July 29, 2005

Gov't Has Advantage in Records Disputes

As Published in the Cranford Chronicle, July 28,2005

On July 8, 2002, the state Legislature passed the Open Public Records Act(OPRA). They also created the Government Records Council (GRC) to oversee complaints against records custodians.

To this date the GRC has not found a records custodian guilty of a 'knowing and willful' violation of OPRA which would lead to the custodian being personally fined by the agency. In lieu of fining custodians, the GRC has been placing violators on their 'Matrix' which imposes a state oversight of how the custodian handles OPRA requests.

I have filed eight GRC complaints against the County of Union since 2003. They were found not to have complied with OPRA 4 times, without rising to a "knowing and willful" violation of OPRA. They have been placed on the GRC 'Matrix' three times to date, with more complaints still pending. A fifth violation was determined recently, and rather than the GRC ruling directly on whether a "knowing and willful violation" had been committed, the GRC referred the case to the Office of Administrative Law(OAL).

By sending this complaint to the OAL the GRC gave an unfair advantage to the county who will be represented by taxpayer funded attorneys, while I can't afford the expense of hiring an attorney to represent me. I find it both ironic and alarming that a government body can use taxpayer dollars against a taxpayer trying to pry information out of them regarding how taxes are being spent.

After much consideration and research I have decided to formally withdraw this OPRA complaint. Dealing with the OAL is beyond the capability of the average citizen. The process requires time that I don't have to give; Iwork, I have a family which includes two young daughters; friends and other interests besides battling Union County for information.

I am an activist who has learned that the cards are stacked against the average person and I think that it will be more productive for me to spend my limited time to continue to work for greater access to records without spending countless hours trying to present a case to the OAL.

In trying to research the OAL process I went to their website where I found several thousand words "summarizing" their rules. The rules themselves are much longer. If I enter into the OAL's system, I'd be expected to know about and deal with motion procedure, discovery rules, rules of evidence, etc. Not exactly enjoyable beach reading. I find this to be the equivalent of handing my 13 year old the keys to my car and with no driving knowledge, directions or gas money telling her to drive to Chicago to pick up grandma.

I have become an active member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG). I traveled to Trenton recently to speak at a GRC meeting. After relaying how I felt about trying to present my case to an OAL judge, I asked the counsel to candidly admit that there really is no process that will lead to a custodian being held accountable. It would be much more honest for the GRC to simply tell people that there is no process, than it is to send them into a complex black hole that promises a process that is not in reality attainable.

Members of the GRC admitted their frustration as well; and acknowledged that they would accept an invitation from the Legislature to take a look at how OPRA can be improved. How refreshing to see a government body actually listen to the citizens and be open and willing to work towards better government.

As far as prying records out of the County of Union I can tell you that OPRA and the GRC were helpful for a short period of time. This is no longer true. Just this past month the county gave me a record with a disclaimer "there may be errors or omissions on this document" in regards to an employee's paid days off. This is either incompetence or corruption; either way, as it stands in the State of NJ, there is absolutely nothing a citizen can do about it.

A closed government isn't in the citizens' best interest, and should not be allowed to flourish in a democratic society. The county now spends more than $1 million of our money a day which affects our health, welfare and safety. With this in mind, I will continue to work for greater access to public records.

The GRC cases that the county have been found guilty of OPRA violations are:
2005-5; 2004-191; 2004-162; 2004-136; 2004-110. You can find these ruling on
the GRC's website http://www.nj.gov/grc/

JV Center Ills Continued for Years

As early as January 1998 the JJC, Juvenile Justice Commission, had sent a letter to then County Manager Michael LaPolla citing the conditions that youth offenders were being held under at the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.

The letter called for action to be taken regarding overcrowding, rodent infestation caused by the children being served meals in their rooms, keeping the children locked in their rooms for extended periods of time which was the result of “splitting” the youths into groups and allowing them out into the common area a group at a time.

Six weeks later Frank Guzzo, the Director of the Department of Human Services for Union County reported in writing that “resident meals are served on the facility’s main floor, steps have been taken to increase the amount of time youth are out of their rooms”, Mr. Guzzo’s letter further stated that the “county has a strategic plan in place to construct a new facility” and also a short term plan to address issues that contribute to overcrowding.

Two and a half years later in June of 2000, the JJC sent another letter to Frank Guzzo advising the detention center to discontinue feeding youths in their rooms and discontinue the practice of “splitting”. The letter also required that the detention center was to notify JCC’s Compliance Monitoring Unit of all critical incidents as required by the Manual of Standards. It seems that the detention center had failed to notify JCC of three suicide attempts between February and May of 2000.

