July 16, 2006

Where (and What) in the World is the County Public Information Officer?

The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders has an official spokesperson holed up in the county administration building in Elizabeth, the seat of Union County Government.

According to the county Web site, this “office disseminates information regarding County Government operations to the general public and acts as a liaison for media inquiries regarding the actives of the Freeholders and various departments of County Government." www.unioncountynj.org

Well that certainly sounds extremely important, but oddly this office does not have its own budget and probing over the past several years has revealed that no one is quite sure how many people the office employs and who they are.

One thing for certain is that the guy in charge is listed on the county payroll records as Confidential Aide/Director of Public Information, working out of the Office of the Clerk of the Board and earning $99,533 per year.

The County Public Information Dept. churns out press releases by the dozens primarily extolling the “good works” of the freeholder board and announcing upcoming events, such as the so called free concerts in the parks series.

But this department's most important duty is to provide “damage control” to keep the freeholders looking good in the eyes of the citizenry.

Events such as the recent dumping of contaminated soil on county property and the passage by the freeholders of the county’s $400 million plus budget requiring a 4.8 percent increase in the tax levy on property owners are skillfully spun to either cast a positive light on or portray the freeholders as hapless victims of extenuating circumstances.

Whenever a freeholder is around it is a sure bet that the “PIO” will be there, joined at the hip.

It is no secret that he is compensated handsomely for his duties as a political worker for the UC Democratic Committee, as well as campaigns for specific party members; this is borne out by filings with NJ ELEC and can be accessed on the state’s Web site.

All of the aforementioned begs the question: just where do this “PIO’s” official duties end and where do his personal political ones begin?

County employees, it has been repeatedly suggested, are encouraged to do volunteer work for the party and support party fund raising efforts. When a single party administration is ensconced for a number of years one has to conclude that the line of demarcation could easily become blurred.

There is no argument that he is entitled to do what he wishes for whoever he wishes on his personal time. However, government employees holding positions which have the level of responsibility and status that he enjoys must be especially mindful to avoid all appearances of any conflict of interest or breach of ethics.

These employees must fully understand exactly where their work day starts and their personal life begins being careful in both their job performance and their attitude not allowing the two to become one and the same.

The Office of Public Information costs the taxpayers hundreds and thousands of tax dollars every year and it seems to me that it has become simply a vehicle to make everyone inm charge feel good and look good rather than to disperse useful information to the public in a courteous manner upon request.