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Vitale Public Advocate Bill Cleared By Senate Committee

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 State Government Committee by a vote of 3-1, with 1 abstention.

“For nearly two decades before its dissolution, the Public Advocate stood up for the residents of New Jersey to protect the best interests of the people,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex. “In New Jersey today, so often it seems that, whether it’s government corruption or private fraud, those interests are going by the wayside, while corruption and abuse are becoming a much more common phenomenon. We need a strong Public Advocate to again hold government and private interests accountable to the people of this State.”

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 narrowing the scope of the Public Advocate within the separate divisions, we can entice the best and brightest that New Jersey has to offer in terms of specific-issue advocacy to work for the public good,” said Senator Vitale. “Each division will have experts in their fields who will put their expertise to good use for the people of the State.”

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 is a prime example of what each division within the Public Advocate should be doing after this bill is adopted into law,” said Senator Vitale. “Since the inception of the Office of the Child Advocate, they have been a tenacious champion of the welfare of children in New Jersey, and they should be allowed to continue their mission without too much interruption.”

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.

“We needed to give the Public Advocate the protection necessary to perform his or her duties without political interference,” said Senator Vitale. “At the same time, we cannot have a Public Advocate with his or her own agenda abusing the powers of the Office. Giving the Governor the authority to remove the Advocate only with good cause is a compromise between both concerns.”

Amendments adopted today in Committee would also give the Public Advocate subpoena power, and would allow the Advocate to hire outside counsel to assist in the duties of the Office.

The bill now heads to the Senate Budget Committee for approval before going to the full Senate for consideration.

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