For 104 years, the annual meeting of the state League of Municipalities has served as place for local leaders from across New Jersey to gather and discuss what’s new, what’s been done and what’s left to do in their cities, counties and towns.
It’s a place to talk shop on everything from legalizing pot to property taxes, often featuring a who’s who of government in the state. And this year did not disappoint, as a talk among past governors featured a somewhat-of-a-surprise appearance by Jon Corzine, after vanishing from politics since leaving office over a decade ago.
For Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the get-together was a chance to tout programs that have worked to foster investment in his city.
“We’re here talking about opportunity zones, which is huge in the city of Newark,” he said. “We have 13 opportunity zones, about $4 to $5 billion of investment happening.”
For Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, the top-of-mind topic was gun control.
“You can’t have a stronger city if you don’t have a safer city,” said Sayegh. “So reducing gun violence is a top priority of mine.”
Thousands come to Atlantic City each year for educational sessions on everything from holding the line on property taxes to climate change. And while the mood is upbeat, with swag bags in tow, much of the talk at this year’s conference is about the ripple effect of infighting among legislative leaders and their fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy.
“In my view the primary failure of his administration has been the failure to negotiate with the legislature,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “And in this political climate, and everyone digs in their heels, and they’d rather be right than effective. In my view, it’s better to compromise and get things done.”
Ben Dworkin of Rowan University, a longtime observer of public affairs in New Jersey, echoed the sentiment.
“Those relationships can be strained, and when they are strained, whe things don’t get done because of personality conflicts, because of political conflicts, everyone is affected,” he said.
“We need these people to talk and find out what works for municipalities,” said Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage. “And if the Legislature is not working with the governor and vice versa, then cites are left to fend for themselves, a lot like we were during the Christie administration. There’s really not that much of a difference.”
The panel of former governors graded the current chief executive on his first two years in office, giving Murphy average marks. But Corzine had Murphy’s back.
“I love New Jersey and there were things I felt like saying — in particular when they said ‘how do you think the governor’s doing?’ And I feel he’s doing well,” he said, when asked why he had make an appearance.
Also part of the panel was Jim Florio, the south Jersey Democrat who served during the early 1990s.
I think that the problems that we face in this state are really not easy to deal with. There’s a need for collaboration, as much as possible, with everyone moving in the right direction,” he said.
Some participants pointed to opportunities that are being missed due to the rift. One case in point was the long-awaited medical marijuana bill that went up in smoke this week.
“Cannabis is taking a prominent role down here,” said Reed Gusciora, the mayor of Trenton. “There’s a lot of industry representatives looking for fertile ground, so to speak, to come to set up dispensaries or grow houses and Trenton is really open to all of that.”
Thursday, in the traditional annual speech to the conference by the governor, Murphy is expected to lay out his economic development plans.