Public Advocate Office Quietly Headed for Elimination

Talk turns to legacy as even interest-group allies acknowledge budget realities

For much of its time, the New Jersey public advocate rarely shied away from a bruising fight, whether it was over making beaches more accessible to the public, protecting property rights of people whose land could be confiscated, or promoting affordable housing.

Not lately, however.

In the weeks since Gov. Chris Christie proposed eliminating the office, hardly a peep has been heard from the office or the interest groups that had been its staunchest allies over the course of three decades. Even the Democratic-controlled legislature, which re-established the office under former Gov. Richard Codey five years ago, cancelled a budget hearing scheduled on the agency last week.

A spokesman for the assembly majority said the hearing was cancelled because the administration did not propose a budget for the agency.

With the state facing a massive budget deficit, a battle over preserving the public advocate, a position first created in 1974, may not even turn out to be a skirmish. “There are just so many other fights right now,” sighed Dena Mottola, director of Environment New Jersey, which often sided with the public advocate on energy issues.

Indeed, even in its latest incarnation, the public advocate seemed less inclined to sue other state agencies, a strategy it used more frequently in its earlier days, much to the annoyance of the sitting governor. “It was a kinder, gentler public advocate,” Mottola said, “but it definitely got results.”

Ronald Chen, who was public advocate until he resigned in January with the new administration taking office, said he was proud his office managed to get things done, without ever suing another state agency. “I think we basically set a framework for being more responsive,” he said.

His office focused on issues such as preventing children’s lead poisoning, voting rights, and reforming eminent domain, the process by which government condemns a piece of property for a specific public purpose.

“We were able to change the legal landscape on an important issue facing New Jersey,” Chen said.

Others argued its legacy is far deeper than that.

“There’s probably no one in New Jersey that hasn’t benefitted from the public advocate,” argued Bill Potter, a former deputy director of the public interest advocacy and later assistant commissioner in the office.

If it had not been for the public advocate, Potter said, the principle of establishing a right of access to New Jersey beaches might not exist, Public Service Enterprise Group might have built floating nuclear power plants off the coast, and the Supreme Court might not have ordered every town to provide affordable housing.

The last decision is often cited by critics of the agency, and even supporters—who lament the sprawl that occurred after the court ruling. Potter conceded there is legitimate criticism of the Mount Laurel II housing decision, but he still believes the public advocate is needed.

Even if the office is abolished, however, many of its functions will remain. The Christie administration has not spelled out specifics, but there is a bill pending in the state legislature to abolish the office and transfer some of its functions to other state agencies. But it has retained Ratepayer Advocate Stefanie Brand, who has won praise for elevating the agency’s profile in energy matters, as well as being a major player in the defeat of a proposed merger between Public Service Enterprise Group and Exelon.

The legislation (A-167) abolishes the Division of Citizen Relations, the Public Interest Advocacy and Advocacy for Developmentally Disabled. It would transfer the Division of Rate Counsel to the Department of Banking and Insurance, and the Division of Mental Health Advocacy and Office of Dispute Settlement to the Office of Public Defender.

Its sponsor, Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, the Republican whip, argued many of the functions of the office are responsibilities that ought to be performed by legislators. “We’re the advocate for our constituents,” he said. “If I have a constituent having a problem with the Department of Environmental Protection, I will intervene on behalf of the taxpayer. We don’t need another department to do what others should be doing.”

“The bottom line is it saves money,” Chiusano said. “I think it’s another layer of government. We’re too big now.”

Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, agreed. “A lot of what the public advocate did could very well be absorbed by other state agencies or the legislative branch,” he said. “Given the economic realities we are facing, I would support abolishing it.”

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