January 29, 2008

OMG! Who's hooking him up?

Niel Palmieri. The name might not ring a bell but you might recall a Star-Ledger article, way back when the Ledger had a reporter covering Union County, about a county employee who was allowed to rent a county house for $300 a month. The house featured 3 bedrooms, 2 ½ baths, a fireplace and sat on 1.3 acres in Summit. The county paid roughly $10,000 a year in property taxes on the house and Palmieri paid $3,600 a year to live in it. Cost to taxpayers: roughly $6,000 a year.

Out of county residency
Palmieri, who is the division head of building services and had an annual salary in 2007 of $106,162 (up from $66,770 in 2000) has since moved to Monmouth County, against the Laws of Union County which clearly state:

B. It shall be the duty of the appointing authority to ensure that all full-time employees hired after November 10, 1983, are and remain bona fide residents of the County of Union during employment. Failure of any such employee to be a resident of the County of Union prior to employment or to maintain residency in the County of Union during employment shall be cause for removal or discharge from service.

County take-home vehicle
Niel Palmieri is allowed use of a county take home 2002 Ford Explorer. Palmieri’s boss, Joseph Grazziano, does not have use of a county take home vehicle. Palmieri is one of only two employees in his division that have this privilege. The other is Freeholder Dan Sullivan’s brother.

Free gas
Palmieri's county issued 2002 Ford Explorer had the sixth highest fuel consumption among 64 employees with the same privileges in 2007. The other five were law enforcement officers. Palmieri used 1,225.9 gallons of gas at a cost of $2.11 per gallon average to cost taxpayers $2,586.65.

The Laws of Union County has this to say about the county cars:
A. All County cars assigned to those individuals who reside outside of Union County will be restricted to Union County.

H. It shall be the policy of the County of Union that the use of a County-assigned vehicle by an employee shall be limited to official County business, and said vehicle shall not be used for personal purposes with the exception of authorized commuting use to and from the employee's workstation.

Home Internet Service
Out of 2,842 county employees, Niel Palmieri is one of 10 that are currently having their home internet service paid for by the taxpayers. Not even his boss has his home internet service paid for. Heck, four of the 9 freeholders do not have their home internet services paid for! (Side Note: the other five have never returned even one of my email inquiries, if they don't communicate with taxpayers then why are we paying for their toys?). The county manager, deputy county manager, clerk of the board and the Director of Personnel also have taxpayer-funded home internet service. This information did not come easy - but that's another blog.

Palmieri has one.

All of these taxpayer funded privileges, and exceptions to the county’s laws, leaves this watchdog to wondering who Palmieri's BFF is.

