With a roundhouse right to the jaw, cynicism was knocked on its backside at a conclave of over 1,200 civic-minded state residents who answered the call to attend the “Jersey Call to Service Summit.” Common ground was struck among a wide variety of people from blue-collar organized laborers to private sector corporate executives.
You had Republicans, Democrats and Independents, all hoping to bring honest and affordable government to their communities — and lower figures to their property tax bills.
Sponsored by the nonpartisan Citizens’ Campaign, the “Jersey Call to Service Summit” was designed to get more Jerseyans actively participating in local, county and state governments. The summit inspired many to take leadership roles in the quest to replace a culture of wasted resources and self-interest with a new culture of service that would guarantee good government at every level.
Those gathered Wednesday night at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick split into four separate panel discussions, called “Leadership Forums”, featuring such topics as “Tools for Citizens to Control Property Taxes & Cut Government Waste”, “New Opportunities to Serve on Government Policy Boards”, “Citizen Control of Political Parties” and “Citizen Journalism—A Cure for Closed Door Government”. All had an engaging mix of bipartisan panelists who left all partisan debate and rancor outside the door.
A full discussion with audience participants followed each panel presentation, offering a refreshing look into the wisdom of average citizens who seem to have had enough of the political status quo that has brought a nearly epidemic level of corruption to the state resulting in wasted taxpayer monies and higher property taxes.
Calling the event a movement, Harry Pozycki, Chairman of the Citizens’ Campaign, told the overflow crowd that they “have helped prove the cynics wrong. We can replace New Jersey’s culture of corruption with a culture of service.
At each of the panel discussions, ideas for model ordinances were presented to the participants to bring back to their communities. For municipal cost-cutting measures, the Citizens’ Campaign outlined ways to encourage municipalities and school boards to share computer administration, perform energy audits, contract with County Road Departments for municipal road repairs, along with online posting of local budgets, salaries and labor contracts, among other ideas.
Government accountability was also urged through important reforms that included changes to pay-to-play, professional contracts, bid contracts, redevelopment agreements and political contribution disclosures.
To protect the integrity of the local political system, the creation of municipal political party constitutions was suggested. A panel spotlighted the new rules governing county political parties which have been implemented via the new Party Democracy Act. The PDA is a law approved by the state legislature that guarantees a county political organization create a proper constitution and bylaws, access to party member lists through the county clerk and ensures the representative rights of grassroots party officials.
Advancing the notion that an active citizenry must be an informed citizenry, a panel was devoted to urging citizens become local journalists, casting sunshine on the operations and decisions of town hall by posting their observations on Internet based hyperlocal news outlets. The panel also promoted the idea of citizens establishing their own web blogs to give their voice a chance to be heard. A review of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meeting law was conducted to educate participants on the tools they can use to access the government information they need.
The summit opened with a videotaped message of welcome by former Republican Governor Thomas Kean followed by an appearance at the podium by former Democratic Governor Brendan Byrne. They were later followed by three-time New York Giant Super Bowl winner Bart Oates who also chairs the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
In a clear show of unity, the Vice President of the Laborers International union Raymond Pocino and the President of Verizon New Jersey Dennis Bone stood side by side as they called upon their members and employees to join in service to their communities. Bone sent a letter to every Verizon employee in the state urging them to attend the summit and to engage in civic service.
An inspiring keynote speech was delivered by the Reverend Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens and a former New Jersey Secretary of State. With the conviction and energy of a seasoned Baptist preacher, Soaries used personal anecdotes to underscore the importance of civic engagement. He told a story of how, in response to the dangers of children crossing a particular heavily trafficked road, it took ordinary citizens in a small community to unite behind an effort to demand the installation of a crucial traffic light — a request that had previously languished for many years on the agenda of a distant state government.The Reverend encouraged New Jersey’s citizens to work together to demand the accountability and honesty they deserve from their government.
Further information on the Citizens’ Campaign efforts can be found at jointhecampaign.com .
Rocco Mazza of Lyndhurst, who calls himself a “pragmatic, progessive Democrat” has worked tirelessly on numerous campaigns at all levels throughtout New Jersey. The Adelphi graduate also has served several boards and commissions in his 25+ years of public service .
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