The website of the grassroots good government group Civic JC, where the most recent news articles are over three years old, tells an interesting story.
The story is of a group launching in 2007 that sought to promote “a more open and transparent government” in Jersey City, a group that advocated “good municipal government practices” in part by working closely with then-City Councilman Steven Fulop on various “progressive initiatives,” including the city’s pay to play law, one of Fulop’s signature policy victories as a councilman.
The website also tells the story of an organization, founded by residents in downtown Ward E which the new mayor once represented, that has largely been off the political scene for several years as some of its core members – Dan Levin, Peter Delman, and John Thieroff among them – put group activity on the back burner to work on other projects.
Given that Fulop, the group’s frequent ally, is now mayor, former board member Thieroff is now a deputy mayor, and several Civic JC supporters are now working for the city, one might think this is an odd time for the group to resurrect itself and rededicate to its mission of promoting good government.
“Our role isn’t really going to change,” said organization cofounder Aaron Morrill. “I think the role of Civic JC will be more important in the future because for the last eight years we had a councilman who functioned as an independent maverick who provided an alternative voice to the city administration and the powers that be. Those of us who see ourselves as reformers and good government types were all spoiled in a way because we knew that if we didn’t step up [Fulop] was going to. Now that he is the mayor, and has a different set of pressures on him, I think having a watchdog is more important than ever, ironically.”
‘I think having a watchdog is more important than ever, ironically.’ – Aaron Morrill
“We’d like to see the city budgeting process be more transparent so residents can really see how money is being spent, and we want to see the budget process made simpler and easier for people to understand,” said Morrill. “Right now, most people don’t know where the city’s money goes.”
The practice of wheeling – when one candidate collects political donations and passes those donations on to another campaign – was raised during the recent municipal election. Fulop introduced a pay to play ordinance last year that sought to prevent wheeling. The ordinance was, however, defeated by the City Council majority.
Activists began calling for changes to the way in which the city and the Board of Education procures insurance brokers after the Fulop-allied school board last year awarded a contract to Fairview Insurance Agency Associates. The company’s director, Ryan Graham, had helped to raise money for Fulop’s mayoral campaign.
Under pressure, Fulop agreed to advance model legislation on insurance reform that was drafted by the nonprofit Citizen’s Campaign.
That legislation stalled in the City Council caucus, and is under review by the school board.
“While we now have a mayor who at times has promoted or embraced various governmental reforms, there is always a need to for an objective check and balance, a need to ask questions and assess, and a place for development of new initiatives and policies,” said Civic JC cofounder Dan Levin. The organization, he said, has tried to “focus on the process and systemic issues, not politics. We have not, for the most part, placed blame or pointed fingers, but looked at ways for our government to work better, no matter who is in office.”
Diversifying the base
Morrill acknowledged that these issues, important though they may be, are rather “wonkish” and might not appeal to many residents, especially those living outside of Ward E who are dealing with bread and butter concerns or high crime in their neighborhoods. The group, he said, plans to broaden some of its historic policy concerns to attract a more diverse membership base from residents outside of Ward E.
Fulop’s newly created Department of Public Safety, Morrill said, is a city agency that might be ripe for oversight. The department’s new director, James Shea, was a former deputy chief with the New York Police Department (NYPD).
For nearly two decades the NYPD has been plagued with allegations of police brutality, misconduct, and racial profiling. The department’s “stop-and-frisk” program, which Shea helped implement, is the subject of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties and has become an issue in the 2013 New York City race for mayor.
Fulop has gone on record opposing “stop-and-frisk,” calling it “racial profiling,” and has said he would block the practice in Jersey City. Still, there is concern that other equally controversial anti-crime measures borrowed from the NYPD could be introduced locally, especially with gun violence recently on the rise.
“We have a new public safety director who comes from New York and, while I don’t want to prejudge, it is possible that he has picked up ideas about policing there that might raise concerns for some members of our community here in Jersey City,” Morrill said. “So, I think that’s a watchdog area that Civic JC could be involved in that might attract people from [communities of color] and other parts of the city.”
This area, he added, might help broaden and diversify Civic JC’s membership.
He also argued that trimming fat from the city budget, “while it isn’t terribly exciting, does free up money that could be made available for more recreation programs or youth initiatives, which are things we know residents want to see more of.”
Morrill also said the organization would like to attract more women as well.
“We know we need to get our numbers up,” said Morrill. “But we also know we don’t need to be huge to have an impact. Our impact has always been bigger than our numbers.”
When allegations of nepotism were raised last month regarding some of Mayor Fulop’s recent hiring decisions, Civic JC was one of the few voices of dissent sought out by the media.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.