Monthly Archives: January 2008

Attacking State Debt

With the State of New Jersey in dismal fiscal condition and facing even greater dire consequences for future, Governor Corzine has taken a business approach — not a political one – toward righting the state’s financial ship.

In his State of the State address today, Corzine, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, will announce details of his plan to utilize revenue from the state’s toll roads for needed road maintenance and infrastructure improvements and to pay down the massive state debt that has spiraled to historic levels in recent years.

From a purely political standpoint, the proposal is wrought with danger signals. Republicans have been denouncing it since he first broached the idea a year ago, and members of the Governor’s own party have been less than warm to the concept. Meanwhile, New Jersey motorists aren’t likely to take kindly to anticipated increases in toll rates.

From a business standpoint, the plan reflects Corzine’s knowledge and experience in the fiscal industry. We can agree or disagree with the Governor’s recommendations. That is our right and our responsibility, but at least he has put a proposal on the table for debate and discussion — instead of following in the paths of others who have taken politically expedient approaches. Two years after taking office, Jon Corzine’s experience as a successful Wall Street executive is finally taking center stage.

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Silence and the Judge

It’s disappointing that Karen Munster Cassidy, the Superior Court judge in the McGreevey divorce case, declined the Star-Ledger’s request to be interviewed for a profile story the newspaper wrote about her.

Clearly, Cassidy had a right to decline the interview – and there may be a legal reason to keep quiet – but this is reminiscent of the same mentality the greeted Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini’s comments on the much-publicized case of alleged sex assault by state troopers. At a time when the public is rightfully demanding more transparency in government, Bochinni provided a rare insight into how his office is dealing with this high profile case – on a professional and personal basis. For this, Attorney General Anne Milgram re-assigned the case to another county.

By not talking to the Ledger, Cassidy allowed other people to define her (although they did it in glowing terms) and the public missed out on learning what makes the judge in one of New Jersey’s highest profile legal cases tick.

Focusing on the Wrong Target

Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow is in no position to complain about the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is facilitating the surrender of Otis Blunt, a convict who escaped from the county jail in December.

The Star-Ledger is reporting that Romankow is upset because Sharpton’s National Action Network notified the press about Blunt’s possible surrender before contacting county authorities.

All protocol aside, Sharpton was able to do what Union County authorities were unable to – find an inmate who had been on the lam for nearly a month after escaping from the county jail by chiseling through a wall and hiding the opening with pictures of scantily clad women.

Instead of complaining about Sharpton’s media policies, Romankow should continue focusing his attention where it belongs – on correcting the problems which first made it possible for Blunt and another inmate to escape and then tragically led to the suicide of a corrections officer who worked at the jail.

Irony in the Bullying Bill

One of the many bills slated for final approval before the current legislative comes to a close on Tuesday is a measure that would strengthen state law on hate crimes and bullying. The bill would amend existing law to include crimes based on gender and identity expression, national origin and disability.

The legislation, which specifically adds crimes based on “gender identity or expression” to existing law, is sponsored by two women who warn of the dangers of stereotypes. However, the bill itself is guilty of just that. Language in the legislation calls for creation of a Commission on Bullying in Schools that must include the Commissioner of the Department of Education, or “his” designee; and the Director of the Division on Civil Rights in the Department of Law and Public Safety, or “his” designee.

Sometimes the Facts Don’t Match the Storylines

In her book “The Press Effect,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson devotes a chapter to what she calls “The Press as Storyteller.” In it, she uses the 1988 Willie Horton ad, the disputed 2000 presidential election, the Enron scandal and other examples to illustrate how journalists can err in their reporting. Jamieson contends that, when there is a compelling narrative surrounding an issue, reporters can miss facts and frame stories to fit that narrative.

“In a contest between data and dramatic narrative, the narrative is likely to be recalled and stored,” she wrote.

Though not as dramatic as the examples in Jamieson’s book, the coverage of the disposal of some old Hamilton Township files lends support to her argument.

There was a change in administrations in Hamilton at the start of the year and by all accounts, there is no love lost between the old and new regimes. So when a citizen discovered 20 crates of township records sitting among piles of recyclables at the Township Ecological Center, red flags went up and conspiracy theories abounded.

The Trenton Times ran the story on its first page, reporting that new Mayor John Bencivengo was investigating. The paper also recounted details surrounding the disabling of municipal building security cameras while outgoing administration officials cleaned out their desks, ranging from a verbal exchange between the outgoing mayor and politically active police officer to the new mayor’s complaint that outgoing officials had left their offices too messy.

But lo and behold it turned out to be just a big misunderstanding. The next day the Trenton Times reported that a municipal construction code official had placed the documents in the garbage as he does at this time every year when a 10-year retention period expires. The man who cleared up the mystery was Rob Warney, the township’s new director of the engineering planning and inspections. But what remains a mystery is why the newspaper didn’t talk to Warney in the first place – or at least hold off on the story until he was available to offer an explanation. Could it be because, as Jamieson suggests in her book, a case in which reporters “failed to investigate and locate the facts that would have undercut the coherence of a story being told because the lens they adopted made fact-finding seem unnecessary or irrelevant”?

Is There a "Please" in RSVP?

Partisan politics and constructive debate play an important a role in our democracy, but far too often partisanship trumps responsibility and honesty. Case in point: the recent flap over the Town Hall meetings that Governor Corzine plans to hold regarding his financial restructuring and debt reduction plans.

Apparently, Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce took umbrage when he learned that citizens planning to attend the sessions were being required to RSVP to the Governor’s Office.

We don’t know whether DeCroce reached out to the Corzine to alert the Governor of his concern. What we do know is that the GOP leader fired off a blistering press release invoking comparisons to the Soviet Union and questioning why the Governor’s Office was asking potential attendees “to provide considerable information about themselves, including their place of employment.”

Wondering how this could be true, I logged onto the Governor’s webpage on the meetings, but was unable to find any form asking for place of employment. The closet possibilities were boxes for “organization” and “daytime phone number,” but both of these were optional.

But the Governor’s Office was not without blame either. In response to DeCroce’s press release, Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton called the notion that people would be denied entrance to the meetings ludicrous and said, “Anyone that shows up will be allowed in.” That’s all fine and well, except for the fact that the Governor’s own website clearly states: “If you would like to attend you must RSVP.”

All the News, Except for New Jersey

In a posting on her politickernj.com column, Debbie Holtz laments the recent decision by The New York Times to eliminate editorials and op-ed articles from its Sunday New Jersey and the Region section. I share her sentiments and hope that this decision is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of the newspaper’s commitment to covering the Garden State. On a personal level, I’ve had the opportunity to see some of my op-eds published in this section of The Times. Most were penned for others while I was working in PR. But I also wrote two under my own name early in my career – a piece on gifted and talented education in Montclair and another urging the State of New Jersey to adopt Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” as its official state anthem.