Morning Digest: Dec. 16, 2013

Reeling but intact: 12 County Party Organizations, some of their leadership altered, head toward 2014

Independent expenditures weakened party organizations to such a degree in 2013 that political insiders wondered about the future of those organizations.

But they still played this year and will play, and what follows is the current political state of 12 of the most active party county organizations in 2013 and a gut-check of those counties where they work… (PolitickerNJ)

Chivulka, McKeon push RGGI proposal: Let voters decide

TRENTON – A proposal to return New Jersey to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative advanced last week in a Senate committee.

The same proposal is making its way through the Assembly as well.

Assembly members Upendra Chivukula, (D-17), Somerset and John McKeon, (D-27), Madison, are pushing a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters the choice to require the state’s participation in the Northeastern states’ collective effort at furthering solar energy and reducing carbon emissions.

Gov. Chris Christie yanked the state from RGGI in 2011. (Mooney/PolitickerNJ)

Obamas attend holiday benefit

WASHINGTON — The Obamas got into the holiday spirit Sunday evening with a little help from Hugh Jackman, Sheryl Crow and Janelle Monae.

President Barack Obama and his family attended the 32nd annual “Christmas in Washington” concert, a benefit for the Children’s National Health System. After an evening of Christmas carols at the National Building Museum, the president said Americans should remember Jesus Christ’s lessons of charity and compassion. (Associated Press/Politico)

Port Authority Scandal Is Result of Leadership, Patronage Mess, Analysts Say

Transportation experts warned of dangers of growing cronyism, gubernatorial interference months before rogue lane closings in Fort Lee

The Bridge-gate scandal that forced the resignations of two of Gov. Chris Christie’s Port Authority appointees was the inevitable result of divided leadership, growing patronage, and increased gubernatorial meddling in the operations of the multibillion-dollar New York-New Jersey agency, transportation experts said yesterday.

In fact, Jameson W. Doig, who wrote the definitive history of the Port Authority, warned almost two years ago of the dangers inherent in the growing “politicization” of the bistate agency. He also cautioned against the transformation of its 12 commissioners into “obedient assistants to the governors, passively accepting patronage appointments and whatever actions fit a governor’s short-term political needs.”

Doig said yesterday he was not surprised by the growing scandal that has enveloped the Port Authority, the mega-agency that oversees airports, bridges, tunnels, ports, the PATH light-rail system, and the World Trade Center in New York and New Jersey.

The scandal has already forced the resignations of Christie’s top two operatives at the Port Authority — Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Interstate Projects Director David Wildstein. It has sparked a series of subpoenas and legislative hearings, and has been seized on by Democrats nationally to attack Christie, the GOP frontrunner for president in 2016. (Magyar/NJSpotlight)  

Christie Won’t Go for Sales-Tax Scheme to Fund Open-Space Preservation

Governor dismisses mechanism as a ‘bad idea,’ sends lawmakers back to come up with another proposalCredit: Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen

The options to fund preservation of New Jersey’s open spaces and farmland are diminishing.

In a press conference on Friday, Gov. Chris Christie ruled out a proposal being pushed in the state Senate that would divert up to $200 million in sales tax revenue each year over 30 years to protect open space and farmland and to preserve historic structures.

“I think it’s a bad idea,’’ Christie said in a response to a question about the proposal — one being lobbied for by a wide coalition of conservation, recreational, and farm groups. “Belly up to the bar and come up with a better idea.’’

The proposal, (SCR-165), cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Thursday with bipartisan support. On the same day the Assembly Budget Committee cleared, also with Republicans backing, a Democratic bill, (A-4581), that would ask voters to approve a $200 million bond issue on the ballot this fall. Christie did not offer his view on that proposal, which is backed by some environmental organizations.

The governor’s comments add to the question of whether the state will come up with a plan to fund its widely popular open-space program, which is virtually broke.

Christie, who vowed to come up with a stable source of funding during his first run for governor four years ago, has yet to do so. (Johnson/NJSpotlight)

Setback for Christie is likely an omen

TRENTON — The recent startling housecleaning at the Port Authority forced two of Chris Christie’s closest friends and top advisers out early from jobs that paid a combined $440,000, a rare political setback for the 51-year-old Republican governor.

But analysts say it’s a signal of what’s to come for Christie when he begins his second term in office Jan. 21 — a succession of bruising fights, thanks to his national ambitions and because New Jersey’s term limit for governors braves up state Democrats looking to settle old scores with Christie.

“There’s going to be plenty of heat from inside the state, and the national Democrats, folks who did virtually nothing to help Chris Christie’s opponent in the gubernatorial election, are taking Christie seriously now,” said Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political scientist. “That’s because he’s the presumptive favorite to win the GOP 2016 presidential nomination. He’s a threat to the national Democrats.”

Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director, and David Wildstein, another Christie appointee, left the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the wake of a furor over lane closures from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge. Christie’s critics claim the closures were meant to bully the town’s mayor, who had refused to endorse the governor for re-election.