Over the course of the next three years letters between the JJC and the county went back and forth and back and forth with the county written a letter by the NJ State Attorney General jointly with the JJC. Each letter called for the end of the practice of “splitting” as well as serving meals to the children in their rooms and each letter from the county reported that the practices would be discontinued.

One letter to the chairwoman of the Board of Freeholders dated January 28, 2003 stated “Conditions at the facility warrant a referral to the Department of Human Services” to determine whether conditions at the facility meet the “abuse/neglect criteria”.

The letter from the Acting Attorney General sent on April 3 of 2003 demanded once again that the county discontinue the practice of “splitting” yet about a month later, when Eddie Sinclair was admitted to the center on Mothers Day, May 10; he committed suicide when left alone in his room. His roommates were permitted out of the room when it was time for their “split” but Sinclair had been placed in a 24-hour lock down, only permitted out of his room for limited purposes, which was also a violation.

At a recent Freeholder meeting earlier this month, the board approved the financing of the new Juvenile Detention Center to be erected in Linden. What took so long? What didn’t these people understand? Did it take the death of a teenager and now the lawsuit which is following to motivate them? Why are the letter writers, who obviously stretched the truth about changes at the center, still employed? Did they take it upon themselves or were they directed to embellish or misrepresent the improvements at the center and if so by who?

It appears doubtful that anyone will be held accountable for the deplorable conditions that these children have endured. No municipality in Union County has been spared the wrath of drug abuse by teens, Eddie Sinclair could have been anyone’s child, he could have been from Summit, New Providence, Westfield or Fanwood, it is time that we acknowledge this fact and take an interest in how our juvenile offenders are treated.

To read the chronological report from the JCC please visit http://www.childadvocate.state.nj.us/downloads/es_report.pdf and weigh the facts for yourself.

July 25, 2005

JCA Associates & Union County

The following is an excerpt from an article which I wrote and that appeared in the Westfield Leader/Scotch Plains Times in August of 2004. More has developed on this company and how they did business. The scope has widened and now U.S. Attorney Chris Christie is looking into just how large the "web" really is and just who is involved.

We have all heard the expression that we are judged by the company that we keep. The board of Freeholders is no exception.

At the next meeting the Democrat Freeholder Board is expected to take action on a resolution authorizing the county manager to enter into a Professional Service contract with JCA Associates, Clark. The contract is in an amount not to exceed $113,876 for Construction Services associated with a bridge replacement in Summit. Sounds innocent enough, and good news for Summit, which has been long neglected. But is it really innocent or good news?

Based in Moorestown, JCA acquired their Clark office in 1999 and contributions to the UC Dem PAC started to increase. One year ago the company’s president and two corporate execs pleaded guilty to filing fraudulent tax returns in order to conceal $84,000 in illegal campaign contributions in Gloucester County made in return for Professional Services contracts.

In a rare move the courts have recently rejected the executives’ plea bargain deal, which included a $100,000 civil penalty, the ruling exposes these executives to further criminal prosecution.

In the world of pay to play this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Professional Services are defined as those provided by attorneys, engineers and architects and the regulations in NJ appear to apply to school districts, local governments, and the Turnpike Authority, as well as state educational institutions. County governments are merely urged to exercise fiscal responsibility when awarding contracts using the non-competitive bidding process or “No Bid Contracts”.

Surely this process wasn’t intended as a “reward” system for loyal contributors. But here in Union County it certainly appears that it does as this Professional Services contract would make a total of almost half a million dollars work awarded to JCA, an excellent return on a documented investment of about $20,000 to the UC Dem Political Action Committee.

JCA is only the tip of the iceberg as far as campaign contributions and no bid contracts are concerned, but it appears that they were just getting warmed up and judging by past performance bigger numbers would have soon followed.

JCA’s current legal difficulties and admitted illegal methods of doing business sends up warning flares that should not be ignored by the voters in Union County.

Do we really want to do business with operators of this type?

What else are they up to and can we really trust the caliber of their work?

Could they be taking shortcuts, which could endanger the safety of the residents?

How are their employees treated?

Since this board of Freeholders must be well aware of this situation how can they in good conscience continue to do business with this firm?

There is another old expression that says something about birds of a feather flocking together and we ask that the voters keep this in mind when they go to the polls in November.

To see more "news" about JCA, Susan Bass-Levin, George Norcross and the rest of the gang visit www.politicsnj.com

July 23, 2005

Some Things Money Can Buy

The Best Companies Group, out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has determined that the PMK Group of Cranford, an environmental engineering and consulting firm, is one of the 50 “Best Places to Work in NJ in 2005”.

