Author Archive: Bill Orr

About Bill Orr

University of Virginia Masters in English. Have lived in Argentina, Panama, Delaware, Virginia, California, NYC, and New Jersey for the last 25 years. Former editor and manager at McGraw-Hill, former President of Gay Activist Alliance of NJ, founder of NJ ActUp, and North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) in Newark.

Triumph And Tragedy of Two Endeavors

                          In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

                          In 1666 Puritans sought new land to fix.

Columbus, charting a shortcut to the Indies came looking for gold and spices. His was largely a business trip, for which he was to receive 10% of everything found. Robert Treat, Jasper Crane and the other settlers who sailed into Newark Bay came for religious reasons. They had left Connecticut, where worldliness and “Godlessness” trampled their Puritan beliefs. Newark was to be a new and shining theocracy where church and government were to be one.

Columbus of course did not “discover” America nor that the world was not flat, and he found less wealth than he sought. Nor were the Puritans able to create a sustainable shining theocracy. Both the Italian captain and the strict theocrats were bold individuals who left their mark on history.

Newark has a plaque on the ground where the Puritans landed (next to NJPAC) and the original settlers and their intentions are memorialized on plaques at the entrance to the Robert Treat Hotel. Columbus has his very own holiday, much appreciated by those who do not have to work today.

However, let’s not forget that both left a sad legacy of injustice toward the inhabitants they met. Columbus kidnapped about 25 Hispaniola natives to Spain, most dying in route. He tricked the natives and supported their enslavement. Newark’s first inhabitants – The Lenape Indians – on the shore when the settlers arrived were also tricked and mistreated.  As John Cunningham recounts in his book NEWARK, “Gradually the Lenape Indians disappeared. They died from diseases of the newcomers – particularly smallpox – and were pushed out of their fishing and hunting grounds. The last of them accepted a reservation in Burlington County in 1758. The few who remained in 1802 joined others of their tribe then living at Lake Oneida, NY.”  

Slow/Tepid Response To Foreclosure Mills

“Court documents say that some of the largest firms in the industry have repeatedly submitted erroneous affidavits when moving to seize homes and levied improper fees that make it harder for homeowners to get back on track with payments.”  – NY Times – March 30, 2008

Although fraudulent foreclosures have been in the news at least since 2008, they only began to receive important administration attention in NJ on October 7, 2010, with Attorney General Paula Dow’s announcement she was “assessing whether the state’s Consumer Fraud Act has been violated by companies.” She went on to say, “I’m asking all mortgage holders who are in the foreclosure process to pause, review their procedures, and ensure that all statements that they attest to are, in fact, properly reviewed and confirmed as being accurate.” An altogether slow and tepid response.

NJ Newsroom reported at least three banks operating in our state have acknowledged problems and issued foreclosure moratoriums. The problems can include documents signed by employees who said they did not verify the information, questions about the notarization of documents, different documents containing different signatures in different versions, and documents signed in bulk.

Hopeful in his Otober 7 Blue Jersey diary salutes President Obama who just vetoed  the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act, which would have made false notarizations easier. Rachael’sdad in his Blue Jersey Diary of October 6 despairs that Paula Dow will not do much to solve the problem, and he urges “sheriffs looking past the letter of the law and focusing on the best interests of the people in their communities.”

“Tepid and slow” is not the right response for our Attorney General. According to Realty Trak in NJ there were 4,777 new foreclosure filings in August and 49,139 year to date, plus, those in prior years. In addition to high unemployment, decreased home values, and predatory mortgage loans, thousands of New Jerseyans have also been at risk of fraudulent foreclosures. The evidence is mounting. Attorney General Dow must move rapidly to end these practices, punish offenders, and seek relief for affected homeowners.  

Our Economy: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

“We all agree on the need to improve our economy and create jobs that will help make New Jersey more affordable, and we all know that sustainable jobs and a strong economy will go a long way toward solving our structural budget problems.” – Assembly Budget Chair Louis D. Greenwald

On Thursday in the midst of the RTTT hearing and Governor Christie’s ARC announcement, the Assembly held a special committee hearing on economic development. After the meeting Greenwald said, “It’s also now clear why the governor sent only one official to today’s hearing: the economy – jobs and economic development especially for working class New Jerseyans, are just not his priority.”

I hope that jobs and the economy become a priority for Democrats. What we heard were a lot of words. As is often the case with such hearings, no action plan was immediately forthcoming.  Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Chairman Albert Coutinho opened the hearing by summarizing possible avenues for legislation:

 *  Provide tax breaks and incentives for businesses.

 *  Alter burdensome rules and regulations.

 *  promote renewable energy, green jobs and industry.

 *  Control business and employee health insurance costs.

 *  Make the state more competitive with neighboring states.

 *  Seek federal assistance help to create jobs.

 *  Explore the role tourism plays in economic recovery.

Ok Assemblypersons, it’s now time to walk the talk. New Jerseyans are counting on you to make jobs and economic development your priority.

