June 11, 2006

The Freeholders Are Just Eating it Up

There is one thing that the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders does really well. They eat.

Entering the Freeholder meeting room just prior to meetings I have detected the aromas of tomato sauce, pickles and Cantonese cuisine.

Checking into these expenses proved to be quite interesting. The county check register provided the answer not only to “what are they eating in there” but what it cost all of us as well.

On average there are two regular freeholder meetings each month and two agenda planning meetings as well, or roughly 32 meetings each year plus committee meetings and budget hearings. Refreshments are served prior to all of the meetings with the tabs running $260 to $350 a pop.

The 2005 check register clearly contained 19 entries indicating “refreshments for F/H mtg” with establishments such as Costa’s Ristorante, the Red Parrot CafĂ©, Napoli Deli and Michelino’s Pizzeria providing the fare of the day. These 19 meetings cost taxpayers close to $6000, and let’s not forget the check entries that just say meeting but not F/H.

But that’s not all, the Red Parrot catered refreshments for a budget hearing, at $325, the Napoli Deli for $835 for who knows what and during the ‘05 Topoff drills, one group dined at Costa’s for a total of $500.

There is no doubt that our freeholder board likes to put out a healthy spread evidenced by a $1239.56 check for food at the Musicfest in ’05. So far this year they have spent $7,655 on meeting “refreshments." this figure does not include special events or the county coffee services, bagel runs for breakfast meetings or luncheons including “assorted wraps” from Leon’s Catering Service which run in the neighborhood of $400 to $500.

Having been around awhile I do realize that there are usually some perks that come with power, but this is just a bit much. Haven’t these people ever heard of brown bagging it, or better yet, eating at home? There are times when a meeting will run long and in the private sector, the boss occasionally kicks in for dinner for every one usually from the corner sandwich shop.

But it is doubtful that the residents of Union County intend for their hard earned tax dollars to be used to feed the masses on the 6th floor. I say the masses because on agenda nights the department heads are seen coming and going from the private diner party as well.

An on-the-ball county resident recently pointed out that in view of the fact that this is a single political party board and that all nine of the freeholders are generally in attendance as well as the department directors and that they are dining together just prior to the meetings, it stands to reason that they could find themselves discussing what was on the agenda or other matters that are being considered.

Could this activity then be considered a meeting of this governing body, as a quorum is present, and would this than be a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act?

I cannot answer those questions, however I do know that too much money is being spent on these dinners. I also think that the freeholders should be climbing on the “cut the unnecessary expenses" band wagon by starting with themselves and reining in these catering costs.