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Larry Benjamin's blog

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Homecoming, Pentagon style

The closing of Fort Monmouth in 2011 and the transfer of its mission to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland may seem like a long time off, but the Defense Department is already gearing up. Where are they seeking people to fill internships and jobs at the fort until then? Maryland, of course.

They're no dummies, those Pentagon folks, undoubtedly applying lessons from previous Base Realignment and Closing transfers. They're reaching out to Marylanders or Jerseyans going to school in Maryland and offering work at the fort now. So when it comes time to relocate in four years or so, these newcomers won't consider the shift to Aberdeen a life-altering experience, as fear many long-time New Jerseyans who work at the fort. Rather, they'll be going home.

I never realized the Defense Department was that clever.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Pink papers of hope

The many names on pink papers pinned to the backs of the walkers at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure outside Princeton Sunday helped drive home the reality of cancer. Decades ago, it was hush-hush ... the dreaded C-word. No more. Events such as this one show that it's not just somebody else's problem and the world must know that. The more than 15,000 people of all ages who ran or walked were there to raise funds for breast cancer research and to stress the importance of early detection -- of this cancer and, one would hope, all cancers.

Those pink papers came with two headings: "In memory of ...'' and "In celebration of...'' When you saw a young woman walking "In memory of my mom," the impact of loss and, hopefully, renewal could not have been clearer. Fortunately, as many people or more were celebrating life. Reading tributes to "My sis,'' or simply "Me,'' brought a chuckle and a tear to the eye at nearly the same time.

There's something comforting about being reminded that you're not alone. Those celebrating successful recovery and remembering those they lost share a special bond that cannot be broken.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Bullying and eminent domain

Long Branch officials sure know how to play hardball in defense of their redevelopment plans, which include taking properties by eminent domain if necessary. They are opposing a request by the out-of-state lawyers defending the threatened property owners to practice law in New Jersey. City attorney James Aaron says the three lawyers from the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., failed to certify on their application that they're members of the legal bar of the highest court in the state where they live or practice and that they are specialists in a complex field of law. Since the property owners are saying the city didn't follow the rules, Aaron said, then the city is making sure their lawyers play by the rules.

How juvenile! As one of the institute's lawyers, Scott Bullock, said in response: The city is grasping at straws to get them kicked off the case. If they're not specialists and this isn't a complex case, why is the city trying so hard to disqualify them? Bullock tried, and lost, the Kelo case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the goverment's right to seize private property for economic development - the very issue in the Long Branch case. He's practiced in New Jersey courts before. He'd undoubtedly hold up quite well going one-on-one with Aaron on property rights law.

The city comes off like a bully, first trying to seize properties and now denying their owners' right to defend them. Filing objections such as these is a terrible waste of city taxpayers' money. Instead of hurling rockets at each other, city officials should resume trying to negotiate a fair settlement with the property owners and end this sorry saga that has already brought so much unfavorable publicity to Long Branch.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The ethics of lottery bidding

The appearance of conflict in having the same lobbying firm represent the winning bidder and the Lottery Commission that awarded the contract is just so obvious. State Treasurer Bradley Abelow had no other choice last week but to toss out the contract for the next five years of lottery management.

The winning bidder, GTech, had hired as its lobbyist the same Trenton firm, MWW, that does public relations work for the commission. Even if MWW's roles for both clients never intersected, as the lobbying firm insists, Abelow couldn't help but conclude that the relationship between GTech and MWW "created a sufficiently troubling impression'' to warrant rebidding the contract.

