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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, June 29, 2007

Trimming the (overspending) tree

So Gov. Corzine did keep his promise to trim the annual "Christmas tree'' list of state budget add-ons inserted by individual legislators for largely parochial purposes. They added $66.8 million to the $33.5 billion budget and the governor used his line-item veto to reduce it by $10 million. Every dollar counts, especially in a debt-ridden state, but that $10 million is only three-hundredths of 1 percent of the total. He should have cut all $66.8 million, still just a tiny drop in the spending bucket, if for no other reason than to show the legislators and the public that all spending must be vetted through the budget hearing process, not just added on a whim.

What the governor's statement detailing his "Christmas tree'' reaction didn't include was the names of the legislators who inserted these goodies. The only way the state is going to end this wasteful practice is to expose the lawmakers who somehow believe that money put aside for their favored groups can meet the governor's criterion of statewide or regional impact. Sorry, but $1 million for the Montclair Board of Education's Minority Student Achievement Network or even the $50,000 for the Newark Bears Academic Scholarship Superstars don't qualify. "Outing'' legislators who put their home turf before the state's is one way to cleanse the Legislature of its chronic overspenders.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Whitman's bad day

You almost could feel sorry for former Gov. Whitman, who was bashed mercilessly at a congressional hearing Monday on her advice as EPA administrator that it was safe to breathe the air at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. Almost. Here, almost six years after the fact, she was asked to defend her actions as the environmental point person for the White House.

Oh, it seemed as if Whitman was speaking on her own at the time, based on the best information she could gather. But it's more likely that her message was tweaked to be consistent with efforts by the Bush administration to get people to resume their normal activities after the horrific assaults on our nation. If she had been more diligent in doing her homework before heading the EPA , she would have known she wouldn't be her own person in the Cabinet-level post.

The hearing also shows how pervasive 9/11 remains for political purposes. The attacks are behind most everything the president says about Iraq, the "War on Terrorism,'' national security, etc. And Democrats in Congress use 9/11 when convenient to score political points. Whitman's day in Congress is the latest example.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Living history

Here's a pitch for living history or other archival efforts to preserve our past. I was reminded of it while watching a rerun of a PBS special of duets performed by Judy Garland (yes, she of "The Wizard of Oz'') with pop stars of the '60s. It was only black-and-white TV, but it was great to see live performances by long-gone music icons such as Frank Sinatra with Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Count Basie, Ethel Merman and Peggy Lee and a much younger Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Liza Minelli (her daughter). I hope somebody has tapes of the great Broadway plays of the past 30 years or the arena/stadium concerts of the music world's legends.

Living history is a part of Holocaust education as students sit down to interview (and record) the stories of Holocaust survivors. The effort must be accelerated, as the number of survivors is dwindling. So, too, are the number of World War II veterans who can recount their experiences from the Pacific and European theaters. Or even vets from Korea or Vietnam. Theirs are stories that must be told and retold for generations.

Oh, how I wish I had recorded the war tales - or even Depression-era stories - told by my dad, who is gone eight years now. They could have become a priceless heirloom for my sons and, we hope, any grandchildren. All of us have stories to tell. Maybe we should make sure we record them.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Paying big time to party

If you're under 21 and want to party with booze at a PNC Bank Arts Center concert, how much would you be willing to pay for the privilege? Probably not $539. But that's the bill for the final six of about 50 defendants after they pleaded guilty in municipal court Wednesday to charges of disorderly conduct and underage consumption of alcohol. They were fined $506 and assessed $33 in court costs.

These teens presumably had tickets for the Fall Out Boy concert June 6, so they already paid out good money. Why risk a hefty fine by partying wildly? Teens don't make a lot of money at whatever jobs they can get. Those young adults will have to put in long hours now to earn $539. And weren't they there for the concert? Apparently not. What a waste of money and time!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The worker's comp campaigner

Yet another addition to our "Only in New Jersey'' file. The New Jersey election law overseers ruled Tuesday that it's OK for a candidate for the Linden City Council who hurt herself after tripping on a sidewalk while going door-to-door last year to use unused campaign funds to pay her medical bills. Election law forbids candidates from diverting campaign funds for personal use. But as long as the injury was directly related to campaigning, that prohibition doesn't apply.

Who would ever think that a campaigner could file what amounts to a worker's comp claim and win? But that's the analogy the Election Law Enforcement Commission used, making it clear the injury had to be campaign-related. Falling down while combing the neighborhood for votes qualifies, the commissioners said.

