January 01, 2007

A County Watcher’s Year in Review

The County Watchers have been publishing this blog since June 2005. Looking back on all that we uncovered in 2006 it is hard to believe that we could accomplish this much work in the year 2007. Although my name gets the credit for the work, it is a team effort made up of dozens of concerned citizens with many professional talents that produce the end product.

In some instances more than one source reported on the following events; I credited the organization that reported the event first.

.....We started off the year 2006 with the county announcing its first hiring freeze in seven years. The county wanted to appear to be trying to stabilize costs as they began work on the 2006-07 budget. This came just three weeks after the freeholders and county manger voted themselves a 5.3 percent pay hike. In April 2006 the County Watchers reported that the county had been hiring employees all along. This was followed up by the Star-Ledger who reported in June that the county hired 41 employees since instituting the freeze.

.....Union County resembled a democracy when over 300 residents stormed a Scotch Plains Zoning Board meeting to protest the county’s plans to lease the Ponderosa Farm property in their town to a children’s petting zoo. The freeholders later recanted their zoo plans and are currently planning the use of the property with residents.

.....The Star-Ledger reported that the county manager in an effort to cut costs traded in his tax-payer funded Suburban for a Durango. The County Watchers later reported that the Durango was actually costing taxpayers more than the Suburban. (On 11/27/06 a 2007 Suburban was purchased for $37,922 we are keeping an eye out for the lucky employee who received that Christmas bonus.)View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The Star-Ledger reported that the county was facing its second lawsuit in five weeks for the death of an inmate who died in custody because of a lack of medical treatment. Aaron Pittman was convicted for drug possession. He died 18 days after he was detained and his medication for Crohn’s disease was confiscated. Another inmate, Donald Davis, died from an untreated stomach infection on Oct. 25, 2005. Davis was arrested and locked up at the Union County Jail for stealing an undershirt from a store in Elizabeth. Five days later, the 44-year-old man from Newark was found dead in his cell, from an untreated stomach infection -- peritonitis. It was also found that a 22 year old prisoner had to have his voice box removed due to a cancer that went untreated. (Management in charge of the jail were given raises in December 2006 and Correction Health Facilities is a steady county pay-to-play contributor. They also donated $5,500 to the Music Fest.)

.....The County Watchers reported that a county employee, who was rumored to be a close friend of the appointed county manager who is Sen. Lesniak's nephew, was let out of jail improperly while serving time in the Union County Jail for a third D.W.I. conviction. The sentencing judge received an anonymous letter informing her of the convict’s freedom. She then had him re-arrested and sent back to jail. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....A law suit is filed against Union County over its recent policy change that requires citizens to submit any and all public records requests on the county's official request form. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....In what was billed as a crash lesson in civic engagement and responsible citizenship, nearly 90 people from across the county attended a March 9 program hosted by the Union County Watchdog Association and presented by the Center for Civic Responsibility.

.....The Star-Ledger reports that a county employee has a police report filed against him for allegedly harassing two women on the campaign trail:
BY JASON JETT Star-Ledger Staff ……..In a lingering issue from last week's school election, Nathalie Yafet has filed a police report about an incident that allegedly occurred outside a polling place at A. P. Morris School. She charged communications director Sebastian D'Elia confronted her and Rowen as they were handing out fliers and persisted at taunting them. "Had they just come there and handed out their flyers, nothing would have happened," said Yafet. "They were sent there to harass us." Yafet said D'Elia accosted her and Rowen, and took pictures without consent of them with an unidentified voter. Hillside Democratic Chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo defended D'Elia. "He is a friend who I sent out to help with a campaign," she said,.......View full text by clicking HERE.

......The County Watchers report on media payouts for 2005. View payouts by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report that the county manager’s mother-in-law had been added to the county payroll as the Assistant to the Foundation Director of Runnells Hospital. Assemblywoman Linda Stender is the Foundation Director.

.....The County Watchers report that a law suit against the County by a former decorated Union County sheriff’s officer is about to be settled. The legal bills alone, stemming from this arrogant and petty case of employee harassment, will cost over 2.5 million dollars. View legal costs by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report that in 2005 millions of tax dollars were spent on Union County phone services. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report on county payroll increases and that 542 county employee’s have the same surnames as elected Democrat officials:
In 2000, 868 employees made over $50,000. Today that number has almost doubled to 1,530 employees. In 2000, 29 employees made over $100,000. Today that number has almost tripled to 74. We find it to be no small coincidence that there are 542 employees who have the same surnames as elected Democrat officials. We can’t say for sure that all these people are related, but we can say for sure that we have no way of knowing how many cousins, in-laws, etc. with different surnames are on the payroll.

.....Trailside museum re-opens after expansion of its building paid for with Open Space Trust Fund monies. The museum installed $1 million worth of exhibits including fiberglass replicas of rocks and trees that can be found in the open space right outside the building’s doors. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The Star-Ledger reports Sheriff Froehlich’s step-son, who is also a county sheriff’s officer, was alleged to have manipulated a county auction and ended up with $150,000 worth of cars for $300. The car dealer sued and won however, as of the December 21, 2006 freeholder meeting, tax-dollars are still being appropriated for this law-suit.

