An Insider's Look At New Jersey Government

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Weber, would you tell our readers something about your professional background?

Weber: I have been involved in government in New Jersey since I graduated from law school in 1973. Initially, I was involved at the municipal level, then at the county level and finally at the state level. Concerning the latter, my first position was as commissioner of personnel under New Jersey Governor Jim Florio. That position entailed administering all state personnel matters, including sitting as chairman of the Executive Commission on Ethical Standards and reviewing ethical issues arising from the executive branch of state government. I was also a member of the New Jersey Bar Association's Board of Ethics. From the commissioner of personnel position I moved into that of chief counsel to the governor.

Editor: What were some of the highlights of your term of office as chief counsel to the governor?

Weber: The first that comes to mind was the enactment of legislation increasing the judiciary. At the time there was an enormous backlog of litigation, both civil and criminal, and the New Jersey Bar Association was vocal on the need for more judges. I was able to work with the Chief Justice of New Jersey to draft appropriate legislation and then to move it through the Legislature. It was an extraordinary experience.

A second high point occurred when Governor Florio was given the Profiles in Courage Award by the Kennedys. The award reflected his work on gun control legislation, another initiative on which I was privileged to be involved. That effort resulted in the strictest gun control laws in the country. I was with the governor in Boston when we received the award, and it remains one of the best moments in my career.

Editor: Would you give us an overview of Stradley Ronon's government and public affairs practice group?

Weber: The group consists of 16 lawyers and lobbyists and is drawn from a variety of practice groups. The interface is with governmental agencies at the municipal, county and state levels, and the group's reach extends across Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We are also engaged in federal work through our Washington, DC office. Most of the clients come to us from the business community, including some large banking, construction and insurance companies as well as healthcare institutions and several Fortune 500 companies. Any organization that is touched by government, whether public or private, for-profit or non-profit, large or small, is going to have a need at some point for the services that our group provides. Our role is to facilitate the discussion between our clients and government and to advocate the position of the former.

Editor: You are also counsel to the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. How did that come about?

Weber: My departure from the Florio administration coincided with the retirement of the executive director of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors and with the departure of the organization's counsel for the bench. The organization was looking to fill two positions at the same time, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The New Jersey Conference of Mayors represents 556 New Jersey mayors and is the largest organization of its type in the country. Its concerns include advocacy, education and the setting of policy. If, for example, legislation of interest to the mayors is working its way through Congress or the New Jersey Legislature, the Conference will advise the mayors and take instruction from them on the position to take with respect to the legislation.

The Conference's educational function is also very important. In addition to conducting a variety of seminars for the mayors, it runs an annual orientation program for new mayors. In light of the fact that only a few of these representatives are full-time mayors, this orientation is of real benefit to them.

Policy with respect to the interests of the mayors is developed at the Conference's annual conventions and summits. The organization also represents former mayors. The mayor-emeritus group is large and getting larger and, considering the extent of experience that it has, constitutes a real resource for the organization in terms of policy development.

Editor: Please tell us something about the people who make up the Conference's membership.Weber: The mayors are essentially their towns' CEOs. Almost invariably they know the town better than anyone else, and they have a vested interest in making it a better place to live for its citizens. Mayors are not in it for the money. Except for the larger cities, any stipend mayors receive is very small, and many receive nothing at all. This is community service at its finest.

Despite this extraordinary commitment to the community, much of what mayors do is crisis management. Very often they do not have the resources to participate in the policy discussion, for example, or follow the passage of some legislative initiative. The New Jersey Conference of Mayors is there to try to provide at least some of those resources.

Editor: In February, the Conference hosted an economic summit to address alternative energy development. What did the program accomplish?

Weber: Since Governor Corzine came to office, the Conference has conducted economic development summits. The mayors believe that economic development is one of the keys to keeping taxes under control while, at the same time, providing local government with sufficient resources to function. Following the governor's announcement of an economic development plan, we created summits dealing with issues of concern to the mayors. Environmental issues and the development of alternative energy are among the principal concerns under review. The summits are meant to keep the discussion moving forward.

Editor : What are some of the other items on the Conference's agenda?

Weber: Running a governmental operation and providing the services that the public expects with limited revenues is probably the most important item on the mayors' agenda. We have very diverse communities in New Jersey with very different concerns. Affordable housing tends to be an issue that differs from one community to the next. Aging infrastructure is another, although this is something on which the cities and the suburbs tend to agree, given the fact that New Jersey developed some of the very first suburban communities just after World War II. The infrastructure in these communities is often in a state of deterioration.

A new item on the Conference's agenda - just announced at its annual convention in Atlantic City this past April - is the Business Council, which is to be comprised of mayors and members of the business community. This is an initiative aimed at putting the private sector in touch with local government for the purpose of addressing the issues that affect both sides of this connection. Another new initiative concerns the establishment of a think-tank for mayors, an institute that mayors can contact for expertise on a variety of issues. A number of universities in the state have agreed to work with the Conference in bringing this to fruition.

Editor: Given your background with New Jersey's highest officials, would you share with us your thoughts on the principal challenges that Governor Corzine faces?

Weber: Unfortunately, every state is facing at least some of the same issues that New Jersey faces. Governor Corzine is attempting to assert some degree of control over what comes in as revenue and what goes out as expenditures at the state level, and in this economic climate that is not easy. The fact that New Jersey had not had a long-term budget plan makes fiscal management even more challenging.

In this climate, the state government is not positioned to provide sufficient subsidies for the local municipalities' operations. In the absence of significant revenue sources, local government must rely largely on real estate taxes. And the credit crisis is having a very dramatic, and negative, impact on what can be raised at the local level. This fall the Conference is going to host an economic summit on housing and the subprime mortgage crisis.

Editor: I think everyone is aware of the impact of the subprime mortgage crisis and the disappearance of credit in, say, Florida. Is New Jersey similarly affected?

Weber: There are sections of the country that have been hit harder than others. It is important to remember, however, that the mayors represent local communities. If even a handful of people are displaced as a consequence of the crisis, the community feels it. Very often it is the mayor to whom people who have been displaced turn first. Irrespective of the numbers involved, the displacement of people from their homes as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis is a big issue for a mayor. That is the reason we are going to have an economic summit on this issue in the fall.

Editor: How do you see the state's economy developing over, say, the next five years?

Weber: Five years is a very long time at the state level. In the short term, New Jersey faces significant challenges. Those challenges cannot help but be influenced by things such as the upcoming presidential election and the gubernatorial election in 2009. If the economy takes a turn for the better over the next few years, I believe that New Jersey will meet its financial and other challenges. If the economy remains flat, however, I think those challenges will become even more serious than they are now.

Please email the interviewee at aweber@stradley.com with questions about this interview.