By David Cruz
Scenes of elected officials walking into and out of federal court are not that uncommon in New Jersey, a state with a well-earned reputation for deficiencies in the integrity department. And this year, the annual State Integrity Report from the Center for Public Integrity gives New Jersey a ‘D’.
“No other state has fallen as far as New Jersey did, falling from first place to 19th place,” noted Former Star Ledger editor and reporter Ian Shearn, the report’s author.
The report gives New Jersey an ‘F’ in Judicial Accountability, ‘F’ in Executive Accountability, ‘F’ in Public Access to Information and an ‘F’ in Electoral Oversight, ranking New Jersey last in that department.
“It’s a mindset that I’m hoping – slowly but surely – we are overcoming,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg.
There was a little good news in the report. New Jersey scores a ‘B-‘ in the State Budget Processes, and a ‘B-‘ in Internal Auditing. But overall New Jersey ranks 19th nationwide in this report. In 2012 the state rated a ‘B’, so what or who does Shearn blame for that?
“In the area of Executive Accountability, the Executive Branch went from a ‘B+’ to ‘F’ and most of that is due to the governor’s office,” added Shearn.
“Let me bring up one example of that,” interjected Weinberg. “Taxpayers of New Jersey paid $120,000 to the consultant to study the future of Liberty State Park. I’m the Senate majority leader. I had to do an OPRA request, and I was turned down by the Department of Environmental Protection because it’s a draft report. That’s ridiculous.”
Some of those involved in government today suggest that things here are not as bad as the report suggests.
“A lot of them are very, very isolated incidents,” reasoned Sen. Paul Sarlo. “You can’t take isolated incidents and paint everyone with a broad brush.”
But veteran freeholder Bill O’Dea of Hudson County is less forgiving.
“In some ways the system gobbles people up,” he said. “Because you’re fighting against stuff that have been institutionalized, so a mayor or someone gets in office and they get in with the best of intentions and then they realize how hard it is to fight against an institutionalized system from middle management to people in building departments that do things not the right way.”
So, is there hope? Can New Jersey return to the days of ‘B+’ grades? Assemblywoman-elect Angela McKnight – showing the idealism of someone who’s just made her first run for public office – says she promises to do her part.
“You have to be ethical,” she said. “You have to make sure that when you’re fighting for people, you’re fighting for people with transparency. You’re fighting for people top let them know that you voted for me and you entrusted your vote so that I can do what’s best for the community.”
If you brought home a report card with these kind of grades you’d be grounded for a month. In New Jersey voters react by turning away, voting at historically low rates, making it possible for the ethically challenged to continue to govern the politically disengaged.