The Best Companies Group appears to be one those consulting firms that offers business conferences complete with training seminars which are touted as a “must attend for corporate CEOs, Human Resources professionals” and the like. Typically costing over a thousand dollars per attendee, with a reduced price for early bird registrants, they describe themselves as “an exciting new initiative dedicated to finding and recognizing New Jersey’s Best Employers”.

To be considered for the honor as a “Best Place to Work”, an employer needs to complete an organizational inventory, the employees complete an anonymous survey then all of the data is analyzed, for a fee of course, and the results are published in a magazine and posted on the web site. It seems that congratulations are in order as PMK placed 21st in their category, of 50 companies with between 25 and 99 employees, it is unknown how many other companies applied.

Recently PMK found themselves in the spotlight once again as the result of certain campaign contributions made during the recent school board election in Union Township. According to an Election Law Enforcement Commission official they may have gone over the allowable limit which a corporation can make to a campaign. PMK gave the slate of incumbents $5,000 of the $14,000 which they spent on their successful reelection bid. PMK officials have said that the contributions had nothing to do with contracts that the firm has been awarded by the Union Township Board of Education. Further, PMK Board of Directors member James Johnston insists that “there never has been and never will be” a connection.

Besides Union Township, PMK has a steady stream of customers to include the municipalities of Linden, Cranford, and Hillside to name a few as well as just about every county in the state of New Jersey. In fact the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders is currently getting ready to award a no bid contract to PMK within the next week or so and in the year 2004 alone the freeholders awarded $829,800 in environmentally related no bid contract work. Besides having money coming in on a regular basis they also have been dispensing it rather freely. According to NJElec, PMK has made contributions in the neighborhood of $185,000 to political entities on both sides of the aisle, and all over the state since October 2001.

PMK’s business reputation appears to be excellent, delivering what they promise with only one instance of a fine paid to a government entity, involving a piece of testing equipment and that appeared to be a genuine accident.

Why play the game seems to be the question.

Just as the fee to The Best Companies Group ensures a spot on the “A” list, these political contributions can be viewed as an insurance policy to guarantee future work. What a shame. The PMK Group should have been allowed to make it totally on their own by virtue of their good business practices then they would have been able to use the insurance “premiums” as donations to a good cause or two thus making them a Best Company in NJ to Work for not only in ’05, but ‘04,’03,’02 and ’01 as well.

"Do the Hustle"

Does your employer know your name?

Does he/she know what 'paid' days you took off in 2003 and 2004?

Have you been given a $27,447.16 pay hike within four years?

Being more than a little bit suspicious of county employees working on freeholder campaigns during working hours, I placed an Open Public Records request for the paid days off in 2003 and 2004 of the Union County Manager and his wife. Six days later, the county responded in a letter dated July 21, 2005, that they needed more time to compile the data.

Hmmmmm What are those well paid, crazy kids trying to hide from us now?

In 2004 I asked for the county's employee list. I noticed that the county manager's wife, who was then the administrator of the county's Open Space Trust fund, was not on the list. She had been quoted in the press about the fund on several occasions going by the name Angie Devanney. When I saw no Angie Devanney on the payroll I asked the Clerk of the Board for her employment information. The clerk replied in a letter that "Ms. Devanney's information was there all along."

You see, there is a clause in OPRA which states the government doesn't have to give you information - only existing records, so you must know what to ask for. I did not know what name Mrs. George Devanney, who is Senator Raymond Lesniak's niece-in-law, was using on the payroll, therefore the county was not required by law to tell me; and they didn't.

Not being one to be put off, as my nine OPRA complaints against the county can attest to, I did a Goggle search on the county manager's wife and came up with two articles. One was about a Angela Bowen and then husband Doug Placa being named #20 on the PoliticsNJ.com list of New Jersey's Most Powerful Political Couples; the other was a story about an Angela Bowen who was running the congressional campaign of then-County Manager Michael LaPolla while holding a full-time county job. After people raised their suspicions about her work load, Ms. Bowen took a leave of absence from her $54,337.40 county job to run the campaign 'full time.'

No lesson learned there by the Democrats or the voters because four years later, another marriage and a $27,447.16 pay hike, while Angela Bowen (d/b/a/ Angie Devanney) was on the county payroll with a $81,784.56 salary, Angela Devanney was listed on the Union County Democratic Committee ELEC reports with a $2,600 payment for GOTV (get out the vote) efforts.

Too bad Union County taxpayers lost such a good hustler, as of January 2005, Mrs. George Devanney d/b/a/ who knows who now, is currently employed by Berkeley Heights as their City Administrator. With all she had on her plate with her $81,784.46 county job and her $2,600 worth of GOTV efforts for the county Democrats she still found time to campaign for the Republican Mayor David Cohen in Berkeley Heights.

