared services coordinator.Combined with economic development efforts,building a new courthouse, upgrading the library system, and following through on other existing initiatives, Hughescan have a busy second term in office. Ahealthy campaign treasury,strong party support, and good ratings amongMercer County residentsfor his commitment to clean government, fiscal restraint, and common sense and cutting edge policieswill make Hughes tough to beat in November.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D. is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS magazine.