But it wouldn't take much of a stretch to imagine other scenarios: Food poisoning from one too many chicken dinners? A nasty bruise after clumsily striking a lectern or awkwardly entering/exiting a campaign car? Falling off a bar stool after pounding the flesh in the cocktail lounge? Where will it end?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A commuter quandary

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "congestion pricing'' plan to discourage motor vehicles from Manhattan streets during the day is not just a New York matter. The proposal to charge $8 per car and $21 for trucks to drive in midtown - though far from a done deal - might make New Jersey commuters think twice and switch to mass transit if enacted. But does NJ Transit have the rail cars and buses to meet the demand?

Gov. Corzine asked that question Monday, noting he wants to be cooperative but has to look out for his state's residents. It illustrates how interconnected the New York metro area is and how one city's or state's initiative cannot be taken in a vacuum. In addition to personal contact with the Bloomberg administration, it would be well for Corzine to send a representative to monitor all meetings about the proposal. New Jersey can't afford not to be ready.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The game comes first

I love baseball, even in an American League park. Yankee Stadium is a shrine. It's still a great setting for a game. There was just enough of a breeze to make it a comfortable evening. But the lasting impression of the Sunday night out - other than how superior the Yankees were to the Mets for that game - was how commercialized everything is. Everywhere you look there's an advertisement. And the big screen supposedly entertaining the fans between innings always comes with a commercial coda. Sure, it helps pay the Yankees' substantial payroll, but does it have to be so pervasive?

Equally as jarring is the music that blares before each batter and between innings. Baseball is a cerebral game. Real Yankees and Mets fans aren't there to be entertained. They're there to watch the game, savor great plays, discuss strategy. They don't need or want the noise. The folks at Wrigley and Fenway recognize that. The Yankees should tone it down. They would sell out every game anyway.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Jim and Dina Show

The tabloids have the wayward ways of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. New Jersey newspapers and their metro New York cousins have Jim McGreevey. When will the former governor and estranged wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, go away? Their back-and-forth divorce claims were bad enough, especially when their 5-year-old daughter was the unintended victim. Now, Dina's book sales - or lack thereof - are at issue. (Excuse the informality of Dina and Jim, but that's the way we refer to children - which is how this former "power couple'' is acting.)

Dina said this week that Jim's name-calling - she's homophobic, made anti-gay statements and knew about his sexual orientation - is wrong and, worse yet, hurting sales of her book about their marriage. Not so, Jim replied. It's her "dull" and "poorly written'' book and - get this - her "inappropriate clothing'' during her book-promotion appearance on the Oprah Show that has doomed interest in her memoir.

Who cares? Of course, maybe if we journalists didn't print and broadcast this silliness, maybe it would go away sooner.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Oops, a murder suspect is free

How could a man accused of two murders and attempted murder be released by county jail authorities after being held on trespassing and mischief charges? That's something the father whose son was shot to death is wondering, fearful that the suspect will seek out him or witnesses. Mercer County jail officials and the state Parole Board had better find out.

The initial explanation involves oh-too-typical finger-pointing. A parole officer decided the suspect was eligible to be released based on time already served on the lesser charges, provided the man face burglary charges elsewhere. But the parole officer didn't know about the pending murder charges - something county jail personnel are responsible for advising the parole board about. So when a relative posted the $200 bail on the burglary charges, the man was freed. It's doubtful he would have met the much higher bail - $2 million - on the murder and attempted murder charges.

The parole board and county jail folks - in Mercer and elsewhere - have to get their act together. It shouldn't be hard for people on both levels of law enforcement to access information about any pending charges or active warrants against anyone eligible to be released from custody. There's got to be a database with that information. If not, there should be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Shutting off the public

So it was his mistake to not have included two resolutions on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders agenda at its May 24 meeting, the clerk to the board said this week. If he had, then the public would have had a chance to comment on the appointment of political insider John Tobia to head the public works and engineering department and the decision to terminate the Hall of Records renovations contract with a company formerly linked to Freeholder Director William Barham.

James Gray's honesty is commendable. But given the importance of both matters, the freeholders should have reopened the public portion before voting on the two add-on resolutions. They had to know the politically charged nature of each matter. By not having them on the agenda, the public didn't know to comment on them. It all seems underhanded. The freeholders, who campaign on newfound government openness, should know better.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Celebrating the cream

The creativity of the students who enter our monthly Student Voices contest is evident in print and video today with our report on the reception and selection of grand-prize winners for essay writing and cartooning for the past school year. As the editor of the page and one of the judges, I can tell you it's not easy choosing the best. But it's comforting to realize there are no losers, just selecting the cream of the cream. These youngsters know how to think and write or draw.