Most women would find one husband, one job and one campaign more than enough to keep them busy at one time but Mrs. Angie Bowen/Placa/Devanney managed to do all two at a time. What a hustler.

PoliticsNJ.com New Jersey's Online Political Network
New Jersey's Most Powerful Political Couples
20. Angela Bowen and Doug Placa
Angela Bowen is the Campaign Manager for Michael Lapolla's campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 7th district. Doug Placa, a rising star among political operatives, managed the successful 1999 campaign of Glenn Gilmore for Mayor of Hamilton Township. 21. Sara and Fred Bost

Golkin Seeks Disclosures From County Manager
While Lapolla Calls for Clean Campaign Pledge
Specially Written for The Westfield Leader and The Times

The primary battle among Democrats seeking the nomination to represent the party in the Seventh Congressional race in November continued to heat up this week following the resignation of candidate Michael LaPolla¹s campaign manager from her job with Union County. Mr. Lapolla has been questioned as to whether he or any of his campaign staffers have been running the campaign during regular work hours. Warren Township Committeeman Jeff Golkin, a Congressional hopeful who gained the party line in Somerset County, has questioned what he believes is the ³improper use of Union County facilities and employees at county expense and on county time for the benefit of his (Mr. Lapolla¹s) Congressional campaign.² Mr. Golkin specifically mentioned Angela Bowen, Mr. Lapolla¹s Campaign Manager and Executive Director of the Union County Democratic Committee, who has been employed by Union County as Director of Constituent Services for the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Sarah Dowling, a spokeswoman for the Lapolla Campaign, confirmed on Tuesday that Ms. Bowen has announced her resignation from the county effective tomorrow, Friday, March 31. Sujata Tejwani, Campaign Manager for Mrs. Connelly, said originally Ms. Bowen indicated she had been on vacation leave since January and would resign after that time. ³If she was working on vacation leave since January than I want to work for Union County,² Ms. Tejwani responded. Rather than specifically address the charges by Mr. Golkin. Mr. Lapolla issued a written response this week calling for Mr. Golkin and Mrs. Connelly of Fanwood to join him in signing a ³clean campaign² pledge. Mr. Lapolla has signed the pledge. The fourth candidate in the race, Civil Rights attorney Joel Farley of Westfield, name was not listed on the pledge. Citing the Golkin and Connelly campaigns, Mr. Lapolla¹s pledge states that, ³the only people who will benefit from a nasty, personal negative campaign in this primary are the Republican extremists in Washington and their Congressional candidates.² Instead, Mr. Lapolla said the candidates should focus on discussing issues that Democrats are ³advocates² for such as helping ³working families,² securing Social Security, protecting children from gun violence, a clean environment and access to quality, affordable health and longterm care and child care. ³Sadly, up to now, both Mrs. Connelly and Mr. Golkin have run negative personal campaigns. The Lapolla campaign has stuck to the issues and not responded to these petty attacks. It is time to move forward,² Mr. Lapolla said in the pledge. Mrs. Connelly went public last week with accusations that she was offered political jobs in exchange for her dropping out of the Congressional race. One position in fact was said to be a $130,000 position with the federal or state pension board. The job was said to be for just five to seven days a month and comes with a government car. She also charged that positions were said to be available with United States Senate candidate Jon Corzine, Woodbridge Mayor and 1997 Democratic Gubernatorial candidate James McGreevey or Vice President and the party¹s unofficial Presidential nominee, Al Gore. All the apparent job offers were said to have come from Jerry Free, a friend of State Senator Raymond Lesniak. The Senator and Mr. Corzine have denied the charges waged by Mrs. Connelly although Mr. Lesniak has confirmed in media reports he did try to get Mrs. Connelly to quit the race. Ms. Tejwani confirmed the news reports. In his campaign statement that accompanied the copy of the pledge, Mr. Lapolla stated that Republicans ³would love for Democrats to wage a divisive primary. Let¹s serve the voters and run a campaign based on issues instead of innuendo.² ³When they have hurled insults and made false charges I have not responded by getting down in the gutter. It is time to move forward and put the voters interests ahead of our own,² he stated. Ms. Tejwani responded that the Connelly Campaign has stuck to the issues. She said the job offers Mrs. Connelly spoke of did not mention Mr. Lapolla. Mr. Lapolla, Union County Manager since 1997 and who entered the Congressional race in late January, has received the Democrat organizational ballot lines in Union and Middlesex Counties. ³I do not know how it is possible for two fulltime employees of Union County, Mr. Lapolla and Ms. Bowen, to be working full days for the county simultaneously with doing all the things that are required in running a Congressional campaign,² Mr. Golkin said in a statement released to the press on Monday. Mr. Golkin has said he will seek immediate disclosure of all records for the past six months of Mr. Lapolla¹s county office phone and cellular telephone, daily log and time sheets, travel and disbursement reports as well as his mileage logs and gasoline usage. He has called for submission of similar records from Ms. Bowen and other county employees on Mr. Lapolla¹s campaign staff. Mr. Golkin also wants all records of campaign contributions to the Lapolla Campaign from Union County vendors. ³The acceptance of contributions from such sources by Mr. Lapolla, at a minimum, gives the appearance of impropriety because of his position as Union County Manager and may very well be even a more pervasive problem than originally thought,² Mr. Golkin stated. Ms. Tejwani said she found it ³interesting² that in a response to a request to release public documents the Lapolla Campaign instead issued a clean campaign pledge. She said other than report what Mrs. Connelly maintains were job offers made to her, the candidate has focused on the issues. Ms. Tejwani said voters need to look at the public records of the three candidates who have elected office experience: Mr. Golkin, Mr. Lapolla and Mrs. Connelly. Mr. Lapolla served on the Union County freeholder board in the 1980s while Mrs. Connelly just concluded a long tenure on the Fanwood Borough Council, including a term as mayor. In his press release, Mr. Golkin added that since Mr. Lapolla did not enter the race until January 24 he did not have to file an endoftheyear report with the Federal Election Commission. The next filing date is March 31.