This is an open thread… Add your own suggestion on what the legislature should do.

Christie Grants two-week ARC Reprieve

Governor Christie announced this afternoon, “The fact that the ARC project is not financially viable and is expected to dramatically exceed its current budget remains unchanged. However, this afternoon Secretary LaHood presented several options to potentially salvage a trans Hudson tunnel project. At the Secretary’s request, I’ve agreed to have Executive Director of NJ Transit Jim Weinstein and members from his team work with U.S. Department of Transportation staff to study those options over the next two weeks.”

Don’t hold your breath. The tone in these comments lacks any obvious promise of a favorable outcome. Nonetheless, this reprieve allows the state and federal officials to review financials and several new options, and receive further input from experts and the public.

Senator Lautenberg said, “The Secretary was clear with Governor Christie: if this tunnel doesn’t get built, the three billion dollars will go to other states.  We can’t allow that to happen. Governor Christie needs to put politics aside and work on behalf of New Jersey commuters to get this tunnel back on track.” Assembly Transportation Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said, “I thank Secretary LaHood for returning sanity to this issue.”  

Christie’s Decision: Non-Transparent and Possibly Deceptive

A lack of transparency and possible deception underlie Governor Christie’s decision to ax ARC. He said he reached his decision “based on calculations by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) that the final budget is expected to top $11 billion and could exceed as much as $14 billion, compared to the project’s current budget of $8.7 billion.”

His press release goes onto say, “Today, Governor Chris Christie accepted the recommendation of the ARC Project Executive Committee to terminate the ARC Project.” All members of the Executive Committee are political appointees.  In their memo the members say, “The FTA regional staff put forth a projected range of $10.9 to 13.7 billion.”The memo provides no breakdown or substantiation of how this estimate was constructed. Nor does it point to a link that would help us understand the basis.

Christie’s case rests on what he presents as final estimates from the FTA. Andrea Bernstein of WNYC, who has been following this story closely, indicates, “sources familiar with the discussions between Christie and the FTA dispute that, saying the FTA had not arrived at a final number for potential overruns.” In effect, it appears the numbers that Governor Christie has been throwing around were only preliminary data and that the FTA is still in the process of completing its assessment. Nowhere on the governor’s nor NJ Transportation Department’s websites can one find this FTA report.

Andrea Bernstein also reported this morning on WNYC that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff were planning to come to Trenton today to discuss the matter further.

Zuckerberg Grant OPRA Request Denied

Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to NJ Department of Education: “A complete copy of the award notice and full terms and conditions of the grant from Mark Zuckerberg’s Start-Up Education Foundation $100 million grant for Newark school education.”

Given the size and importance of Mark Zuckerberg’s grant and the lack of information about it, I filed the request on September 27, 2010. The contents of this grant is public information.  It should form a part of the needed school reform dialogue within Newark and the NJ Education Department. It should also help us understand what Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation expects and requires.

On October 6 I received the below response:

Mr. Orr, Please see the attached Government Records Receipt indicating that your request is denied. The Department of Education does not have the requested records. – Mary L. Gentry, New Jersey Department Education

As  Acting Commissioner of Education, Rochelle Hendricks testified before a joint legislative committee on Tuesday, “The state’s school takeover statute – the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) – does not authorize gubernatorial or mayoral participation in efforts to reform a district under state control. That responsibility rests squarely on the commissioner of education’s shoulders.”  As Newark school’s are under her control, her responsibilities include being informed about this grant, assuring the grant’s goals and tasks do not run counter to the QSAC law, and assuring monies spent are in accordance with state requirements.

The mystery deepens. It appears the Education Department may be negligent in its responsibilities. It is routine for a department to require receipt of outside grants for activities that fall under its purview. Ultimately such activities need state approval. Is it possible only Mayor Booker has the grant and has refused to share it? But if so, why would the governor have spoken so frequently about this award without he or members of the Executive staff having a copy of it? Is it possible that the governor’s office has a copy, but has not shared it with the Education Department? It seems unprofessional and unlikely that there would be such hullabaloo about a $100 million grant with nothing in writing – not even a short award notice.

In discussing the needed dialogue on reform, Mayor Booker said, “Let’s trust Newarkers.” To help achieve that trust, he or the governor should release the contents of the award to the public and to the Education Department – willingly, rather than having to do so under another OPRA request.

Medical Cannabis: “My Way Or The Highway”

“At this time, the Department is not reviewing proposals or receiving documents, nor meeting with potential vendors, advocacy groups, lobbyists or other interested parties. We believe this is the best way to assure an objective, science based strategy.” – email from NJ Department of Health June 14, 2010

This remarkable email assumes that only the Health Department (and the governor) can create an objective, science based strategy. In fact the department recognized its own limitations and jobbed out the task to an outside university group. Creation of a successful community program, however, requires input from the community. Indeed, by law the Health Department will still have to publish its proposed regulations and seek input before finalizing them.