.....The Star-Ledger reports that contaminated soil was dumped in the County’s quarry. Unlike the managers of the prison who were given raises after inmates died and were maimed, the manager of the quarry takes early retirement.

.....The County Watchers reported that a freeholder threatened residents who made comments about the budget at a public meeting:
In his closing comments during last night's public meeting, Freeholder Chester Holmes reminded residents in the audience that “Our chairman here has his attorney sitting next to him. You need to ask yourselves do you have your attorney sitting next to you? You should keep that in mind when you cross the line while addressing this board”. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....North Jersey Media reports New Jersey's motor vehicle agency has launched a probe into how Union County Freeholder Angel Estrada, who is the manager of the Elizabeth office, helped former Attorney General Zulima Farber's boyfriend update his delinquent driving status. (In September the County Watchers report that a MVC employee, who committed a very similar act as Freeholder Estrada’s, was forced to resign and was indicted for helping a fellow employee renew a driver’s license in 2005.)View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report that a sexual harassment lawsuit had been filed against freeholder Rick Proctor. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers also find that Proctor had been involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit five years prior. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The New York Post publishes a study which rates Union County in the top ten counties in the nation for taxation. Despite the taxation madness, the democrat freeholder line manages to win re-election without ever having the word tax printed in their campaign literature or press releases.

.....The County Watchers report that the county forces municipalities to hang their “We’re connected to you!” signs on municipal property when they receive funding back from the Open Space Trust Fund. (At a December 2006 meeting the Summit Town Counsel voted to not hang the county sign on their property.) View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The state's Government Records Council, the official agency which oversees the Open Public Records Act, rules that the Union County Alliance is a public agency and is thereby subject to the provisions of the OPRA. The GRC then postponed their decision due to a technicality. The final decision is now pending. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report that they came across a law suit at the Union County courthouse charging that operators of a Union County Para transit van were oblivious to the fact that a passenger had fallen, or was ejected from the rear door of the van, until approximately one block down the road. The passenger died. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....Worrall Community Newspapers reports that the county ran up a $19,000 tab for employees to attend the National Association of Counties Conference in Chicago. This was up from $16,868 in 2005 when they traveled to the conference in Hawaii. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report that the county received a $104,500 state grant to study the possibilities of consolidating municipal services and they spent over $200,000 on a commercial and a mailer that was sent to every resident informing them that the county recived the grant featuring Freeholder Mirabella, who just happened to be up for reelection just weeks away. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....Dozens of Union County citizens took advantage of free training on using the Open Public Records Act to obtain public documents from their local governments. The free event was sponsored by the Union County Watchdog Association in response to many requests from local residents seeking information on how to utilize the OPRA. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, the state advocacy organization dedicated to open government, provided the training and materials.

.....The County Watchers report that Freeholder Debra Scanlon’s sister was allegedly involved in a $2 million no-bid contract awarded in a business deal that was not conducted in public view. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers capture on video illegal serving of alcohol at the freeholders VIP tent at the Music Fest. (To date the county has not released the catering or alcohol bill for the VIP tent. They also haven't released a detailed list of the 300 VIP's invited to the tent.) View video and full text by clicking HERE.

.....The Star-Ledger reports that a study by the States Pension Division says long-term expenses will top savings and sees county early retiree plan, which was supposedly instated to save money - not to clean house to make room for more patronage, will actually cost taxpayers $9.3M

.....A retired procurement officer submits an in-dept spend analysis of Union County Government to the Freeholders and charges that Union County is well on the road to fiscal disaster and taxpayer revolt. John Marquardt charges “What is needed is a top down change from a "tax and spend" and "business as usual" culture to one that is more disciplined, financially prudent and focused on cost savings.” View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The Union County Prosecutor’s Office tells the freeholders to do a better job of informing the public after a complaint was filed charging Open Public Meetings Act violations by the Union County Watchdog Association. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The Cranford Chronicle reports that a job applicant for a Union County post was asked about his political affiliation and encouraged to "get active" in the Democratic party to improve his chances of being hired. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The County Watchers report that taxpayers picked up $10,510.83 tab for 27 freeholder meeting refreshments in 2006. View full text by clicking HERE.

.....The Westfield Leader reports that legislation was passed late in the evening without public input that would create a 10-year pilot program designed to make one county in NJ a regional school district. Union County was strongly rumored to be selected. Another bill calls for a “super” county school superintendent with local veto powers. This politically appointed individual would have veto power over local school boards. Since the senate did not affirm the assembly vote, these bills have not become law. The legislature is expected to return on January 8th and both of these bills are expected to be posted again for a new vote. At the December 21, 2006 freeholder meeting the county vehemently denied having any knowledge or involvement with the bills. (It was reminiscent to the time when the county freeholders and Assemblyman Cohen vehemently denied having plans to reactive a railroad.)