GTech claims it was denied a chance to make its case to retain the contract. That argument doesn't hold up given the potential conflict of interest, which couldn't be any clearer. The public has reason enough to be upset that the commission awarded the bid to the higher bidder. GTech should be glad to have a chance to participate in the new bidding process. It could have -- and maybe should have -- lost the contract altogether.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The political name game

You can tell the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Thomas Kean Jr. has made the national political map by the star power that has been traipsing through the state. On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., campaigned with Menendez. On Sunday, it was a battle of A-List senators, with Hilary Rodham Clinton of New York for Menendez and John McCain of Arizona for Kean. Earlier this month, Sen. Barack Obama, the other senator from Illinois, was part of a love fest for Menendez. September was Former Presidents Month, with George H.W. Bush stumping for Kean and Bill Clinton for Menendez. Plus Kean has called on perhaps the No. 1 New Jersey political star -- his father, the former governor.

Does anybody really care? I doubt it. Do voters make up their mind based on a sound bite or newspaper photo of a famous senator or ex-president with the local guy? Let's hope not. As for the money theyve come here to raise, it will probably help underwrite more of those obnoxious TV ads or mailers that flood our homes as election day nears.

Where do the candidates stand on the important issues? What will they do to improve the quality of life for New Jerseyans? Meaningful answers are hard to find. And don't expect any clues from those famous visitors, who probably wouldn't know one end of the state from another. The political process has to do better than this.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The $300 question

The Democratic candidates for Belmar mayor and Borough Council have managed to put their Republican opponents on the defensive regarding campaign contribution disclosure even though the GOP pairing is playing by the rules. The key donation figure is $300. None of the Republicans' contributions has exceeded that threshold, so they don't have to report them to the state. Some of these donors stay under the $300 limit to avoid disclosure for fear of reprisals by Mayor Kenneth Pringle, GOP mayoral challenger William Young said.

The Democrats are trying to make hay out of that decision by releasing the names of all their contributors, including the 11 who gave more than $300. The people have a right to know who is backing the candidates, Pringle said, so residents can decide whether any decision down the road came as a payback for the contribution. Ethics in government advocates would surely agree. That it can be applied for political purposes in the heat of the campaign shouldn't surprise anyone.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Signs of the times

Affixed to a utility pole northbound on Route 18 near the N.J. Turnpike in East Brunswick are two election posters: for Clinton-Gore and Dole-Kemp in '96. How's that for staying power! Let's hope current candidates putting up election signs this year don't expect them to last that long. In fact, they shouldn't put them up at all.

Oh, I know all about how political signs are an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech and expression. But do the candidates - and the power brokers who finance them - really think they work? All they do is litter the landscape with the lowest form of visual pollution. They say nothing about what the candidate stands for or would do in office. Most of them don't even give the political affiliation anymore. It's just about name-recognition, with not an ounce of substance. The electorate deserves better than that.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Football? Yes. Crew? No.

Rutgers University's spending priorities are under fire in the Legislature for dropping six varsity sports programs in the face of reductions in state aid. It's about time. Gone after this year will be men's heavyweight and lightweight crew, men's swimming and diving, fencing for both men and women, and men's tennis.

At a legislative hearing Thursday, athletes in these sports joined others in wondering whether the cost savings - which athletic director Robert Mulcahy III estimated at $1 million - were worth the harm to the student-athletes involved.

The detractors also took aim at the sacred cows of the sports program - football and basketball - that are being spared the budget knife. One crew team member turned a nifty phrase by saying the athletic department is "mistaking extravagance for excellence.'' That's hard to dispute when football coach Greg Schiano is guaranteed $625,000 in salary and other perks this year and the overall earnings of basketball coaches Fred Hill and Vivian Stringer are in the $500,000 range.

Rutgers sports priorities are out of whack. Sure, the football team is undefeated, nationally ranked and generating all kinds of good publicity -- and presumably more money -- for the university. But the lesser known sports that don't generate revenue shouldn't be sacrificed in the name of budget cutting.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Arts ed snubbed again

When it comes to teaching the arts, many New Jersey school districts get an F. A preliminary report to the state Board of Education this week found that one in five schools don't meet the state's curriculum standards and 6 percent don't offer arts instruction at all. That's a shame. The arts - dance, music, theater and visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture, etc.) - may not be as flashy as sports, but they are skills that bring out talents that are as significant as an athlete's and instill an appreciation of culture that may last a lifetime.

