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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, March 31, 2006

VA's bureaucratic wheels barely turning

To hear veterans tell it this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs is entangled in red tape. Jim Manning of Neptune injured his knee in a parachute jump in 1952, and he's still waiting to hear whether he'll get disability pay of $100 to $300 a month based on a claim he filed in the late 1990s. Manning, 73, put it succinctly when he asked VA representatives: "How many years do you wait for this stuff to happen?''

Former Gov. McGreevey's father, a World War II and Korea vet, showed the same panel a letter promising action on a disability claim within 45 days. He told them he is still waiting for an answer 10 months later. Manning said the VA doesn't get all the claims it should because its reputation for delays discourages so many veterans from even trying.

The department exists to serve the nation's veterans of all wars. Just because it has to focus on soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is no excuse for forgetting the older veterans. The VA has to get its act together for all of them. It should be embarrassed to handle a claim such as Manning's 54 years after the fact.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Keyport mayor in denial

Keyport Mayor John Merla is the only elected official charged in the FBI's Operation Bid Rid corruption investigation last year who still remains in office. He has steadfastly rejected calls that he step down after being accused of taking about $23,000 from undercover agents and a cooperating witness and extorting $1,000 from the owner of a solid-waste disposal company doing business with the borough. Now he's talking about staying on even longer by seeking re-election to another four-year term.

When will Merla realize that staying in office while his charges are unresolved casts a dark cloud over the town he supposedly loves? His time is better spent preparing his defense. But if he insists on continuing in denial, sticks with his re-election plans and doesn't stand trial before Election Day, Keyport's voters will get the chance to issue their own verdict at the polls. He'll undoubtedly learn that the voters don't appreciate having their mayor indicted in a corruption probe. They deserve better; Merla isn't delivering.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Voice of the people

Among my duties on the editorial page staff is to screen the letters. They're only the opinions of those who choose to write, so they don't constitute a scientific sample. But reading them does offer a glimpse of what's on readers' minds. The dominant themes this week are immigration and New Jersey's budget woes.

The question of how best to deal with the number of illegal immigrants in New Jersey has been a topic of our letter writers for at least three years - before it became so prominent on the national radar. The majority of those who write express little sympathy for people who come to this country illegally and then take advantage of the benefits afforded them here. David Broder's column on the Op-Ed page Thursday provides an unusual insight: What legal immigrants think of the illegals.

The budget letters, prompted no doubt by our coupon accompanying editorials and letters packages, are chock-full of ideas for how to cut spending in New Jersey. None of them defends Gov. Corzine's more-taxes approach. Most marvel that more has not been done to trim the fat. If our readers can reel off idea after idea to save money, why can't the folks in Trenton? A full page of those ideas will run on the Op-Ed page Friday. We encourage you to contribute your own ideas, in these blogs and on our letters pages. Letters should be e-mailed to

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

No more double-dipping

Newark Mayor Sharpe James announced Monday he was dropping out of the race for a sixth four-year term. He pulled out, he said, because of his opposition to dual officeholding. He also represents the state's largest city in the state Senate.

There's only one problem with his explanation: He's been a senator since 1999. It took him seven years to see the light about being one of the state's double-dipping elected officials?

More likely than not, James read his early polling reports and found his campaign against Cory Booker would have been even tougher than it was in 2002. But if you have to bow out, you might as well hop aboard the good government/ethics train.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Fifty years later ...

All Monmouth County cars will soon bear the official county seal. And it's a long time coming. The seals have been a fixture on the trucks and heavy equipment of the Department of Public Works for years. But now all county vehicles will include the seal.

The move no doubt comes in response to public concern about the number and use of county vehicles in an era of more open government. But Freeholder Ted Narozanick said there's nothing new about the idea. It dates to a resolution adopted by the freeholders in 1956, but never formally adopted. That's right, 1956. I suppose it proves everything old is new again.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The past in Freehold's future

The American Hotel, the centerpiece of downtown Freehold, may live again. Manalapan businessman Steven Goldberg bought the fire-ravaged restaurant-tavern for $2.5 million at a bankruptcy auction Thursday. Goldberg was mum on his plans for the property, which gives pause to those of us with fond memories of the American.

