April 28, 2006

Renna: County Taxes, Employees Out of Control

Public Comment to the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders April 27, 2006
Tina Renna, President, Union County Watchdog Association, Inc.

In his inaugural address, Gov. Jon Corzine said ethics reform is his top priority.

Corzine then asked for the resignations of 463 political employees. Many were public information officers.

Your budget and our taxes are about to increase again without one county job, raise or perk turned in. You certainly didn’t cut back on your mailings and TV commercials at election time in 2005, which cost the taxpayers over three hundred thousand dollars and resulted in ELEC complaints being filed against the democrat freeholder campaign, which are still pending.

The ELEC complaint didn’t keep you from continuing this abuse of the public trust into 2006 as is evidenced in Freeholder Al Mirabella’s recent mailing in Berkeley Heights which cost $630.00 for postage. You claim that there was no cost for printing this piece because it was done in house by the county. You’ve claimed this with most of your past mailings. You’ve also claimed this about a billboard sized portrait of the freeholders which is on your public information van. This portrait was changed several times in 2004 when freeholders were replaced right before the election.

Like Corzine, the county should first cut costs by making ethics reform a top priority and cut your public information department. It is this department’s job to inform the public about county services, yet they won’t inform the taxpayers about their own departmental costs which ultimately deflects money away from other services.

These employees were frequently on the campaign trail in recent years during and after business hours, as well as on the ELEC reports as getting paid as much as $1,250 for get-out-the-vote efforts.

When I asked for the budget of this department I was told it would take forensic accounting and the county would charge me $30 an hour for the service, which in the end the number would be the best guess of the department’s head.

We have a county government that has a public information machine that apparently exists to keep information away from the public and disengage them from participating in keeping an eye on county government.

There are nine freeholders yet they churn out press releases featuring only the three freeholders and other incumbent elected officials who are up for reelection, as can be found on the county Web site - as well as produce the 30-minute infomercial called 'Freeholder Forum' which usually stars a campaigning freeholder. I have statistically proven, going on 4 years now, that this practice is true.

This department appears to be an in-house campaign staff.

Speaking of campaigning, you have also refused to give a full accounting of the long-standing no-bid contract with the firm Media Squared, Inc. The county has been awarding the same $72,000 annual contract for creative consulting services for at least eight years, as well as paid millions of dollars for the actual work they produced in the form of marketing pieces and commercials which are released mostly during the campaign season. Several of these mailers, also resulted in ELEC complaints being filed against the democrat freeholder campaign in 2005 and are still pending.

MediaSquared has also done work for the freeholders' campaign, which is no wonder that the taxpayer-funded pieces look exactly like the campaign pieces sent out by the Democrat freeholder candidates. A recipient would have to look very closely to tell if the message was coming from their county government or from a campaign committee. Taxpayers have to wonder if the freeholders are getting their campaign work produced at a reduced fee by this firm because the taxpayers are paying them $6,000 a month for unspecified consulting work.

Documents obtained through OPRA have shown no description of these creative consulting services. A proposal dated March 9, 2005, consists of just four short paragraphs which Freeholder Chairman Rick Proctor states that this no-bid contract was awarded for monthly creative consulting.

Another document states "The services to be offered by MediaSquared, Inc., are based on the extensive involvement with the County of Union in the planning and development of a marketing plan for the county. An OPRA request for the marketing plan mentioned was returned "document does not exist."

I would doubt that even a major corporation could award a $72,000 no-bid contract for creative consulting services without a concrete marketing plan, proposal or contract specifically outlining what the company could expect for their money. The Union County taxpayers deserve to know exactly what the county is being consulted about for $6,000 a month. Perhaps there is a crumb of advice in there that would benefit a local business.

MediaSquared states in a certification: "This firm specializes in assisting government sector organizations like yours explain the process of government to its constituencies and make public services more readily accessible to the people who need them the most."

What the constituency needs explained by Union County government is this $72,000 annual creative consulting service as well as the costs of the Public Information Department. You should also cut out the three hundred thousand plus per year taxpayer-funded campaign pieces.

I am submitting for the public record testimonials from county residents regarding the behavior of your public information department. Some of which accuse this department of outright harassment. I myself have been a victim of this harassment on two occasions. Both were witnessed. The head of this department has a salary and benefits package of well of one hundred thousand dollars. This is an administrative salary and would be considered conduct unbecoming of an officer in the private sector. Also attached is an email from seb D’Elia to a Ledger reporter in which he states absolute lies about my quests for public information.

It is disingenuous to call this department ‘Public Information’. If you truly wanted the public informed and engaged you would:

• Release and post meeting agendas on your website at least 48 prior to a meeting. Post meeting minutes in a timely fashion, as the Union County Watchdog Association has been doing for you.

• Release Video tapes of freeholder meetings to the public access cable stations as they’ve been in the past. Freeholder Angel Estrada was quoted in a Westfield Leader article in August 2005 as having said that the reason they don’t release VHS tapes to be aired on cable any longer is because of the poor quality of the recordings of the meetings. If the freeholders can tape their freeholder forum and not only release it to the public, but advertise the show on the county website, then there is no excuse for not taping freeholder meetings. I’ve acquired 3 VHS tapes of freeholder meetings through OPRA. They are all of excellent quality. Bruce Paterson especially comes across clearly in every one.

• Public Information would include a system for the public to actually get information. Freeholders do not answer questions at meetings, emails to the info address on your website are returned with instructions to place an OPRA request and a long list of excuses as to why the county finances are a mess; If a question can’t be answed with a document than it isn’t answered. It is inexcusable to have a huge Public Information Department yet residents can’t have questions answered. Some questions of mine that have not been answered:

• The Public Information Departments budget
• Why there is a hand check registry and why it has not been presented when I asked for “the check registry”
• Why are county employees who no longer in your employ still listed on the county employee list? Does this mean that new employees aren’t listed? Does this list reflect all raises?
• How many third time D.W.I. prisoners were released from the county jail without permission of their sentencing judge? Did a county employee receive special treatment this past summer by being allowed to go home on a wristlet program? Why was this county employee held in the medial department of the jail yet two prisoners recently suffered very preventable deaths because they couldn’t get medical attention? Another 22 year old prisoner had to have his voice box removed because his cancer went untreated.
• A full accounting of the long-standing no-bid contract with the firm Media Squared, Inc. The county has been awarding the same $72,000 annual contract for creative consulting services for at least eight years, as well as paid millions of dollars for the actual work they produced in the form of marketing pieces and commercials which are released mostly during the campaign season. Several of these mailers, as well as the commercial and some letters produced by the PI department, resulted in ELEC complaints being filed by the Republican challengers in 2005.

All of these questions reflect on your budget and the resident’s tax burden. The fact that you will not answer to them shows you are not committed to providing the public with ‘true’ information just propaganda.

Reigning in all of the above abuses of the public trust would no doubt result in at least a $1.5 million reduction in the budget and restore some integrity to Union County government.

All freeholder seats are at-large and it is a fact that you do not win elections in the majority of the towns. On average you are elected by just 21 percent of the voting public. Most people don’t vote for you, you win because most people are disenfranchised and don’t vote at all. In this respect your office of public information has been very successful. You have disengaged the public which results in a 9-0 democrat lock on this board and our taxes spinning out of control.