The Democratic National Committee released a video saying Christie was “playing politics.” Correct the Record, a Democratic super PAC, used its website to link Christie with “political retribution.” (Johnson/Asbury Park Press)  

Atlantic Highlands-Highlands auhtority to sue NJ Natural Gas for corrosion

The first sign that things would go wrong was when the diggers hit concrete. They were expecting dirt.

Once the workers cut through the concrete, a strong odor emanated, never a good omen in New Jersey.

Before long, more than $1.6 million in costs got tacked onto a $1 million project to install a new sewer pipe for Highlands. At last count, taxpayers have a $3.1 million bill to pay.

David Palamara, director of the Atlantic Highlands–Highlands Regional Sewerage Authority, traces the project’s sack of surprises to its engineer, T&M Associates. The company did not drill test borings for the project above where the pipe would run, but in another location.

“T&M screwed up pretty bad,” Palamara said. “This should not have been a surprise.”

The cost overrun overwhelmed any potential for a proposed 2014 breakup of the authority in an effort to reduce utility rates for residents and merchants in both Bayshore municipalities.

Eliminating much of the authority’s administrative costs — such as its own set of engineers, lawyers and secretaries — is expected to net both municipalities a total of $220,000 a year, said Chris Francy, a Highlands Borough Councilman who also sits on the authority’s board of commissioners.

But depending on the interest rate assigned to the $3.1 million force-main project’s bonds, when the figure is set in 2014, the pipe’s annual cost for the next 20 years may end up to be about $240,000, Palamara said. (Penton/Asbury Park Press)

Changes in China’s recycling could cost N.J. towns cash

A crackdown on trash halfway around the world has disrupted the U.S. recycling industry and could cost North Jersey municipalities some of the coveted revenue they earn from selling the paper, plastic and aluminum cans that residents put out at the curb.


Alfred DuBois, center, Clifton’s recycling coordinator, pulling out contaminants from a delivery with Steven Rodriguez, left, and Andrew Soboto at the city’s recycling center.

Bergen County

Rank is among 21 countiesSource: N.J. Department of Environmental Protection

For much of this year, China has rejected bales of recyclables shipped from the United States that are too contaminated by regular trash. China’s effort to erect what’s become known as a “green fence” against contaminated recyclables has prompted recycling companies here to start charging financial penalties to the towns and corporate clients whose recyclables are tainted with too much regular garbage.

“Make no mistake: This is a serious situation that can have major repercussions for the future of the recycling industry in the U.S.,” Chris Riviello, managing partner of Atlantic Coast Fibers, a Passaic-based recycling company, told the municipalities it serves in a recent letter.

It’s not clear how much North Jersey towns stand to lose, but some municipalities make between $300,000 and $500,000 on recycling.

And towns in Bergen County could be especially vulnerable because they use a system in which  their recycling hauls are more likely than those in Passaic County to include regular trash.  

Money seized from illegal Sandy charity in limbo

NEPTUNE  — Dissolving the embattled Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation has proven more difficult than anticipated.

Six months after its operators and the acting state Attorney General agreed to a plan to shutter the organization and have a court-appointed administrator redistribute its assets to other Sandy relief groups, the Asbury Park Press ( reports that hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations meant to help victims of the storm remain in legal limbo.

To date, no funds have been released.

Meanwhile, this summer, the Sparta couple who started the charity, John Sandberg and Christina Terraccino, were living in a gated community on Costa Rica’s Gold Coast, where Sandberg was working on a new Internet venture. They no longer have access to the charity’s funds.

The settlement set a deadline of Nov. 27 for the disposition of the HSRF’s assets. Nancy E. Kelly, the certified public accountant in charge of the charity’s funds, now says it may take until sometime in January to complete the process.

The holdup, Kelly said, stems from the difficulties she has had dealing with PayPal, the online payment processing service that handled the bulk of the charity’s donations.

Thanks largely to the high visibility of its website, the charity was able to raise more than $630,000 within just a few months of the Oct. 29, 2012 storm. However, an Asbury Park Press investigation published in February uncovered a host of red flags that raised questions about the charity’s legitimacy.

The group falsely claimed to be a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization and hadn’t registered with the state’s Charities Bureau to operate in New Jersey, the Press found. The organization also had co-opted the name of a legally registered charity led by first lady Mary Pat Christie, the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, and identified CSX and Hanes as corporate sponsors, which those companies told the Press wasn’t true. (Mullen/The Record)  

N.J. Senate pulls gay marriage bill

TRENTON — State Senate Democrats have pulled from consideration a bill that would write gay marriage, already legal in New Jersey by court order, into the law books.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said Sunday that she decided to follow the advice of Lambda Legal, a gay rights law group, to take the bill off the agenda. It was to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon.

Legislators and advocates have been debating what to do about gay marriage since same-sex couples were given the right to marry by a Superior Court judge in September. Gov. Chris Christie in October dropped his appeal of the decision when the state Supreme Court all but said they would rule against him, and gay couples have been getting married in New Jersey since Oct. 21.