But Goldberg did say he believes in the commercial viability of the town. That's reassuring. His purchase includes the property's liquor license, so let's hope he's ready to use it. The area needs a restaurant-tavern-banquet hall. That's what the American was for decades. Why not now?

A revived American would be the focal point of Freehold's planned historic preservation district. It would be yet another reason for diners and even tourists to make the downtown a destination of choice. Let's hope Goldberg commits to that vision at his meeting with borough officials today.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Paying to guard nuke plants

It probably was news to most New Jersey residents to learn that the state pays to help guard the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey and three reactors in Salem County. But no more, if Gov. Corzine has his way. His budget proposal calls for an assessment of $4.4 million on the plants' owners for the State Police and National Guard personnel who supplement the private security forces at the four plants.

It's remarkable that these private companies - Exelon at Osyter Creek and PSEG at Salem - have been getting away with this free service from the state all these years. Any sharp state auditor should have caught it long ago.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Car 54, where are you?

Among Gov. Corzine's proposals to raise money is to charge towns that use State Police for local patrols if their property taxes are below their county's average. Dozens of relatively small municipalities - some of which aren't so small anymore - don't have their own police department and are covered by State Police based at nearby barracks.

The negative reaction from these towns comes as no surprise. Our taxes are already high enough, officials and residents in Monmouth and Ocean counties said. But they are forgetting one important thing: Everybody in the state is helping to pay for their police protection (we all kick in to pay for state troopers) while they save the cost of having their own force.

Maybe when they are told how much the state will charge them for state police coverage, they will decide to form their own department. Or better yet, form a regional police department with nearby towns.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Oh, that New Jersey traffic!

The beleaguered New Jersey Republican Party can't even get a campaign fund-raiser right. Vice President Cheney came to Newark to boost the campaign of state Sen. Tom Kean, the expected GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate. But Kean wasn't even there.

Kean was in Trenton for a state Senate voting session that didn't end until about 4 p.m. He said he was stuck in Route 1 traffic and didn't make it to the event until just after 6 p.m. - minutes after Cheney finished his remarks and exited the stage.

It's just as well. Kean avoided the dilemma of how to react when Cheney told the donors that ''he carries one of the most trusted names in American politics.'' Cheney must have forgotten that Kean's father, the former governor of the same name, was chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Its report wasn't a best seller on the VP's reading list last year.

But the traffic snarl will provide Kean with a useful sound byte about his dedication: "I would not miss votes in order to make a political event.'' Let's hope he remembers that in the heat of the fall campaign. And, if elected, his adventure offers a fresh source of firsthand experience to his advocacy of federal money to improve transportation in New Jersey.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Just the facts ...

Why is it that ...

You drive past a freshly cleared tract along a highway and posted prominently is the name of the developer and/or bank behind this commercial development. But do they tell you what kind of new businesses are coming to town? No. Telling you what's going to make you wait in traffic is not their thing.

You're looking for the highway exit to your home town, but the strangest names might pop up. For example, on Route 33 east, the exit for Route 537 west is marked "Smithburg.'' Now, how many motorists know that Smithburg is the name given to sections of Manalapan and Freehold townships? In this case, the road is in Freehold Township, so why not just say it?

You're listening to the weather forecast on the radio. The meteorologist (isn't it amazing how many of them are around on the airwaves?) says the temperatures will be below normal, in the low 40s. But these experts rarely, if ever, tell you what the normal high is - as if it were protected by the Patriot Act. What's wrong with giving complete information?

Friday, March 17, 2006

What chutzpah!

You can't make up some of the things you read. Of course, this one is compliments of our lawsuit-happy society.

A Lodi, Calif., city employee backs his dump truck into a car. Oops. But wait, the car is his own. So he files a $3,600 claim against the city for damages. Fortunately, the claim was denied. The city saw through the charade and ruled that, in essence, he was suing himself.

But this guy was persistent. The claim was refiled, this time using his wife's name. The city attorney threw this one out, too, on grounds that you can't sue your spouse for negligence.

Consider all the time and money the city spent handling this ridiculous claim. If the accident happened to most of us, we'd do anything to keep it quiet. But noooooo, not when somebody smells money. The guy's lucky he hasn't been fired.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Taking advertising to new heights

Keyport has a rather tall water tower, 115 feet tall in fact, not far from the busy intersection of Routes 35 and 36. To one borough councilman, it is a highly visible gateway to the borough and the entire Monmouth County Bayshore.

