On April 3 when Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Elections Transparency Act which, among other provisions, gave him the power of direct appointments to the four-member Election Law Enforcement Commission, he responded somewhat testily to critics by promising to select high quality and competent individuals to serve as state government’s overseers of its campaign finance regulations.
They will not be cronies or Democratic Party apparatchiks, he said, but people of integrity and independence in whom the public can place confidence and rest assured that the millions of dollars spent by candidates and political organizations will be done so openly, transparently and honestly.
With just over three weeks remaining in the 90-day appointment window the law established, Murphy has yet to let the public know whether he’s identified those individuals, who they are and their qualifications.
The delay stands in vivid contrast to the haste with which the legislation was developed, amended and enacted in March after the commission’s executive director Jeffrey Brindle refused the governor’s office demand that he resign the post he’s held for 14 years.
In the face of the rebuff, the Legislature vested in Murphy the power to appoint a commission of his choosing who would agree to remove Brindle, accomplishing the Administration’s goal by legislation when threat failed.
Until the appointments are made, the commission is powerless to act on complaints of violations or impose penalties. Added to the law’s providing for wiping out any pending complaints more than two years old — an estimated 80 percent of its caseload — oversight of campaign financing by an independent body ceases to exist.
The inaction is a part of a disturbing pattern that has emerged in the Murphy Administration of allowing vacancies in crucial positions to linger with no explanation and lacking any sense of urgency or understanding of the hardships imposed.
The chronic shortage of Superior Court judges — 68 at the most recent count — has reached crisis proportions, led to public pleas by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for expedited gubernatorial nominations and Senate consideration and finally to the unprecedented suspension of all civil litigation case trials in six counties — Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem — until further notice. The court system faces an astonishing backlog of 75,000 cases and potential delays of as much as two years in hearing divorce, personal injury and child custody matters.
Even in the event vacancies in those counties may be addressed at some point, similar suspensions may be imposed elsewhere because of a shortage of judges.
Aside from vague statements of assurance that the Administration is aware of the vacant positions and is working toward resolving them, the reality is contradictory.
Whatever processes and procedures are in place in the governor’s office to foresee vacancies, interview potential appointees, carry out background reviews and agree on nominees are inadequate.
For instance, nearly a year elapsed in the nomination of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court — an astonishing lapse of time to fill a seat on the state’s highest judicial body.
In the years I served as press secretary in two Administrations — those of Thomas H. Kean (1982-1990) and Christie Whitman (1994-97) — there existed within the Office of Chief Counsel an Appointments Counsel who, along with staff, was responsible for selecting and recommending nominees all across state government.
Priorities were established and qualifications reviewed, particularly those required by law or expertise and experience, but inordinate delays were not tolerated.
Any issues — political or personal — were either resolved in a timely fashion or the process moved on to the next individual under consideration.
While that model functioned well, nothing required it to be kept in place by succeeding Administrations. Different approaches are not inherently unsatisfactory provided the end result is a system that functions smoothly and produces timely results.
Alas, the Murphy Administration, it appears, lacks such a system or it simply does not assign a particularly high priority to the nomination and appointment process.
While the continuing shortage of judges has more than once drawn public criticisms and dire warnings from Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, Murphy’s delay in selecting ELEC commissioners will attract greater scrutiny and attention and questions about the reasons for the elapsed time.
The media will take a closer look than perhaps it normally would at the histories and backgrounds of the commission appointees to assess whether Murphy lived up to his pledge of non-cronyism and chose only the most qualified.
The delay will also reinforce the perception that the motive behind the unseemly rush to amend the responsibilities and authority of ELEC back in March was exclusively political. Once that goal was accomplished, the appointment imperative receded.
Murphy’s term will come to a close in two and one-half years. He has an opportunity to leave as a part of his legacy a successful governor’s office nomination and appointments process. But, only if he implements changes now.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.