New Jersey's reputation for corruption exceeds the reality, but there is still enough to meet the demand.
That conclusion is one basis for a new effort to improve the state's political culture through a focus on ethics in government and government contracting.
The initiative, launched by New Jersey Common Cause and Rutgers' School of Administration and Public Affairs, brought three dozen public officials, academics and concerned citizens to Newark to discuss the scope of the problem.
Marc Holzer, the school's dean, declared the perception of pervasive corruption is "nonsense."Compared to other states, "I think New Jersey is above average ethically," he said. "Go to Louisiana."
But Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, compared a series of surveys. All showed that public feelings have reversed since 10-15 years ago. Then, about two-thirds of New Jerseyans felt corruption could be controlled and they could affect government policy. Now, roughly two-thirds do not.
"If they believe government is working, they don't believe it is working for them," said Michael Shapiro, a lawyer and editor of an on-line website, Thealternativepress.com.
"People are skeptical, they don't believe they can make a difference," said Linda Seiler of Old Bridge.
The former teacher and Bell Labs engineer is one who has reversed the trend. After retiring, Seiler got involved in community activities and won election to a Democratic post, ousting an organization loyalist.
Now a fire commissioner and member of the township library board, Seiler said she still encounters problems with local government, but also believes "there's a lot of great public officials out there."
The public officials present applauded action like last year's sting, in which federal charges charged 46 people, including state and local officials, rabbis and one alleged human organ salesman, with a variety of corruption offenses.
But they added such high-profile arrests reinforce a growing public distrust of all officials without differentiating between honest and dishonest. Most public employees feel "real anger" when colleagues break the law, said Millburn Business Administrator Timothy Gordon.
The problem is "the public doesn't see that," said James Browning of Common Cause in Philadelphia. Aside from crowing by prosecutors, arrests and indictment bring little obvious acknowledgment from the political class, he said.
Even the sting prosecutions have produced mixed results. Last month, a federal judge threw out indictments against two Jersey City candidates, saying they could not be prosecuted for taking bribes when they did not hold office.
New Jersey's system for policing ethics is heavily fragmented and lightly supported, said Ingrid Reed, New Jersey Project Director at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute and chair of the Governor's Task Force on Local Government Ethics.
Despite some high profile steps like cracking down on concert tickets for officials, that has not changed under the Christie Administration. The heavy hitters on the state Local Finance Board serve as the ethics body for towns that do not have their own, and the appeals body for those that do. They have assigned the equivalent of one and a half staffers to the job, a statistic that raised eyebrows at the Newark meeting.
"It's not the kind of system that I think you would expect in a modern government," Reed said.
The five-member state Government Records Council is supposed to maintain transparency in government by referring complaints over access to public documents. But two seats have remained vacant through Gov. Jon Corzine's last year in office until today, preventing the council from even considering some matters.
Lack of prompt access to information still frustrates some residents, Gordon said. Until the state's Open Public Records Act was strengthened in 2002, "quite frankly in most towns I don't think they kept records in good order," he said.
In 2007, New Jersey established a clean elections pilot program to expand public funding for elections. The benefits could go beyond the impact of recent "pay-to-play" limits on donations by contractors, according to William Castner Jr., a member of the State Commission on Investigation and Corzine's former chief counsel.
"Pay-to-play is removing vendor money from elections," he said. "Clean Elections is removing all special interest money."
Like so much else, though, the program has fallen prey to the state's budget crunch. The victims could include the independent SCI, which Christie has proposed pulling into the Governor's orbit along with other watchdogs like the state comptroller.
Not all the corruption occurs on the government side of the equation. Brenda Hopper, state director of the New Jersey Small Business centers, told of one client whose company finally won a multi-million-dollar share of a school construction contract, only to have employees of the general contractor demand kickbacks.
Clearer rules and better education for government officials, vendors and the public could eliminate confusion, provide deterrents and head off some problems before they occur, according to conference participants.
They promised to push such changes through events like the Jersey Call to Service Summit, sponsored by the Citizens Campaign, scheduled June 9 at the New Brunswick Hyatt.