But the tower needs a fresh look, with its pale-blue paint fading after more than a quarter century. The repainting will cost $600,000. Borough officials hope to offset the cost by getting advertisers to lease or buy space on the tower, which it would likely share with "Keyport'' in big letters. Now that's creative thinking.

It's one thing to buy naming rights to a sports arena in East Rutherford or an arts center in Holmdel. Every time an event at either venue is publicized, the corporate name is heard. Pass by and the brand name is there for all to see. But on a water tower? Even overlooking a busy intersection, will the advertiser get much of a return on his investment? Time will tell if there's an advertiser out there looking for an unusual way to make an impression.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

No mercy for killer

Reading friends' fond and still vivid memories of Kathleen Stanfield Weinstein, the Middletown teacher slain by a Berkeley teenager 10 years ago, makes one wonder about a legal system that seems to exist only for defendants.

Michael LaSane in 1997 admitted smothering the woman, whose secret tape-recording of her ordeal made national headlines. But he was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea last month after an appeals court ruled he received ineffective legal counsel because his attorney and his mother had a sexual liaison. Now, he wants the court to lower his bail, which has been set at $2 million.

The judge should reject that out of hand. He may not be a flight risk, but he surely doesn't deserve to walk free, assuming he can raise a lower bail. Think of Weinstein's family, friends or anyone touched by this woman's kindness knowing her killer may be on the loose. Where's the justice?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Spelling assurance

Lest anyone thinks that the present crop of students doesn't have what it takes to succeed, any of the numerous competitions they enter should arrest those fears. Spelldown 2006, sponsored by the Press and Home News Tribune, is a prime example. These students, from grades 3 through 8, know their words and have the composure to spell them correctly on a big stage in front of a big audience.

The very best of the competitors have to do more than just memorize every word in their practice book. They have to have a keen ear, understand how words are formed, recognize the impact of language origin and still spell the word correctly.

At the Spelldown last week, the final three spellers were very gracious in their applause for the other contestants when they bowed out and in discussing how very competitive the contest was over a tense 39 rounds. Fear not about whether today's students will succeed in life. They already are.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Miracle of life

The memory tends to fade as you watch your children grow up. They graduate college, establish careers, get married. Then you get the word, "You're going to be a grandparent.''

After nine months of anxious anticipation, the day arrives. You wait and wait, day turns into night, and then you get the grand news. Soon enough, you are holding a baby born just minutes before. He is healthy and seems so content. His lips purse. His eyes are wide open. He is so alert, his gaze darting from you to your surroundings and back.

This is the miracle of life. The memory is rekindled.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Premium unfairness

So Geico uses education and income among its criteria for setting auto insurance premiums in New Jersey. The company shouldn't be surprised that state legislators think that's unfair and are proposing laws to strike those factors from insurers' rate-setting business.

How does how smart you are or how far you've progressed in school correlate to making you a safe driver? There are many rich folk driving their new big vehicles much too fast. And many low-income people who have to drive their older economy cars safely because they have mouths to feed at home.

These criteria were approved by the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance, so the legisators can point at state officials, too. They undoubtedly didn't want to do anything to discourage Geico from re-entering the state's insurance market two years ago. But when a company injects factors that are irrelevant as well as unfair, somebody has to say, "Not here.''

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Barry Bonds' new court

Barry Bonds is a cheater. And it doesn't take a new book with detailed revelations about his steroid use to make that clear. Just look at his body and his home run totals pre- and post-1999, when he reportedly started on the juice in his obsession, the authors say, to outdo Mark McGwire, who had broken Babe Ruth's venerable home run mark.

That's a shame. Bonds was a very good player before he decided to become bigger and better. He had won the MVP three times and was crafting a Hall of Fame career. Now, he's an Hall of Fame asterisk, at best, and more likely a no-no with the traditionalist writers who cast the ballots. Just like McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, the most prominent among other performance-enhancement-drug sluggers.

