WASHINGTON– Rising against the stench of political corruption and business bribery, the new governor of New Jersey, Brendan T. Byrne, and his advisors are trying to climb their Mt. Everest. They are trying to develop ways to make the state’s bureaucracies accountable and responsive to the public interest.
“Government Under Glass” is the phrase used by the governor’s office to dramatize this often illusive quest of reform movements.
On May 13th, Governor Byrne signed into law a measure that could represent a philosophic as well as a practical turning point in the citizens’ struggle to control governmental decisions. With the decisive approval of the state legislature, he has established a Department of the Public Advocate (DPA). As numerous over-grasping special interests will shortly agree, the DPA is no ordinary agency. Staffed with lawyers, investigators and other experts, the DPA has the power to represent the citizenry of New Jersey before state agencies and in the courts.
For example, DPA’s Division of Rate Counsel represents the public interest before regulatory agencies in proceedings initiated by a transport or utility company in order to increase rates. According to the governor’s office, if a company applied for a discontinuance of a bus route, or applied to raise the fare on a particular route, the Rate Counsel could challenge this move and present evidence of a public need for continuing either the service or the present fare.
The most pioneering part of DPA is the Division of Public Interest Advocacy. What is the public interest? The DPA law defines it as “An interest or right arising from the Constitution, decisions of court, common law or other laws of the United States or this State inhering in the citizens of this State or in a broad class of such citizens.” The courts will be the final arbiter of what this standard means in any particular case.
These cases will involve arbitrary or illegal action by state agencies including those dealing with pollution control, insurance, banking, milk regulation, public health, housing, and education. The Division can file suit on behalf of the public either in the name of the Public Advocate or through class action against federal, state, county and local government.
Within the DPA there is also a Division of Citizen Complaint and Dispute Settlement. Its goal: To reduce the number of unanswered or ignored citizen complaints against state government, to recommend litigation to the Department’s lawyers, or to provide mediation services to community groups and municipal and county agencies.
The widely respected Stanley Van Ness, formerly head of New Jersey’s Public Defender system, is the head of the cabinet level DPA. As counsel to former Governor Hughes, he knows state government and its deficiencies.
New Jersey thus becomes the first state in the country to establish such a legally empowered agency to stop the waste, crimes and injustices of state government decisions.
If the DPA is allowed to work its will, it will try to change unjust procedures as well as insupportable decisions. And it may well recommend that some agencies be abolished or curtailed. It could become a clear window on the state governmentfor the state legislature.
Will DPA work? Can it survive its successes? Only if it develops deep support among the people. The special interests who think they own one or more government agencies will be out to abolish a successful DPA or cut its budget. Because of this likelihood the people of the state must become the buffer against political retaliation as Pennsylvanians were who supported the consumers’ insurance commissioner, Herbert Denenberg.
Conceptually, the DPA idea recognizes that much of government involves admitted promotion, subsidy or advocacy of special interests–often under the guise of regulation such as licensing or rate regulation. But there is no advocate at the scene of the action who can transform ordinarily political or corrupt decisions into openly argued administrative processes which can be appealed according to a reasonably clear standard. Millions drink milk but a tiny clique sets the price. This quote, “business as usual,” is what DPA is out to stop.
Governor Byrne hopes that the DPA will serve as a prototype for other states. Civic-minded readers may wish to obtain more information about DPA by writing to Stanley Van Ness, Department of Public Advocate, State Government, Trenton, N.J. 08625.