TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Joseph F. Vitale which would reinstate the Public Advocate as a watchdog agency to protect the interests of everyday New Jerseyans was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today by a vote of 9-6.
“With today’s vote, we are one step closer to having a strong watchdog demand a government that works for the people,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex. “The Public Advocate has in the past stood for good government that puts the needs of citizens before the concerns of politics. I look forward to having the Advocate once again fighting to give voice to the voiceless in our society.”
The bill, S-541, would restore the Department of Public Advocate as a principal department in the Executive Branch of State Government. The Public Advocate would oversee seven divisions, each dealing with a specific area of expertise in advocacy: the Division of Administration, which would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Department, including submitting a budget and providing public information of the activities of the Advocate; the Division of Citizen Relations, which would receive, forward and investigate complaints from citizens on any State agencies; the Division of Mental Health; the Division of Advocacy for the Developmentally Disabled; the Division of Elder Advocacy; the Division of Rate Counsel, which would protect the public interest in terms of utilities and insurance rates; the Division of Public Interest Advocacy, which would represent the public interest in any areas not covered by one of the other divisions, at the discretion of the Public Advocate.
“By creating divisions within the Office of the Public Advocate to focus on specific advocacy areas, we are allowing attention to be paid to the most vulnerable in New Jersey,” said Senator Vitale. “The specific divisions shall be experts in the issues facing those they represent.”
Additionally, the Office of Child Advocate, which was established separately by former Governor McGreevey, would be transferred into the Public Advocate’s department, but would remain independent to follow child advocacy issues in the Garden State.
“The Child Advocate has done an excellent job to date in representing the needs of children in this State,” said Senator Vitale. “To hamper the efforts of the Child Advocate under a layer of bureaucracy would be a disservice to the wonderful work the Office already does. However, by allowing the Child Advocate to work with the Public Advocate, we are giving them the resources to continue on their already-stellar record.”
Under the bill, the Public Advocate would be appointed by the Governor, serve during the Governor’s term of office, and could only be removed by the Governor for good cause.
“The Public Advocate needs to be protected from political reprisal should their mission contradict the wishes of any future Governor,” said Senator Vitale. “Without some sort of independence from State government, the Public Advocate could not take government to task without having to worry about his or her job. By retaining the independence of the public advocate, we’re charging the Office to go wherever the people direct them, in order to create better government for all New Jerseyans.”
Amendments adopted today in Committee would require the Child Advocate and the Public Advocate to consult with each other when conducting investigations with overlapping subject areas, would prohibit the Rate Counsel from involvement in prior approval of rate filings of seven percent or less, and would remove the appropriation, requiring instead that the appropriation be included in the FY 2006 budget.
The bill now heads to the full Senate for approval.