A classic "Law & Order'' episode rerun on cable this week involved a ballplayer accused of murdering his limo driver who was blackmailing him over his steroid use. The executive D.A.'s closing argument: the player was a cheater. The jury, turning aside the lure of his fame, convicted him. That's what Bonds faces in the court of public opinion.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Questions linger about port deal

We shouldn't be surprised, but the bipartisan concern about the Dubai port transaction is turning partisan. Instead of looking at the big picture this deal has exposed, we're starting to hear complaints that this is a tempest in a teapot, don't blame the Bush administration because foreign management of U.S. ports goes back to President Clinton, security is not compromised by these arrangements anyway, etc.

In the reviews of this deal, let's hope the operations of the committee that approved it aren't overlooked. How can a committee with representatives from various Cabinet departments not report its recommendations to the president, if not Congress? It's hard to believe nobody in these deliberations didn't ask, "How will this play on Main Street?''

It's also hard to believe there are no American companies willing, able or good enough to manage our ports. Rep. Peter King of New York is suggesting DP World subcontract its work to a U.S. firm, so he must think it can remain in U.S. hands.

Serious questions? Or just a tempest in a teapot?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Service escapes USPS

No wonder the United States Postal Service has such a shabby reputation. It's 11 a.m. at my local post office, prime time on a Saturday morning. There are five stations for clerks behind the counter, but only one person is on duty. Not just for a minute or so, but for 10 long minutes. The line of customers, many with quizzical looks to go along with their small packages in hand, grew to more than 20 before a second clerk appeared. "May I help the next person, please,'' she called. "If you want to buy stamps or mail a package, you can use the Automated Postal Center in the lobby.''

I know it was a Saturday, but even weekend time is precious. The automated center is fine unless you want to talk to a real person about something that's beyond the computer's scope.

You'd think that the USPS could take some of its wasted advertising money and hire a few more counter clerks - or supervisors who know how to schedule enough personnel to meet peak customer demand. Maybe then the Postal Service can live up to its name. Or am I expecting too much?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The rite of spring

Ah, spring training. To a baseball fan, those two words mean everything will be all right in the world. After our frigid February and messy weather this week, we even feel warmer. And thanks to the Internet, there are daily reports from Florida and Arizona and even box scores of the exhibition games - just like during the regular season when a day isn't complete without scanning the boxes.

Baseball is pitching and catching, feeling the crack of the bat and the dust of a slide. It's getting out in the sun, hoping to catch a batted ball at the ballpark, smelling (and usually consuming) that steamed hot dog. It's sitting with Dad learning the nuances of a game, just as his elders did for him. As you think about it as years go by, that generational link brings a tear to the eye. That doesn't happen with any other sport. Ever wonder why?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Don't set your watch by on-time trains

So NJ Transit is boasting about having a perfect day Feb. 23. Yes, all 731 of its trains arrived on time that day. That's quite an achievement for a winter weekday, executive director George Warrington said.

But then there's the fine print. "On time'' means they arrived within six minutes of their scheduled time. We can imagine the commuter pulling into a hard-to-find parking space. dashing to the station and up to the platform, only to wait six minutes for the on-time train.

Warrington pointed out that NJ Transit's trains have been on time 94.5 percent of the time. Nineteen out of 20 is quite impressive. But what is the agency doing to trim its definition of "on time'' to, say, five minutes of the scheduled time, not to mention right on time?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The fight for Douglass

Douglass College is a unique place. It is the nation's only all-women state-supported college. It offers courses for women that promote leadership and in math and the sciences where women are under-represented. But it will get the ax under Rutgers University's plan to overhaul undergraduate education at its New Brunswick/Piscataway campus.

New Jersey has something really special, yet the state university is deciding to dilute its special status by merging it into something called the Rutgers College of Arts and Sciences. It's being done for the sake of uniform admissions standards, academic requirements and honors programs. The Douglass campus would still exist and would be a place for women to live, but its classes would be coed.

Legislators are jumping in, calling for the Board of Governors to preserve Douglass as we know it. That's all they can do, given the well-placed prohibition on legislators interfering with Rutgers' internal affairs. Legions of Douglass alumna oppose the plan. For the role Douglass can play in inspiring women to become significant contributors in the world of business, government and the sciences, among others, it is a fight worth waging.