July 22, 2005

"Aloha" to Union County Taxpayers

Last week five freeholders, our 'appointed' County Manager who happens to be State Senator Raymond Lesniak's nephew, and our trusty Clerk of the Board who runs the office that wracked up nine Open Public Records Act complaints and has been placed on the state's 'Matrix' list to be watched closely to make sure the county complies with the law, traveled to lovely Honolulu Hawaii on the taxpayers' dime.

That's a silly saying isn't it? You can't even make a phone call for a dime anymore. The sad reality is that this Hawaiian vacation had to have cost Union County taxpayers thousands. I will request the records and wait until the county forks them over or until the state forces them to comply with the law, to report down to the last 'dime' what it cost. From experience, I predict it will take months to get the truth out of the county.

I was curious about this trip since I hadn't heard or seen a word written about it up until now, so I checked out the county website to find some PUBLIC INFORMATION about it. But, there were no press releases regarding the upcoming delegation being sent to Honolulu, no information as to why they needed to attend this conference, and no pictures of freeholders doing the hula with the locals.

Did the county think they could sneak off seven people to Hawaii without anyone noticing? Well, they almost did just that. Kudo's to Worrall Newspapers for a great investigative reporting piece.

Since our taxes have gone up 50 percent in the past five years and the budget has gone over the $400 million mark, I hope this conference taught these county officials a thing or two about what they are doing wrong and how to implement desperately needed changes to fix the problems. But Mai pa'a kou hanu. Or as we say in Union County, don't hold your breath.

Reported in Worrall Community Newspapers July 21, 2005
Aloha to NACo conference

By Lauren DeFilippo Staff Writer
On Friday, county officials from throughout the United States descended upon the city of Honolulu, Hawaii.
They were there to take part in the annual National Association of Counties conference.
The conference, which started Friday and ended Tuesday, invites county officials to meet others in similar positions and share ideas.
According to the Union County Department of Public Information, the county has been a member of the organization for more than 20 years and this year sent its smallest delegation ever with seven members to try and keep costs down.
Registration for the conference ranges from $ 415 to $ 600, depending on when arrangements were made.
According to Public Information Director John Salerno, Clerk of the Board of Freeholders Nicole Tedeschi said that money was saved by registering delegates early and various airlines offered rebates. Tedeschi also said room rates near the conference were comparable to those from other conferences.
Salerno said each department has sub- accounts for covering costs associated with training and other travel expenses in their individual budgets.
The Union County representatives included County Manager George Devanney, Tedeschi, and five freeholders — Chairman Rick Proctor, Vice Chairman Alexander Mirabella, Angel Estrada, Chester Holmes and Adrian Mapp.
"By not participating, we would short- shrift the county on grant information, the latest technology and the opportunity for the freeholders to network with officials involved in county government throughout the county," Salerno said.
Topics under discussion for the conference include community development, homeland security, and even a few sessions entitled, "Running Your County", which cover budgeting, retirement planning, and administrative processes.
Salerno said NACo rotates its host city selections by choosing a East Coast city, then a West Coast one, and then, one in the Midwest. In previous years, the annual conference was held in cities like New Orleans and Phoenix. The 2006 conference is scheduled for Chicago.