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Medical Cannabis: “My Way Or The Highway”

“At this time, the Department is not reviewing proposals or receiving documents, nor meeting with potential vendors, advocacy groups, lobbyists or other interested parties. We believe this is the best way to assure an objective, science based strategy.” – email from NJ Department of Health June 14, 2010

This remarkably obtuse email assumes that only the Health Department (and the governor) can create an objective, science based strategy. In fact the department recognized its own limitations and jobbed out the task to an outside university group. Creation of a successful community program, however, requires input from the community. Indeed, by law the Health Department will still have to publish its proposed regulations and seek input before finalizing them.

It appears now that the administration after one 90-day extension has reached some decisions – for only two growers and four dispensaries – and is seeking yet another extension until July 1, 2011. So why did the department not seek input early in the process? Planning the medical cannabis program has been cloaked with secrecy and wrapped not in science but in politics. Our governor a few months ago, with his foot in his mouth, revealed the possibility of Rutgers University cultivating the cannabis and only hospitals distributing it, but most of this plan appears to have been abandoned. In comments on a weekend news show Health Commissioner Alaigh in March expressed concern about not re-creating a situation as in certain other states where in her view there are too many distributors. The implication seems to be that after delays it’s alright to make medical cannabis available, but let’s restrict growers and make it difficult for patients to access.  

It is a sad turn of events when a medical program lacks input from the community, strays from science, and becomes a political football. Today’s Star Ledger indicates that Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), sponsor of the bill, said “he was given some of the details as to how Gov. Chris Christie’s administration plans to make pot legally available, and is not happy about what he heard” – specifically the provisions for limited growers and dispensaries and yet another extension, which run contrary to what was passed in the law. “I don’t want them rewriting my law,” an angry Scutari said tonight. “That’s not right… It’s got to be fixed.”

The administration says it will shortly release guidelines outlining “the registration and application process for physicians, patients, growers and vendors”  which probably will be posted on the Health Department’s website. Nonetheless, once again Chris Christie, former prosecutor,  pays scant attention to the law, and says “It’s my way, or the highway.”  Advocates for a sane policy – one based on science, the law, and community input – should support Senator Scutari and make their voices heard.

Show Us A Plan Now Governor

Press reports had indicated that following the legislative Joint Budget Oversight Committee’s approval of a $1.25 billion bond to fund road projects, workers would return on Tuesday. However, late today the NJ Transportation Department said, “The stoppage remains in place for NJDOT and NJ TRANSIT projects that are currently in the planning and development phase. We will use this time to conduct a cost-benefit review of each of these proposals.” In a well run business, conducting a cost-benefit review should be an ongoing process, not a cause for work stoppage. This administration has known since its inception that the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) was running low on funds.

According to the American Council of Engineering Companies of NJ, “This stoppage will potentially cripple New Jersey’s engineering profession and could result in the loss of hundreds and possibly thousands of jobs.” All of this is happening while NJ Spotlight points out that “The Christie administration resorted to diverting $393 million from the state’s depleted general fund this past year to keep transit and highway projects moving ahead.” While it’s not uncommon to transfer funds temporarily from one account to another, it is dangerous to do so under duress when both accounts are low and replenishment is not assured.  

We are in a crisis. The governor after eight months has failed to put forth a plan to replenish the TTF, while simultaneously borrowing from the General Fund. During the budget committee hearings Commissioner Simpson said a plan would be issued by the end of the year.  That is not soon enough. Show us a plan now Governor.

“They Can’t Change Me, I Got A Dream”

“They can change their minds but they can’t change me,

I got a dream, I got a dream;

Oh, I know I could share it if you’d want me to.

Movin’ me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway.”

                                          Jim Croce: I Got A Name

Transportation Commissioner Simpson’s halt of state-funded road construction projects announced on Friday was ended yesterday. The Star Ledger reported, “Construction workers, engineers and planners will return to work Tuesday.” This followed Simpson’s appearance before an emergency meeting of the Legislative Joint Budget Oversight Committee.

Democrats have been concerned over the failure of the governor to provide a plan to replenish the almost broke Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) – one bound to be controversial. The Record reported that Treasurer Andrew Eristoff said at the hearing, “the governor has ruled out raising the gas tax as part of his plan.” Nonetheless, Commissioner Simpson said the administration would have a solution by the end of the year. With that promise the budget committee voted to approve new financing for current transportation projects.

But does Chrisie really have a plan and is it broadly based enough to garner support? And will he hold hostage the important Hudson River Tunnel project until he presents his plan? Perhaps he seeks to end the tunnel project and transfer monies to the TTF. As suggested in Hopeful’s diary and reported in the NY Times there appears to be a movement toward some states putting a brake on rail service projects because of high costs. The governor has been promising a long-term solution for the TTF ever since he has been in office.

Sounding like Christie, Jim Croce sings, “They can’t change me, I got a dream… I could share it if you’d want me to.”  But Croce does not reveal his dream. Our governor changes only rarely, and we are still waiting for him to tell us his dream.