Does business community have voice in big decisions?

Helmy: Murphy administration has been responsive, seeks — and uses — input from leaders

At 8 a.m. Thursday, George Helmy and the state’s two other representatives to the seven-state Northeast Council will meet with their counterparts from the region to discuss efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as they did last week, when some of the reopenings Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday were discussed.

“It’s every Thursday at 8 a.m.,” Helmy said. “We haven’t missed one week since it started.”

Helmy, Murphy’s chief of staff, said he has a number of regularly scheduled meetings with economic advisers.

Some are at a high level — for instance, Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Commission is scheduled to meet again later this month. Some are with various association and chambers. Some are with Main Street business owners.

“I’ve gone on probably two or three dozen Saturday morning calls with small groups,” he said. “I had a regular check-in call with a half-dozen South Jersey restaurateurs — that was just a time that worked for all of us. Every few weeks, we just check in. How’s business going? How’s the staff testing program? How are our employee vaccinations?”

Helmy said a number of administration officials can tell the same stories. But few do.

Helmy spoke with ROI-NJ to push back on the narrative that Murphy and his inner circle are making major economic decisions without input from the business community — such as the ones announced Monday, when Murphy essentially announced he is opening the state May 19.

“I think, since the very beginning of the pandemic, we have been in incredible dialogue with our business partners,” he said.

Helmy said chief counsel Parimal Garg, deputy chief counsel McKenzie Wilson, chief policy adviser Zakiya Smith-Ellis and Deputy Chief of Staff for Economic Growth Joe Kelley have been just as active.

The heads of some business groups may beg to differ.

Christina Renna. (File photo)

Christina Renna, the head of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, said she did not think the administration reacted as well as it could have to her chamber’s recent report, “Preparing for the Next Normal: Recommendations for Supporting New Jersey’s Business Community and Reopening the Economy.”

“The frustration level continues to rise with business leaders, especially industry experts that want nothing more than to lend their expertise to help state government with their reopening plans,” Renna said.

Michele Siekerka, the CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association — which heads the New Jersey Business Coalition — said its suggestions have not led to substantive discussions.

Michele Siekerka. (File photo)

“We have advanced responsible recommendations and called for a comprehensive plan for over a year — probably more than 50 letters that have either come from NJBIA or the New Jersey Business Coalition as a collective,” she said.

“I think it’s fair to say they’ve been polite in acknowledging those recommendations. But, in the end, actions taken were usually well outside the timeframe of what was advanced, and we never did see a comprehensive strategic plan versus daily block-and-tackle actions.”

Helmy pushes back. Politely, he said.

“I think we’ve been incredibly responsive,” he said. “We read all the stuff they send us. It helps inform our decisions. We have areas of agreement and areas of disagreement — and we have talked through them on a number of calls. We have not shied away from those difficult conversations.

“When BIA has invited me, we’ve spoken about various items they’ve raised for our consideration. We’ve had open dialogue about them — all productive, whether it’s an agreement or disagreement.”

Helmy said he’s eager to continue the discussion.

“Let me say this: To my knowledge, I don’t have any outstanding meeting requests,” he said. “I may not be able to set up meetings for the day following a request, but I do not have any open requests right now.”

Meetings, he has.

In fact, on Tuesday, Helmy and other members of the administration are doing a virtual call with members of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re basically taking open-ended questions from their membership,” he said. “I don’t know how much more responsive we could be.

“Over the entirety of the pandemic, I think one thing we have done very well is to be incredibly engaged with our partners, including the business community, be it the Trenton-based organizations, the chambers or employers of all levels.

“We may disagree. That’s going to happen. But we’re going to talk.”