Law Would Restore Public Advocate in NJ, Give Office Shield from Partisan Influence
TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Joseph F. Vitale which will reinstate the Public Advocate as a watchdog agency to protect the interests of everyday New Jerseyans was signed into law today by Governor Codey.
“New Jersey now has a centralized Public Advocate who will fight for the rights of New Jersey’s most vulnerable and least vocal citizens,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex. “The Public Advocate will demand a higher level of public service from the State, and will work to make sure New Jersey is more responsive and attentive to the needs of its residents. The Public Advocate will ensure that everyone in New Jersey, not just the politically well-connected, has the ability to be heard.”
The bill, S-541, will restore the Department of Public Advocate as a principal department in the Executive Branch of State Government. The Public Advocate will oversee seven divisions, each dealing with a specific area of expertise in advocacy: the Division of Administration, which will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Department, including submitting a budget and providing public information on the activities of the Advocate; the Division of Citizen Relations, which will 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 will protect the public interest in terms of utilities and insurance rates; and the Division of Public Interest Advocacy, which will represent the public interest in any areas not covered by one of the other divisions, at the discretion of the Public Advocate.
“Each division within the Public Advocate will be staffed by experts in their respective fields, who will not only know the issues but also how to successfully navigate the State bureaucracy,” said Senator Vitale. “The end result of the specialization within the Public Advocate office will be topnotch services from each division, catering to an individual special needs group within the State’s population.”
Additionally, the Office of Child Advocate, which was established separately by former Governor McGreevey, will be transferred into the Public Advocate’s department, but will remain independent to follow child advocacy issues in the Garden State.
“The Child Advocate has been at the front of advocacy for New Jersey’s kids, and to remove some of the office’s autonomy now would be to set childrens’ rights back in New Jersey,” said Senator Vitale. “The Child Advocate’s Office has flourished so far under Kevin Ryan, and I am confident that it will continue to do so, seeking out ways to better serve and protect our State’s children.”
Under the bill, the Public Advocate will be appointed by the Governor, serve during the Governor’s term of office, and could only be removed by the Governor for good cause.
“By protecting the Public Advocate from partisan retaliation, we are giving the office full reign to pursue the public interest, wherever and whenever necessary,” said Senator Vitale. “By establishing that the Advocate cannot be fired without a good reason by the Governor, we are ensuring that the only master served by the Public Advocate is the public good.”
The Public Advocate was created by Governor Brendan Byrne in 1974, and served the State until 1994, when it was dissolved by Governor Christie Whitman. At the time of its dissolution, many of the former functions of the Public Advocate were dispersed among State agencies, but other functions, like broad public interest advocacy, were completely eliminated. Senator Vitale noted that the new Public Advocate will take on many of the old responsibilities while at the same time taking an updated stance towards the issues affecting New Jersey today.
“It is an honor to be a part of the fight to restore an office that for twenty years took on some of the most difficult issues facing the public,” said Senator Vitale. “The Public Advocate has a history of success in New Jersey, and has won many key battles on behalf of the people of this State, whether it was the fight over excessive beach fees, asbestos removal, or electricity rate cuts. I know that in the years to come, the Public Advocate will lead the charge when it comes to the people’s rights, and will be a force to reckon with when private interests are put before the public good in New Jersey.”
The bill received final legislative approval in June.