July 12, 2005

Freeholders Could be Watching All of Us

One day, in the not too distant future, you may be spending some time with your family at the Phil Rizzuto Park or the Watchung Reservation and feel as though you are not alone, and you just may be right. Surveillance cameras may be digitally recording and sending live images of some of your activities to the county’s police headquarters in Westfield.

Awarded a $92,000 contract, without competitive bidding, Consolidated Construction of Colts Neck has begun the preliminary work involved with planning the installation of 100 to 150 surveillance cameras in 17 of the 30 Union County parks. The projected final cost is expected to be $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

Sebastian D’Ella, of the County Public Information Dept., maintains that the selection of Consolidated has nothing to do with the fact that they have contributed $8,100 to the UC Democratic Committee, and more than $150,000 to state Democrats since 2000. But rather was based on their work performance at the new county police headquarters.

It is worth noting that Consolidated was awarded sizable contracts in June and September 2003, contributed $2,500 a month later followed by $3000 in March 2004, $600 in June of 2004 and than was awarded a one year on an as-needed-basis contract in July of 2004. This “job performance” could be referred to as the pay as you go plan.

Intended as a tool to assist in the identification of those who vandalize county park structures and equipment, leading to prosecution and conviction, we are assured that the cameras will not intrude on our personal activities. But can we be sure?

The use of video cameras or closed-circuit television (CCTV) in public places has been an issue of “hot” debate since the mid-nineties. We have all heard of cases where those with access to the equipment have succumbed to temptation by pointing the lens into areas where they are less than welcome such as restrooms and locker rooms at public pools.

An investigation by the Detroit Fee Press showed that a database was used by Michigan law enforcement officers to help friends and themselves, stalk women and track estranged spouses.

In Washington, DC a top ranking police official used the databases to track the license plate numbers of cars parked at a gay club and than tried to blackmail the vehicles’ married owners.

In Great Britain, where cameras have been in place for years, it was found that people of color were likely to be surveilled more than one-and-a-half times that of other members of the population. Further, experts in Britain found that fully one in ten women was targeted for entirely voyeuristic reasons.

Surveillance cameras certainly have been beneficial in some cases of child abuse and abduction; however the jury is still out regarding how successful they really are overall in fighting crime in public venues and on city streets.

Use by law enforcement raises many questions such as is it constitutional to allow video surveillance of innocent activity, movement and association?

Obviously a system of checks and balances needs to be put in place when deciding who will monitor the video screens, if they should be monitored at all and who will have access to the databases.

Until then just be careful where you park your car on that beautiful spring day you decide to play hockey from work. After all, it is a small world and you never know who may be watching and who they know.

July 06, 2005

Taxpayers will be taken to court on July 15, 2005

We are being sued for violating a 17 year old's civil rights.

Although the county may have imposed a cap on their juvenile detention facility to avoid overcrowding since the death of a juvenile in 2003, and the county will be building a new facility 'one of these days,' the taxpayers need to be aware of the fact that the detention center has been a ticking time bomb since 1998 - for 8 years!!! And all warnings and demands from the state went ignored by the county during this time.

This is all well documented. I have numerous letters, dating as far back as 1998, going between the state and the county regarding their dissatisfaction with the center and their "demands" that reforms be put into action. The county ignored the state and Edward Sinclair Jr. hanged himself on May 10, 2003 while being detained in an unsafe jail cell.

His mother, Yolanda Padilla, is holding the state and the county accountable for his death by suing for violations of her son's civil rights and is scheduled to go to court on July 15. What I'd like to know is who is holding the county and state accountable for the hundreds if not thousands of juveniles which were held under the same deplorable and unsafe conditions that Sinclair was held under and that were reported in the States Child Advocates Report? [Click here for copy of report.] They all had their civil rights violated and should all be suing 'us'. Yes people they are suing 'us' because 'we' pay the bills. 'We' also allowed these same freeholders to be reelected year, after year, after year....

Since it is very apparant that the all-Democrat freeholder board can't be held accountable one would think there would be a higher authority to step in. The spin coming from the state is that there will hopefully be some legislative change in the future, but as it stands right now, the state's Juvenile Justice Commission only has authority to place a cap on a facility or shut a facility down. The commission had placed caps on the county and they were ignored right up until the time of Sinclair's death and possibly beyond. There was never a threat of shutting the facility down. The county is in absolute control of this facility therefore they are absolutely responsible for it.

The corrections officers' union also filed complaints with the county which went ignored: As reported in the Star-Ledger 5/13/03: "State probes teen suicide at detention center" by Robert Miseck: "A lawyer for Council 8 representing 30 officers at the detention center said the union had filed numerous complaints with the county, warning that "something like this would happen because of the overcrowding and under staffing" at the facility. 'For the last couple of months the union has been documenting and complaining about the conditions there, but I don't think they really addressed our concerns,' said attorney Michael Bukosky."