Some lawmakers felt the legal precedent for gay marriage was not secure because its justification could be undercut if the federal government grants the same benefits to civil-unionized couples as married ones. But many advocates said the legislation (S3109) would add religious restrictions that are not addressed by the court decision, originally concessions made to win votes for an earlier version of the legislation.

“They don’t want any kind of religious exemption, so out of respect for that, I will (pull the bill),” Weinberg said. “There’s a disparate group of people and it’s hard to follow what they want, so I’m following Lambda Legal.”

Under the bill, religious organizations would have been able to deny space to gay couples. But Weinberg said that restriction had been tightened to apply only to organizations that offer their space solely to their members. The bill also exempted clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages, but supporters said they would already protected under the 1st Amendment.

Weinberg said she favors writing the ruling into law, but that “doing nothing” appears to be what many advocates want. Assembly Democrats also said last week that they were not on board with the state Senate bill. (Friedman/Star-Ledger)  

NJ-STEP program offers college credit classes to state prison inmates

BORDENTOWN — As the students filed into the classroom, they started asking questions before they even sat down.

“That statue we had to read about this week,” one student started, “where is it?”

The professor explained that the sculpture was in Paris, sparking a full discussion, not quite on topic, but still informative, provoking even more questions from the group.

“If you ever go to Paris,” the professor told her now fully engaged class, “there’s a lot of dead people there.”

She mentioned one in particular who gets a lot of attention: Jim Morrison, lead singer of ’60s rock band The Doors.

“But what about Abelard and Heloise?” another student asked, citing the French philosopher and theologian and his abbess mistress whose famous love letters the class had recently studied.

They were buried there, too, the teacher explained, in a large, prominent tomb, although their final resting place received significantly less attention than Morrison’s.

“If more people had read their letters like we did, they’d be getting a lot more attention,” a third student remarked.

It’s a discussion typical of a higher learning institution, but it was taking place among inmates at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown. The professor, Celia Chazelle, who teaches at The College of New Jersey, has been coming to Wagner once a week since September to teach a class on medieval history, with a focus on how it ties into modern social justice. (Clerkin/Times of Trenton)    

From the Back Room


Tabbi’s Treatment of Camden

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi takes a Dante-like tour of Camden in “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch from America’s Most Desperate Town.” (PolitickerNJ)

WSJ: Baroni to Foye: ‘There can be no public disclosure’

The former Deputy Director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey instructed a New York official “not to go public with his objections after he discovered them,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

When Bill Baroni, who resigned from the Port Authority today, learned that Executive Director Patrick Foye intended to “get word out” about the reopening of the bridge lanes on the morning of Sept. 13, Baroni contacted his New York counterpart.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Pat we need to discuss prior to any communications,” Mr. Baroni wrote to Mr. Foye and Lisa MacSpadden, Mr. Foye’s spokeswoman. (PolitickerNJ)



N.J.’s broken disability system

It’s incredible that our disability pension system has somehow escaped the belt-tightening in other areas of state government, given Gov. Chris Christie’s constant talk of overspending and tough budget choices.

Especially when you consider how ludicrous some of these stories are. Last week’s doozy is a former NJ Transit cop who had accidentally stapled his finger. He now collects nearly $46,000 a year for life, tax-free, on the basis that he can’t operate a gun — and yet he shoots for fun at gun ranges.

This “disabled” man, Christopher Onesti, concedes his payout is preposterous. But he insists he was only playing by the rules of New Jersey’s broken pension system. (Although when initially denied this benefit, he challenged it in court. Apparently, he thought he deserved it then.)

Still, he’s right that this problem is a lot bigger than him. We’ve known about it for years, yet neither the governor’s office nor the Democrats in the Legislature havemoved to solve it. In the meantime, more people than ever have been putting in for accidental disability pensions, since the state Supreme Court expanded the types of injuries that qualify in 2007 and 2008.

Under the old rules, a worker was eligible only for an injury involving a “great rush of force” — usually suffered during a traumatic event, such as the capture of a fleeing suspect. Now, anybody who slips while walking up a regular flight of stairs can qualify, says John Sierchio, a member of the state’s pension review board. (Star-Ledger Editorial Board)  

A criminal record doesn’t have to mean a jobless life

If you want a job at Jon Bramnick’s law firm, he’ll ask up front if you’ve got a criminal past. As your potential employer, he says, he deserves that information right away.

Even that time you got caught smoking pot. Or standing on the wrong streetcorner, at the wrong time.

“You pay a price for being a criminal,” says Bramnick, the Assembly’s top-ranking Republican.

But when one in four Americans has a criminal record — many for minor, nonviolent offenses, thanks to the decades-long War on Drugs — that price can be permanent unemployment. Often, that punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

Today, an Assembly committee considers the Opportunity to Compete Act, which requires employers of 15 or more to delay background checks or criminal history questions until late in the hiring process. The idea is to let applicants sell themselves before confessing past crimes. The law should be passed.

Bramnick says it’s unfair to tie employers’ hands. The burden should be on the applicant, he said, to have criminal records expunged through the courts. (Star-Ledger Editorial Board)  

Morning Digest: Dec. 16, 2013