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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Bravo to Christie for canning patronage "employees," saving ratepayers $10 million
Peter C. Hansen  (February 8, 2011, 2:45 pm)

PolitickerNJ has today reported that Gov. Christie has canned an additional 71 "employees" of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC), a government body that until recently has lacked government oversight. The Christie firestorm began when the Star Ledger published an exposé of the Commission, which the paper described as "an island of job security for the connected, their families and their friends." The level of nepotism and backscratching is epic, and making an example of this body (including with prosecutions wherever possible) will be a good start to an extended anti-corruption campaign that will hopefully include tougher legislation and systematic oversight.

As the paper notes, the PVSC's $46.4 million annual "payroll includes spouses and children of commissioners, mayors, friends of mayors, and the brother-in-law of a mayor who is also a commissioner, the documents show. The median salary there has jumped by nearly 30 percent over the past five years." In a classic instance of Jersey humor, "Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) once famously described the PVSC’s budget as 'an awful lot of money to push poopie through a pipe.'" The Star Ledger did a great job in detailing the institutionalized nepotism and abuse of funds:

At least 85 of Passaic Valley’s 567 employees make more than $100,000. Three are paid more than $200,000 –among them, a former aide to an influential Democratic congressman who earns $220,443 and was given the keys to a new Ford Expedition to take home.

The documents show the commissioners routinely hire friends and family and those with ties to elected officials. A record of those hires is kept in what is known as the "commissioners’ rounds" – a document that officials denied existed until it was specifically requested by name. The rounds are numbered, not unlike NFL draft rounds, keeping score over who gets the next hire. One commissioner picked his daughter-in-law when his turn came. Another picked his wife.

Two of the highest-paid employees on the payroll are former Passaic Valley commissioners, responsible for overseeing the agency before they were hired to high-salary jobs by their fellow commissioners.

At the same time, other records detail lucrative, no-bid contracts that directly benefited the hometowns of some commissioners — many of whom are elected or appointed officials in those communities.

Exactly the same mindset – and PVSC-esque "Commissioners' rounds" for picking workers – can be found in West Africa. Here is a telling excerpt from a landmark study of corruption at the bustling port of Cotonou, in West Africa. It's in French, but here is a rather free English translation by yours truly:

The Director General position at the Port of Cotonou is ... one of the posts most coveted by politicos and is a honeypot for the party in power. ... [Four Directors General served and departed between 1996 and 1999] on the basis of corruption scandals for at least two of them, and of competition between the political parties (at the presidential level) for control of one of the principal sources of their funding in Benin. ... Customs agents have themselves gone on to install an informal system of rotation and two-year time-limits in office, to allow each agent to pass through the Port at least once in his career. At the summit of this El Dorado is the customs office of the Port of Cotonou, the most powerful institutional link among the ports, around which extend the primary networks of corruption. (p. 42.)

As discussed by the Star Ledger, the PVSC was created by the NJ Legislature in 1902, and effectively runs the largest wastewater treatment plant in the state. Apparently, it has a superb environmental record among state and federal watchdogs. The problem is not the PVSC's operations, but on the significant amount of rancid fat wrapped around them. (Christie has now lopped off a quarter of the payroll, without effect on operations.) The faults that have led to this corruption rise all the way to Trenton, as the governor's power to appoint PVSC Commissioners may be (and currently is) put on hold by senators from the four counties serviced by the PVSC. This allows the local senators to force appointments toward their allies.

The Star Ledger noted that the PVSC – a government agency – has hired lobbyists in Trenton, and Gov. Christie himself acknowledged the extent of the PVSC's role as a patronage tool for state-level legislators:

The offenders have “significant patrons inside this building,” Christie said. “This has been a place for key powerful legislators in both parties.”

“Hack after hack being (placed) in there by senators,” he said, turning down an opportunity to name the names of these “powerful legislators.”

“They perpetuated a never-ending cycle,” he said, of patronage and abuse of power. “Who over the years have been benefiting from these places, and who are the relationships and connections linked to? We’re looking at that.”

As seen from the report on Cotonou, corruption is a universal problem, even if it has local variations. In the NJ context, it is easy to understand the mindset of the PVSC's corrupt officials: The PVSC has been around for over a century, it seems to do its job well, and rates are relatively low for people, why should they complain? And if there's a little "looking out for people" going on, it's a small addition to one monthly bill. Plus, my cousin is as good as anybody else. Why shouldn't I hire him if he's qualified? Don't you forget either that it takes some doing to get into the PVSC – do you know how many behinds you have to kiss to get in? And still have to kiss? And who would put up with working on a sewer commission if there wasn't something in it for them? Etc., etc.

The difference between corrupt and clean government is one of perspective. To the corrupt insider, like the PVSC type, there are a multitude of personal and political-network reasons why things are the way they are. From this viewpoint, the PVSC's troubles are perhaps that some people went a little overboard. Things have to be kept a little quieter. People have to be a little more disciplined, and not go crazy.

The cold light of clean government shines harshly because it doesn't care about insider concerns. It looks at the system, and in the case of the PVSC what that light reveals is an abscess of corruption that needs to be lanced and cauterized.

Nepotism, contract-shunting and back-scratching is an abuse of public trust, a waste of resources that could be used on the truly needy, and a theft from the pockets of one's neighbors. Those members of the PVSC who have abused the public trust should be shamed and shunned by their neighbors, fellow parishioners, fellow club members, etc., as the pickpockets they are. That is one way to change the culture of corruption. Another is to use the governor's pulpit to hammer them, and bravo to Christie for doing so in the face of vested interests! Keep up the good work, governor!