CRANFORD, NJ — The issue of elected officials accepting campaign contributions from firms that perform services for the municipality returned to the spotlight at the township committee on Feb. 27, about a month after some were excoriated for the practice during discussions about a redevelopment study.
The practice is legal — though contentious — if campaign contributions of more than $300 are reported to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Resident Jim Carvalho, who has publicly addressed Cranford officials in the past regarding the issue, targeted the committee’s chosen bidding process, the “fair and open process,” calling it a loophole in allowing pay-to-play.
“In fact, the process is neither fair nor open,” Carvalho said during the public comment portion of the Feb. 27 township committee meeting. “There are four groups of people who love the so called ‘fair and open process’: contractors who want government work, who then become campaign contributors; candidates, who the contributions go to; and the governing body.”
The fair and open process, under New Jersey law, requires the request on a bid for a contract be advertised, that it be a “process that provides for public solicitation” of proposals; that a contract be awarded on the basis of on a procedure that is in writing; and that the awarding of the contract be publicly disclosed.
Any contract of more than $17,500 must be subjected to this process, according to state law.
Carvalho said the New Jersey State Comptroller has previously condemned the process.
“In practice, the system of fair and open has multiple weaknesses. As a result, it presents few, if any, real obstacles to a government entity seeking to award a contract to a politically favored vendor,” a 2011 report by Mathew Boxer, who served as the state comptroller at the time, said.
However, Mayor Thomas Hannen disagreed with Carvalho at the meeting.
“That is your characterization,” the mayor said. “I don’t happen to agree with you. Or if you are saying the comptroller’s office has objections to it, then they would have had the Legislature change it, if you are saying it is the red flag that it is.”
“We post (the request for bids) to our website — we solicit (vendors’) responses, and then make decisions based on who we think is the most qualified for the prices that are submitted,” Hannen said. “Most of the time they are the least expensive, not always.”
The issue came up in January when the Cranford’s planning board and township committee received a redevelopment study from engineering firm Harbor Consultants that suggested large swaths of the downtown area — including many viable business — be declared “in need of redevelopment.”
At the Jan. 10 planning board meeting during the public comment portion, Carvalho said Commissioner Ann Dooley’s campaign had received $1,000 from Harbor Consultants, and fellow Commissioner Mary O’Connor had similarly received $800 from the firm.
O’Connor’s campaign also received a $500 contribution from Maser Consulting, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Citing a Feb. 13 pledge by O’Connor before the committee to no longer accept campaign contributions from contractors who have worked for the township, Carvalho urged other members on the committee to make the same pledge during the public comment portion of the Feb. 27 committee meeting.