The governor's advisory commission that last month issued a report calling for greater state involvement in the Atlantic City tourism industry kept no records of its meetings during six months of research, the commission chairman admits.
Democratic legislators who plan to scrutinize the report's recommendations during a gaming summit in Atlantic City on Friday say they will ask for copies of notes from those meetings. The lack of minutes has prompted criticism from advocates for open government who say the commission has operated in more secrecy than other advisory commissions.
Some legislators are unhappy with the commission's proposal that private interests should partner with the state to manage a tourism district in Atlantic City. The report also calls for the end of state support for horse racing.
State Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, said last week he will scrutinize the commission's process during the gaming summit.
Ron Miskoff, president of the state's open-records advocacy group New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, criticized the commission's failure to keep records as it considered far-reaching changes to state policy.
"Because we don't know who they met with, or what they talked about, they sound like a shadow government," Miskoff said.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Christie, urged lawmakers to move beyond criticisms of the group's transparency.
"The process questions that they're raising now make little sense when we have such a task ahead of us," Drewniak said. "What really matters is that this group put together a very serious proposal, where there had been a vacuum of ideas. What is hard to understand is why now they can't move forward in a constructive way and choose instead to simply complain about it."
Chairman won't be around
The advisory commission, which has seven appointed and unpaid members, was the first advisory body that Christie created by executive order. In the last 10 years, 13 advisory bodies have been enacted in the same way, with an order directly from the governor.
Of those, at least four held public meetings, hearings or took public input. Some of those advisory bodies felt obligated to keep minutes of their meetings or hearings. Christie's gaming commission did not, according to commission Chairman Jon F. Hanson.
"I have no minutes," Hanson said Tuesday in an interview. The group also posted no public notices informing state residents of its meeting schedule, and took no public input.
Asked whether he would be able to give lawmakers a list of who met with the commission, Hanson said, "I would have to reconstruct it by looking at my calendar."
Hanson said he would not attend the summit Friday, because he will be on vacation. Assemblymen Vincent Polistina and John Amodeo, both Republicans from Atlantic County, in turn criticized the summit's organizers, all Democrats, for planning a discussion without securing Hanson's involvement. They wrote in a statement, "Wouldn't it make sense to first confirm the attendance of the guy who made those recommendations before scheduling the summit?"
Christie's administration says the group is exempt from open-records laws because its members were unpaid and working in an advisory capacity.
The state law that ensures public access to government documents and records exempts "advisory, consultative or deliberative material" from being made public.
Not standard policy
But Christie's gaming committee stands in contrast to other advisory bodies that have nevertheless held public meetings and have sometimes kept minutes.
Criticism of the group for lack of minutes comes on top of questions about its advisory status, because its role went beyond merely studying an issue. The group also actively negotiated deals with private developers interested in expanding gaming, using a stadium or investing in the Xanadu retail and entertainment center.
Past governors have created advisory boards to look at topics including police standards, reform of construction industry contracting and best practices for public school teachers. All three of those boards either held public meetings or received public input as written testimony. Not all kept minutes or records.
Former Gov. James McGreevey created an advisory council on HIV/AIDS and related blood-borne pathogens in 2003. Keith Egan, executive director of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance who serves today on the advisory body, said Wednesday that the council meets publicly four times a year, and keeps minutes of those meetings, which are archived with the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
Another previous advisory commission on gaming also did more to provide transparency on its deliberations. In 1992, legislators created a Casino Revenue Fund Advisory Commission, including members appointed by the governor and members of the Legislature. The group met regularly, and minutes from those meetings are still available online.
A study commission on horse-racing formed by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2009 held public hearings. It kept minutes of meetings and hearings.
Lawmakers previously noted that Hanson and Christie have described a "negotiating" function within the commission's role. Hanson confirmed in May that he had spoken with various developers interested in projects in the state's racetracks and entertainment complexes.
Controlling the outcome
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Center for Politics at Rider University, said the governor's choice to use an advisory commission meant the need for public input was optional and gave the governor a tight rein on the process.
"The advantages to the governor creating this commission are multiple. He can appoint who he wants, and he can control where it leads," he said. "Whereas when these groups are created by committee, everyone gets to pick a representative who has a seat."
Stressing he was speaking hypothetically, Dworkin said, "Because of that, if he wants to find a way to recommend selling the Meadowlands, that's where he can steer the commission."
Advisory bodies have traditionally followed varied interpretations of what counts as openness, he said.
"While a blue ribbon commission in Washington, D.C., might be expected to have hearings, this operated more like a working group of experts to the administration," Dworkin said. "They're throwing out possible policies, using their expertise to make judgments."
If the public wants to know who the commission met with, Dworkin said, "That's a legitimate request to make. But I don't know if they'd get what they want."
The governor's use of the "advisory" exemption to seal off the commission's workings now needs review, Miskoff said Tuesday.
"From what we've learned about the advisory commission's work, we see they are not merely advisory," he said. "They are crafting policy, and getting close to crafting laws.
"Shadow governments are those entities with power, but with little public accountability," Miskoff said. "That's what this looks like."
‘It was like a breakfast meeting'
Others who met with the commission corroborated Hanson's assertion that no minutes were taken.
Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he had a discussion with Bob Mulcahy, a former Sports and Exposition Authority president and a study commission member, to discuss the senator's proposal to allow smaller casino hotels to be constructed in Atlantic City. "No one was taking any notes," Whelan said Tuesday. "It was like a breakfast meeting."
On that issue, the commission said in its report that two members had declared a conflict of interest with Whelan's proposal, which would allow hotels with as few as 200 rooms to have casino gaming space, and decided not to suggest policy on it.
The report did not specify details about those conflicts. Miskoff said details of the commission's meetings schedule and discussion notes could show how the commission handled that situation.
Hanson said Tuesday that he was one of the two members with a conflict.
"My business firm, Hampshire Companies, sponsors funds, and one of our funds had an interest in another fund which had an interest in Atlantic City," he said. "When I found that out, I just said, since that property could be possibly subject to the 200-room, it was best for me not to be involved and I chose not to be involved."
Hanson said he did not know the name of the property, and had only found out about the conflict of interest after starting work on the commission.
He declined to name the other commission member who had likewise declared a conflict. "I won't speak for anyone else," he said.
Commission member Finn Wentworth is managing principal at Normandy Partners, which has invested in the Chelsea, an Atlantic City hotel. The Chelsea's developer, Curtis Bashaw, has expressed an interest in pursuing a boutique casino license if the law changes.
Wentworth did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
Whelan stopped short of criticizing the panel for withholding disclosure of its meetings, and of the details of the conflict of interest.
"If they're not ruling on the 200-room bill, they don't have to explain much about the conflict," he said.
But he said he saw room to scrutinize why the commission had been exempted entirely from state laws regarding openness in public records and meetings.
"I do recognize, to a degree, a difference between a meeting with an adviser for advice and a meeting as part of a process to determine whole new policy," Whelan said.
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