Moorestown petition drive targets campaign contribution hike

Mark Singer talks to Claudia Fletcher about the petition.
Mark Singer talks to Claudia Fletcher about the petition. (DAVID O'REILLY / Staff)
Posted: August 24, 2013

With just 18 days left to collect 1,100 signatures for a referendum, Mark Singer was wondering Thursday if Main Street was the right place to be circulating a petition.

"Hi. Do you live in Moorestown?" he'd ask passersby as he stood outside Passariello's Pizzeria & Italian Eatery, perhaps the busiest spot downtown.

Singer was incensed, he explained earlier, that the Township Council on Monday had raised from $300 to $2,600 the amount that firms seeking or having contracts with the township may donate to individual candidates annually. Firms may also give up to $7,200 to political action committees or standing political committees, up from $300 and $500.

Time and again, however, the answer to the residency question was "Nope" or "Sorry" or "I'm from Delran." A woman from Camden said she was looking for a bathroom. "Just coming for a haircut," a man told him.

But when someone chanced to reply "Yes," Singer, 72, would begin a rapid-fire spiel.

"Are you aware," he would ask, "that town council just passed a pay-to-play ordinance that increases by more than 10 times the amount of political donations that businesses can give?"

A look of bafflement would sometimes pass over the stopped person's face. "I've got an order to pick up," one woman told Singer, and headed inside.

"I live here," said one man, who then puzzled Singer by adding, "but I'm not a resident of New Jersey."

"My kids are really hungry," said a man with three small boys, one of whom began clinging to his father's neck and wrapping his legs around his waist.

"I'll talk to you on the way out, when my stomach is full," a heavyset man with thinning, pomaded hair told him.

"I'll bet he heads out the back door," Singer whispered as the man disappeared.

About every 30th adult, however, would stop, listen, and end up signing.

"What is it?" asked Claudia Fletcher, a resident of 35 years, and asked Singer to please slow down.

He told her he is one of a group of residents who believe the town's new political-contribution limits are too high and threaten to "corrupt the political process" by giving businesses undue influence.

The group is seeking, he said, to have a referendum question put on the special Oct. 16 ballot - when voters choose New Jersey's next U.S. senator - or the gubernatorial election Nov. 5, so that residents may approve or disapprove of the new ordinance.

"Could I interest you in signing?" he asked.

"Yes," Fletcher replied.

He handed her a pen. "Please print neatly," he said.

The new ordinance is needed, say the four Republicans who voted for it, because the $300 contribution limit that Moorestown adopted in 2008 was at variance with limits set by state law and was confusing.

The Republicans say that legislative leaders and Gov. Christie have called for standardized contribution limits for all municipalities, and that their ordinance was a move in that direction.

Greg Newcomer, the sole Democrat on the council, voted against the increase.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, said Thursday that his commission endorses a uniform annual limit on campaign contributions of $1,000 for all counties and municipalities.

"Seven counties and 176 municipalities have their own regulation, so it's really confusing," he said. "The situation in Moorestown symbolizes the need for one state law."

Bills that would set new thresholds are pending in committees in the Senate and Assembly.

The majority Republicans approved the ordinance at Monday's council meeting despite the objections of a dozen residents - including Singer - and no expressions of support.

Robert Gorman, chairman of the Moorestown Democrat Club, said Thursday that it took a day for a lawyer to write the petition's language, and that 35 copies are circulating in the hands of residents, who belong to either party or are unaffiliated.

"I don't know what parties some of the people belong to," he said. Most petitions will be taken door-to-door, but at least one will be at the Main Street Starbucks on Saturday morning.

The 1,100 figure is based on a state formula requiring petitioners challenging a municipal ordinance to collect valid signatures equal to 15 percent of the number of local residents who voted in the last Assembly election.

"I hope we get enough to survive challenges," Singer said outside Passariello's.

A Moorestown resident exiting the restaurant with his wife and young son told Singer he had "seen the headlines" about the council's vote, but was "not familiar with the details."

Singer painted the story in bleak terms, and the man agreed, saying his firm has government contracts all over the state and used to make political contributions but doesn't any more, in part because of potential legal pitfalls.

"It has to stop," said the man, who asked that his name not be used. He and his wife both signed the petition.

But after listening to Singer a few minutes later, a white-haired resident began shaking his head and said he would not sign.

"I have no problem with what they did," he said. "No problem at all."


Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

 

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