Vitale Publics Advocate Bill Moves Closer To Becoming Law

Senate Approves Legislation Reauthorizing Post, Sends to Assembly for Final Approval

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 today by a vote of 25-12.

“Reinstating the public advocate is a necessary step to give a voice back to the voiceless, and ensure that State government truly represents the best wishes of the people it represents,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex. “Under the current system, it sometimes seems like the politically-connected or well-represented are the only ones with access enough to change the course of government, while the needs of the working poor and less advantaged go by the wayside. With a strong Public Advocate back in place to help those State residents who sometimes fall through the cracks, we can ensure that New Jersey will be responsive to the real needs of the people we serve.”

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 on 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.

“Having specialized divisions within the Department of Public Advocate will give New Jerseyans access to the sort of expertise they need to effect change,” said Senator Vitale. “Each division will be a microcosm of the larger mission of the Advocate, and will bring the necessary skill sets to the table to get the job done.”

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.

“So far, the Child Advocate has operated exceptionally, and will no doubt continue to do so,” said Senator Vitale. “Despite the fact that the Office of Child Advocate was originally first debated when we considered reauthorizing the Public Advocate, it has since developed its own niche and run with its mission to help kids in New Jersey. It would be a hindrance to fold them back into the organizational structure of the Public Advocate at this point in time.”

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.

“A vital piece of the new, strong Public Advocate is its independence from government,” said Senator Vitale. “We want the Advocate to go wherever, whenever to make New Jersey a better place to live, work and raise a family. By keep the Public Advocate independent of government, we are saying nothing is off-limits when it comes to creating a more responsive environment for the neediest in New Jersey.”

The bill now heads to the Assembly for concurrence with amendments made on the Senate floor.

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