To pay or not to pay?

January 2007 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
I had never thought that I would lose a consulting job if I didn’t make a contribution to the political party in power, until several years ago.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

I have avoided writing about the subject of this months column, perhaps because I can be cowardly at times. But the promise that the incoming Democratic congress will be visiting the subject brought it to my mind again. I had never thought that I would face the possibility of losing a consulting job if I didnt make a contribution to the political party in power. But all that changed several years ago.

Here is what happened: For many years, I was asked by a certain town to submit proposals to perform hydraulic and hydrological reviews of major land development projects that various review boards were considering for approval. Invariably, I was selected to perform reviews in my area of expertise. Also invariably, perhaps twice a year, I was contacted by a fund-raiser for the political party in power and asked to make a political contribution or to attend a fund-raising dinner. I always declined the honor and, happily, I was still asked to do the type of work that I had been doing for decades.

Eventually, the towns mayor, with whom I was acquainted, moved on to other things. When that happened, a new face appeared on the municipal stage. I was introduced to the new municipal chief executive, and we exchanged greetings a few times before or after meetings.

Subsequently, a new voice called asking for a political contribution. As I had always done in the past, I wished the political party in question well, but politely declined the honor of associating myself fiscally with any political entity. Not long after declining participation in the local political process, I realized that I was not being asked to submit proposals for engineering work, although I was aware from newspaper reports that the type of work I knew well was still going on in the municipality.

Then a strange thing happened: A developer sent to me a 20-sheet set of construction drawings with a 250-page hydrologic report on a proposed project in the town. Since there was no cover letter accompanying the technical material, I called the municipal person with whom I had often dealt (on earlier projects) and asked why I was sent this voluminous paperwork. I expressed my surprise about the fact that I had been given a review assignment without a preliminary call to determine my availability to do the work. In response, I was told that it was a mistake. The material was sent to me in error, and I was not to do anything on the project. I was not being asked to submit a proposal or to conduct a stormwater management review.

Since this event, I have not heard from the municipality on any subject. However, I did hear from an engineering friend, who sometimes attends meetings in the town regarding other kinds of technical work. He told me that a new engineer has been occupying the "hydraulic engineer" chair on meeting nights, and he had wondered about my absence. I told him I didnt know why this had occurred. I kept to myself the thought that I was out because I didnt "pay to play."

To be fair, the lack of a campaign contribution may not be the reason for my ouster. But the fact that I had never been criticized or received any negative comments concerning the quality of my work has led me to conclude that I was dumped as a technical reviewer because of my refusal to support the party in power.

Banning pay to play
As I was finishing this column, I noted an item in a local newspaper concerning another town. The story indirectly discusses pay to play. Town officials introduced an ordinance that would bar people from doing business with the municipality if they have made political donations to candidates or party committees, even at other levels of government. If passed, this town would join 65 other towns in my state that already have adopted municipal laws banning pay to play. The new ordinance would apply to professional services contracts, which at this time do not fall under the competitive
bidding laws already in effect. Such contractors include professionals such as municipal planners, engineering firms, auditors, and attorneys.

The newspaper story went on to say that this law could affect many professionals. An example is a planning firm that had given a significant amount to a political party at the
county level. If the proposed ordinance goes into effect—and turns out to be legal—it could bar professionals from making political contributions to entities in the same county as the town in which they are seeking work.

Currently, state law only bans professionals from making political contributions at the level at which a firm receives a contract. "If the contract is with the county," the newspaper story explained, "professionals may not give to county-level politicians, but they can give to municipal party fund-raising committees." The newspaper characterized this as "a giant open dam for the money to go through."

More on this subject in a future column. What has been your experience with the political process?

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


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