Asbury Park Press

Committee Advances Public Advocate Bill

Office would represent citizens

Asbury Park Press — Tuesday, February 8, 2005

By LAUREN O. KIDD
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON – More than a decade after it was abolished, a state government office supporters say for 20 years gave a "voice to the voiceless" moved a step closer to being restored Monday.

A bill to re-establish the Department of the Public Advocate was approved 3 to 1, with one abstention, by the Senate State Government Committee Monday. It is next scheduled to appear before the Senate budget committee, before it can be voted on by the full Senate.

Part of acting Gov. Codey's plan announced in the State of the State to "restore a higher level of integrity and accountability in state government," the measure would create six advocacy divisions within the proposed department.

Divisions would include citizen relations, mental health, developmental disabilities, elder issues, rate counsel and public interest advocacy. The current Office of the Child Advocate would also be transferred to the department.

Sen. Joseph F. Vitale, D-Middlesex, a sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Robert J. Martin, R-Morris, said the measure would provide "systematic changes."

"It will bring an honest and independent voice to those without political clout," Vitale said. The department could sue state agencies, subpoena for public records and release investigative reports, like the Office of the Child Advocate does now, he said.

The bill calls for the governor to appoint a public advocate to serve during his or her term in office, as most Cabinet officers do. The advocate could be removed with "good cause" by the governor.

Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr., R-Ocean, who voted against the measure, said he was waiting for information regarding "how many cases in the past have actually been solved on behalf of the people." He also said he was concerned about adding additional people to the government payroll when the state faces a budget deficit.

A number of advocacy groups that seek to regularly represent the interests of people across the state, such as AARP, Citizen Action, the Sierra Club and the Public Interest Research Group, testified on behalf of the measure, saying the office would assist them in representing their interests.

It is important to "provide a voice in Trenton for those who do not attract attention," said Lauren Skowronski, executive director for Common Cause New Jersey.

The state estimates the restoration of the Department of the Public Advocate would cost between $9 million and $10 million a year. It would also increase state revenue by about $1 million a year through actions in insurance rate cases.

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