What's to account for this poor performance? The arts have always gotten short shrift, in part because they don't bring in money to school districts. Now add in the federal No Child Left Behind law, which has encouraged -- no doubt unintentionally -- too many school districts to teach to the test in key academic areas. As a result, subjects such as the arts -- and the children who need them -- are the ones left behind. Administrators whose schools don't meet the state standards should be asked to explain why.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Wedding bells and bucks

So the state says it's OK for a mayor to collect a fee for performing a wedding ceremony. Most of us didn't even know it was an issue, but one former Bedminster public official challenged the propriety of the current deputy mayor charging a fee, saying he was already paid for his service to the town. The Department of Community Affairs now says it's all right to accept a wedding payment.

But there's no formal fee schedule, so how much is appropriate? One mayor asks for a donation of at least $25 to the local first aid squad. Another asks for $50 to be placed in a municipal fund for charitable causes. Yet another is paid what he calls a "fair tip'' of $50. A decade ago, the Executive Board of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors recommended that no fee be charged by full-time mayors if the wedding was performed during business hours. But it suggested a fee of $100 for weekend ceremonies outside of town and up to $150 for part-time mayors.

Those $25 and $50 fees seem reasonable, especially with the money going to charity or nonprofits. But $100 or more is rather steep. What do you think is a fair fee if a fee should be charged at all?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A misstep against illegals

A Keyport councilman is taking aim at landlords who rent to illegal immigrants in a proposed ordinance to be discussed at the Borough Council meeting tonight. The ordinance sets a $1,000 fine for the landlord any time officials - police or code enforcement officers - found a residential unit was rented to someone in the U.S. illegally. It wouldn't kick in until the borough received a complaint about an address or if the landlord was applying for a certificate of occupancy.

Councilman Joseph Wedick says he isn't targeting illegal immigrants. But how else can you explain asking about the legal status of a housing unit dweller? The public interest most often would be a complaint, which had better be more substantive than the color of the apartment dweller's skin or the unfamiliar language he speaks. Otherwise, this ordinance would have no chance of overcoming a court challenge for being vague, among other constitutional problems.

This proposal is wrongheaded. If overcrowded housing is the issue, then existing residential codes should be enforced. Immigration policy is a federal matter that isn't going to solved by one town going after landlords who rent to immigrants. One step the feds could take is to issue national identification cards, which would separate the legals from the illegals. But that's Washington's call, not Keyport's.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A dreaded first

This morning was the day those of us conscious of seasonal changes dread: The first day we had to scrape frost from the car windshield. It means the gray, cold, icy days of winter are not that far off. What a gloomy thought!

It's especially tough for a baseball fan. Just last night, the New York Mets' opened the National League playoff series with a win. Ah, baseball! The sights, sounds and smells of summer. The freedom to enjoy the great outdoors without layered clothing, a coat, a hat, a scarf. Worrying about getting too much sun should be our greatest concern.

At least we're along the Jersey Shore. We could be in Buffalo, where they've got 24-plus inches of snow to remove. Now that's a real reminder of winter.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Farewell, my Acme

A story headlined "Acme to close in Marlboro, Freehold Twp.'' isn't one I'm likely to read on most days. But that Acme in Freehold Towship is my Acme, so I read on with mixed feelings. Even though it's within long walking distance from my home, I was hardly a frequent visitor. Obviously I wasn't alone, as a corporate spokesman said the store was closing because it never met sales expectations.

That conclusion shouldn't have surprised Acme executives. The store is an adjacent shopping center away from a thriving Foodtown serving a ready audience: the 3,100 residents of the Raintree development. And Wegman's opened five miles or so north, bringing its fresh fruit, vegetables and all sorts of variety to the area and forcing Foodtown to adjust well to the competition. Didn't the Acme folks study the market and its demographics before locating there?