To read about the reception and the winning essays, link to

A video that captures the spirit of the evening is at

Monday, June 11, 2007

Belmar at its best

The most impressive thing about the Belmar Seafood Festival Sunday was the diversity of people: Young and old, families and singles, with all colors represented. There were no agendas, other than lining up to get food, browsing the exhibits of crafts and nonprofits, listening to music and having a good time without succumbing to the increasing heat in a sun that seemed to be missing farther inland.

My only advice to the organizers: having more tables to plop down with your food (with signs on where to find them) and somehow making it easier for parents with really young ones to get around the grounds. Once you were able to make it to the boardwalk, it was a great day at the oceanfront. And oh how Ocean Avenue has developed.

For people who think that the Jersey Shore draws only one type of audience, the festival proved otherwise.

Friday, June 08, 2007

"Frankly, my dear ..."

Civility. The lack thereof has been raised in commentary pieces about education, pop culture and constitutional rights. They ask: Why does language have to be so course and so loud? The response: That's the way it is - on the street and on TV and in movies - and stop being such a prig.

But does it have to be that way? Lacing every sentence - whether spoken or written - with obscenities doesn't add much to the communication. If anything, it lowers the level of discourse. Why respect the views of someone who doesn't know how to effectively channel the power of words?

As for the blue language so often heard on TV or in movies, does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Back in the pre-TV days, film viewers were absorbed by the power of love and hate without bedroom scenes and forbidden words. That's why Clark Gable's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn'' became an iconic movie line.

Times may have changed, but I suspect there are many people today - of all ages - who would rather think about words than be bludgeoned by them. And that's not being priggish.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Public pay, public use

School property belongs to the public, not just the Board of Education or the school administrators. So the Middletown board shouldn't have had to wait for residents' requests to allow them to use the tracks at the township's two high schools. And it's a shame officials have to install security cameras to record any misuse.

The extra precautions stem from a vandalism spree at High School North in October 2003 that left obscenities scrawled on school windows and throughout the athletic area. The indiscretions of the few have cost the many the use of facilities they paid for.

The rules imposed make sense: runners, walkers and joggers are welcome whenever the gates are open, usually from early morning to dusk. No skateboards or bicycles, however. The track at North may be closed during construction work on the playing field this summer. That's fine. Let's hope vandals don't spoil a good thing.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Adieu to Reynolds

Another smaller retail store bites the dust, wiped out by the big chains. News that the Reynolds department stores are closing is sad news for those of us with fond memories of the upscale store in your home town. Growing up in Perth Amboy, that store was Reynolds. It was clearly a step above its competitors on Smith Street in the pre-suburban mall days when you had to go to Newark or New York to go to a really big department store.

The folks who now own Reynolds concede that "the changing retail landscape made it difficult for us to compete.'' That's a polite way of saying that chains such as Kohl's, Marshalls and T.J. Maxx -- with the buying power to offer lower prices and cut exclusive deals on name brands -- drove Reynolds out. Their last three stores in Wall, Stafford and Brigantine, start going-out-of business sales Thursday.

The public has always wanted to get good value for their shopping dollars, and the national chains thrive by satisfying that wish. But shoppers also appreciate the one-on-one service that the smaller stores and mom-and-pops offered back in the day and is so often missing from the big guys these days. That point shouldn't be lost on the larger chains. It can help them avoid falling victim someday to the changing retail landscape.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Students find their voice

The Press celebrated the talents of our Student Voices winners at the annual reception Monday night at Brookdale Community College, sponsor of the contest. As editor of the page, now completing its ninth year, the quality of the writing and art work by youngsters in grades 7-12 never ceases to amaze me. Reading the prize-winning essays - which are the cream of the cream from among 1,663 submitted this school year - plus a look at the editorial cartoon should allay any concerns about the communication skills of the next generation.

Don't just take my word for it. Read the winning essays and see the winning cartoon, plus photos of the winners, with our review of the Student Voices year on the op-ed page next Tuesday. Look for a video of the reception to be posted then, too, at

Monday, June 04, 2007

The $450G dismissal

So it cost the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey more than $450,000 in legal fees to build its case to fire Dr. R. Michael Gallagher, the former dean of its School of Osteopathic Medicine. That's more than the exorbitant $381,000 he was drawing in salary. But the cost, albeit high, was justified by Robert Del Tufo, chairman of the UMDNJ trustees, as necessary to ensure an airtight case. The law firm had to pay an investigator to get the job done right.

There's got to be a less expensive way: the lawyers at the attorney general's office. The A.G. is responsible for unearthing wrongdoing by state employees. He has investigators, too. Going after the Dean Gallaghers of the state - and his colleague in scamming the system, state Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, D-Camden - belongs in the A.G.'s office, at the salaries deputy attorneys general earn. There's no need to outsource this work.