The county had made promises to turn the center around for eight years and is still making promises and they can make promises from now till armageddon and no one will hold them responsible for the treatment of juveniles under their care. No one cares. Including the Union County Prosecutor's Office, who recently refused to investigate alleged abuse at the center, and the State's Attorney General or the Governors office.

As far as promises being broken and warnings going unheeded consider that county resolution #294-2003 clearly states that a cap on the detention center's population was in place and the county contracted with Morris County to take the overflow as of 4/1/03 yet Sinclair was put in an overcrowded facility on 5/10/03, in a cell that was deemed unsafe by the state, when he hanged himself.

Countless other juveniles were put in this same cell. The child advocates report states that "the county set the stage for Sinclair's death." They also stated that the county had a disregard for basic human rights and held "juveniles" three to four to a cell for 18 - 20 hours a day in which they ate and slept in 8 x 10 cockroach-infested cells. Sinclair hanged himself on an exposed sprinkler head which was cited as a violation and hazard by the state in a report sent to the county seventeen (17) months prior to his death. The report went ignored.

In November of 2000, six years ago, the freeholder board, after spending more than $2 Million of taxpayers money, voluntarily scrapped it's plans to construct a new JV center. The board was 5-4 at the time and the Republicans wanted to build a new center and the Democrats voted against it. At that time board chairman Dan Sullivan, cited a declining population at the current facility, yet according to then Assistant Prosecutor Deborah White the daily count was 45-50 in a center with a capacity intended for 38. Then Freeholder Lewis Mingo talked about not wanting to waste money. The cost at the time was projected to be $20 million, and the cost of the current project is roughly $40 million.

Of course powerbroker Charlotte DeFilippo, who is the Union County Democrat chairwoman, will be handling the bonding for the project through the taxpayer funded Union County Improvement Authority. The county has built several other self serving buildings during this time frame. Including a new building for the prosecutor's office on a site that was originally slated to be the new juvenile detention center. Along with all the new county buildings the county completed a $1.8 Million decorative addition to their administration building which is directly across the street from the Juvenile Detention center housed above their garage.

No employee or elected official of the state or the county has been held accountable for the condition of this facility or the treatment of juveniles. No one has been written up, reprimanded, fined or suspended. A letter dated 12/3/03 from Howard Beyer, Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Commission, to Frank Guzo, Director of the Union County facility, states "As we proceeded to your office we were assured by you that a new detention Superintendent would be coming on board by December 1, 2003. The individual would initially begin in the Assistant Superintendent position, would report directly to you and would eventually be promoted to Superintendent. It was strongly suggested that the new individual begin as Superintendent so that the necessary corrective action for the residents and staff could commence, as the 'heir apparent' was qualified and experienced in detention management."

As far as I'm aware this Assistant Superintendent has not been promoted as of yet and the same management team is in place.

The county was supposed to break ground in March 2005 for the new facility and it has been postponed yet again. Does it matter if they start today? It is eight years past due and the clock is still ticking with juveniles being held in hell-like conditions. Will a new facility be the be-all and end-all to the county of Union's disregard for basic human rights? How do you hold the arrogant all-Democrat freeholder board, who have absolute power, accountable for their actions which cause harm to people. How do we stop the taxpayers from bleeding money through countless lawsuits due to the freeholders' arrogance, incompetence and mismanagement?

We can stop them from being reelected year after year after year...

July 04, 2005

UC Freeholders Come Bearing Gifts

Two little “gifts” were tucked into my daughter’s report card envelope last week. Actually these were promotional pieces from the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

Each one was approximately 8 X 2 inches and made of thin glossy cardboard. One piece appeared to be intended to pass for a ruler and the other a bookmark. Each of these little full color goodies had the dates, times and locations of the “Kids Kingdom”-Traveling Jubilee and “Family Movies in the Park”. Nice events, providing “free”, and I use the term free loosely because we taxpayers are footing the bill, family entertainment.

Undoubtedly part of the “branding” segment of the county’s marketing plan, the words Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders was emblazoned on each piece no less than three times. Also, taking up a full quarter of the card appeared a listing of the names of all the board members, just in case we forgot who they were. By the way, I determined this by using the handy ruler which is now attached to my fridge door held in place by the Union County magnet they gave me a couple of years back.

Now was all of this really necessary? The only thing missing here was the phrase “We’re connected to you!” At least we were spared that.