But still it's sad to see any store close. It was so easy to get around this Acme because it was never crowded. The shelves were well stocked, the sales help was friendly. Competition is supposed to be good for consumers. But like real estate, it's all about location. And this one didn't cut it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Just sing, Barbra!

Barbra Streisand's concert at Madison Square Garden Monday evening was great, music-wise. She mixed rarely heard songs from her early albums with old and new favorites to prove she can still style a song. Sure, it was expensive -- floor seats went for $700, nosebleed seating merely $200 --but it was an event worth experiencing for anyone who appreciates a good song. And we got our money's worth with 20 Barbra solos (and three collaborations with the pop classical group Il Divo) over the almost two hours she was on stage.

But why did she have to go political for 10 minutes in the middle of her second set? A comedian named Steve Bridges looks a lot like President Bush and went one on one as Dubya against Barbra. The satire was predictable and prompted at least one guy in the crowd to yell out, "Just sing." Good for him.

Barbra also got into an off-color exchange with a heckler. For the money he spent, I guess he's entitled. But she's a pro who should know better. Why mar an otherwise classy act?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Managed medical madness

The medical community wants you to have a complete physical exam once a year, especially as you get older. The health insurance industry will pay for it, provided it's only once a year. Sometimes those interests conflict.

My wife and I take our physicals toward the end of the year. Last year, I didn't call my internist early enough for a November appointment, so I was bumped to Dec. 19. This year, I was going to be smart about it and call in early October for that November date. So I did and Nov. 30 was open. I'll be on vacation anyway. Wrong! The health insurer nixed that date. It hasn't been a full year since my last physical. So with the last two weeks of December a no-go at work and at home, I'm now set for Jan. 3, forcing me to take a few hours off from work.

I know rules are rules, but what difference would it make to have my checkup after 49 weeks instead of a full year? The point is to have the physical to assess my health and to catch anything before it becomes really nasty. At least, I've rescheduled it. What about those who give up, curse the managed health care system and forget about a checkup altogether. Who wins then?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Friends in high places

We keep railing about the power wielded by moneyed political insiders in Trenton, but it pales when considering the shenanigans in Washington, where money really is king. One of the biggest evils in both venues is the political action committee. In New Jersey, it means money can be wheeled in from one county to another -- all in the name of political party building. But in Congress, it means money can flow from one area of the country to the re-election campaign of a colleague from a faraway state -- all in the name of retaining or gaining power.

That's business as usual in Washington and gets little, if any, publicity. But when the person behind that PAC suddenly is disgraced, then the scurrying begins. That's what happened this week with money distributed by the Florida Republican Leadership PAC controlled by former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who resigned after his involvement in e-mail sex exchanges with male congressional pages came to light. Republican members of Congress were tripping over themselves to concede they received money from Foley's PAC -- $149,000 to candidates since 1998 -- and were donating their share to charity. It even hit close to home, with Mike Ferguson of New Jersey's 7th District in Union, Somerset and Hunterdon counties donating $2,000 he received from Foley in 2002.

It's great to have friends in high places, as long as they don't slip off the pedestal. Then it's as if they never existed.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Play ball!

As a lifelong baseball fan, the playoffs are one of the year's highlights. That both New York teams are playing makes it that much sweeter. The TV networks shudder at the prospect of a Subway Series because the ratings around the country will pale against those in the New York area. But if the Yankees and Mets are the best teams and make it to the World Series, the folks at Fox will suddenly realize New Yorkers are transplanted everywhere. And they should never forget they are presenting baseball, a great game regardless of the uniform shirt.

We East Coast fans also should be spared the agony of having baseball schedule crucial games from the West Coast at times we -- and especially younger fans -- should be heading to bed. The Mets game or two at Los Angeles should be 4 p.m. or 8 p.m. starts this weekend. None of this 10 or even 11 p.m. business. Baseball has to remember that its future depends on cultivating its young fan base. The games should be played when all of us can enjoy them.