Taking a ride around the county it is noticeable that the quaint Union County Park signs which marked the entrances to our public recreation facilities for years have been replaced with what could be called billboards. Huge lettering reminds everyone that the freeholders should be thanked for making our county parks available. To my knowledge we are the only county around to make this announcement in this way. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to read “Paid for by the residents of Union County for the residents of Union County” or something similar.

Most residents are unaware about the county “Public Information Dept.” which is staffed with permanent employees who pump out press releases and pictures of the freeholder’s “good deeds” as well as an outside marketing firm paid for with tax payer money. A quarter million dollars has been paid to Media Squared of New Brunswick since May of 2004 for “professional media consulting services for the marketing of major initiatives and programs, artwork and graphic design”, this is taken from the freeholders resolutions. Seems to me they are getting a little carried away here.

Worthwhile programs, events and good deeds can promote themselves, finding a way into the media with a well written press release and by word of mouth.

County government doesn’t need to continually advertise who they are since there is only one and there is no competition for customers. Last I looked the county clerk’s office is the only place that one can register a deed or a mortgage.

So what gives?

Perhaps it is because they need to remind themselves just how “wonderful” they are. Maybe they should consider printing next to the county levy on residents’ tax bills, “Presented by the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders”, that would certainly make it clear just how much they are really “Connected to You”.

July 01, 2005

P'fielder: 'Our Fight Was the Good One'

One of the grassroot-ers in Plainfield pointed out in an e-mail to the Watchers that my pan of ex-mayor McWilliams didn't do justice to all those who've fought the county machine's grip in that city. My apologies. And since she would know more about her town than I, here is her own take on Plainfield politics:

* * * *

I'm a longtime Plainfield resident who was active in the "New Democrats" beginning in 2003 and I was on the slate in the primary in Mayor McWilliams' re-election campaign. I became more heavily involved in the campaign after the April 6 county committee coup. I know most of the players, though I have never been part of the inner circle.

As much as I enjoyed Sergio's spunky opinion, for those of us with a deeper understanding about what happened here, I want more than his post-election skim that doesn't do justice to Plainfield. In light of the research dapparent in other postings, there is precious little substance for serious people to dig into in order understand everything the primary means -- for Plainfield -- and within Union County.

It's pretty shocking to see years of hard work by dozens of grassroots people written off as simply a "pissing match." The blow we were dealt on June 7 was much more than a mayoral swap. I'm not saying Al was great, but we have suffered under the machine more than most Union County municipalities.

As a mayoral candidate, Sharon Robinson-Briggs (SRB) is far less than an "un-stellar contender." She has a short and poor track record. She has only lived in Plainfield two years and her car is still registered outside the city -- and the county -- in Piscataway. As school board president (a position she lost after the April election) her so-called leadership was marked by fractious meetings that would often go on until the wee hours without solving any problems. She did have one achievement -- giving a contract to Weiner Lesniak to represent the school board.

Sergio's conclusion, "As bad as the machine may be, the alternative isn't always better," only parrots the Courier-News' wafer-thin editorial of a few months ago. That's pretty much how they tossed off as unimportant the unprecedented county committee action stripping duly elected, seated Democrats of our right to "Column A." Many Plainfield residents devoted years of effort to take back our city by successfully unseating, one-by-one, the machine candidates on the city council until we got a majority--just last year. Now even these wins are in jeopardy when the next election cycle comes around.

Want to sink your teeth into the money angle? For starters, George Norcross sent a small pile of cash. The war chest the county amassed paid for a scorched earth, Swift Boat-type of smear campaign that milked class, race and ethnic prejudices for all the venom you can imagine. Neither the mayor's wife, nor the grandchildren of Councilwoman Hollis were immune from whisper campaigns. Postal carriers groaned under the weight of the nearly daily deliveries of vicious full-color attack mailings courtesy of Pat Politano. Phones rang incessantly from practically everyone except Walt Disney barraging voters with automated recordings lauding the county's Column A ticket.

And what's happened since June 7? Well, just last Thursday the machine steamed into Plainfield's Planning Board and shut down all the forward movement in our downtown by a swift motion to table any discussion of development. Digression: Part of McWilliams' fault was being too nice and allowing old machine appointees to remain on various boards. Over the years many of these board members would rarely show up for a meeting, but that was then.

Want to take bets on when development discussions will be reopened? Since there is no real opponent in the general election, my guess is we'll hear about it again on November 9. The way this is rigged I can imagine there will be wet ink on oodles of new contracts before the SRB finishes her oath of office on January 1; so help us, God. 

And then there is tonight -- city council -- the topic is liquor licenses. With Jerry Green and the machine flexing their atrophied muscle the meeting ought to be a barrel of fun.

So thanks for letting me vent. Phew.

Barbara Todd Kerr