This old house at $300 a month - Star-Ledger

Employee vehicles and gas consumption

The Laws of Union County

January 27, 2008

UCPAC Sinkhole

Government can provide a nice living for a lot of people if projects touted as essential keep popping up. In Union County in 2004 it was the reconstruction of the Arts Center in Rahway that became a tax-money MacGuffin.
A former vaudeville and silent movie palace built in 1927 devolved into an X-rated movie house in the 1980s until the appearance of VCRs left it an arts center, which basically means a home to puppet shows that can come up with the rental fees. What most people would have viewed as the next home for a Walgreens the Union County freeholders saw as the first step in making Rahway an entertainment hub. Build a state-of-the-art theater, get Joe Piscopo to open a comedy club, throw around some county money and voila: Branson – East.
But like a prisoner left in solitary for years, the all-Democratic freeholder board seemed to have taken no counsel other than from the voices in their heads. They might have looked at similar venues and dreamed their dreams. The Count Basie theater in Red Bank does well but that’s in the middle of an arts town surrounded by upscale suburbs. Around here you would draw more people from Winfield Park with a tractor pull than the Bolshoi. The John Harms Center in Englewood books about one big event per month and I don’t remember anything at the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth since Raymond Lesniak brought in Ich Troje.
What possessed the decision-makers in Union County to believe that reviving a burlesque theater in the middle of Rahway would be worth the millions of dollars of tax money they were prepared to sink into it? The Worrall papers perceptively editorialized on April 1, 2004: “the taxpayers have enough of a financial burden on their collective plates without having to add this one to it. We know it’s a done deal, we know the transaction will occur, and it will occur despite what anybody says in opposition to it because that’s how the almighty freeholders conduct business – with total disregard to the populace who elected them.”
To this Freeholder Daniel Sullivan responded three weeks later by accusing the paper of “misrepresenting the facts about county government in a very partisan manner to a dwindling subscription base.” After the requisite three insults that all freeholders are obligated to hurl when addressing the public, he moved on to bandy phrases like ‘spur economic development’, ‘investment in the arts’, and ‘new jobs and increased ratables.’ All worthy goals but why a theater, why in Rahway, and why county tax money? You could hire a thousand workers to dig holes or give $300 checks to everybody making under $75,000 and claim many of the same benefits.
The theater just happened to be available. Had a hospital, racetrack, or liquor store been on the block and the freeholders needed to divert money back to their supporters through no-bid contracts we would have had similar paeans to their rehabilitations. Rahway is a Democratic town with a nice tax cow in Merck that allows their local government to play spending games with the county without much voter backlash. If the county did not undertake these development projects there would be little justification for the existence of this layer of government.
So where is the UCPAC today? It will host a stepping competition on February 9, admission $7 and there are 532 of a capacity 876 seats left. Joy Behar will be there on May 3 and an Alan Ayckbourn romantic comedy will have eight performances in February. When you go on ucpac.org and check ticket availability both acts seem to have an unusual number of available front-row center seats with the rest of the house unclickable, possibly to give the impression that you and your date won’t be the only ones in the audience to see Joy Behar and whomever on the freeholder board is up for election this year to introduce her.
So what does this whole episode teach us? That government officials may be able to run strip clubs but not an arts center? That you can’t locate an entertainment complex in Rahway without involving a happy hour?
No. The lesson here is that if you stay silent while self-dealing politicians squander your money on vanity projects then you deserve the tragicomedy that will be played out, not on any UCPAC stage but in the County Administration building.

January 23, 2008

Elizabeth council member mugged & pistol-whipped

Today's Star-Ledger article about an Elizabeth council member being mugged and pistol-whipped around the corner from City Hall reminded me that citizens who attend freeholder meetings aren't allowed to park in the two (2) empty county employee lots.

At the April 19, 2007 meeting of the Board of Union County Democrat Committee Chosen Freeholders I made a public comment about the public not being made to feel welcome at county public meetings. You can view it on our Veotag account HERE.

Freeholder Sullivan either ignored or didn't comprehend anything I said and during his closing comments (freeholders never respond to you when you are at the microphone and can defend yourself) the bully went on a rant about Elizabeth being a safe place for people to visit and further proved my point that citizen input isn’t welcome.

Safe for whom I wondered? For Freeholder Sullivan who drives from his house in Elmora, which is the safest neighborhood in Elizabeth due to the fact that all the Elizabeth politicians live there, and then parks his car underneath the County administration building? His feet never touch the streets in Elizabeth where violence is reported daily.

You can see Sullivan's rant on our Veotag account HERE.

I personally feel safe attending freeholder meetings. However, Elizabeth is a very intimidating place to many people across the county. There is no parking on the street outside of the administration building. There is parking a block away and around the corner, which you will have to find yourself, and then you will have to walk the dimly lighted streets with no security around. The extensive security staff is all inside the administration building, protecting the administration.

Couple this with the fact that citizens are routinely harassed by freeholders, after making public comments and at best are ignored by them, and you get a government that isn’t anywhere near a welcoming neighborhood “of the people”.

While exercising my First Amendment right to freedom of speech, I was removed from meetings by the county police three (3) times in 2007. I will stay true to form in 2008 and defy tyranny while being removed from meetings as often as necessary.

Freeholder Sullivan stayed true to form on April 19th and during his closing comments he didn’t address the fact that the county website was listing the wrong directions, or that the public has no where close by to park despite there being empty county employee parking in abundance all around the building. Instead he ignored all the issues I raised and harassed me for making these comments.

Freeholder Sullivan ranted “I am highly offended by Mrs. Renna’s comments about Elizabeth isn’t safe! You are all safe here in Elizabeth!”.

Sullivan should send his comments to union@starledger.com

Elizabeth council member mugged
School principal pistol-whipped

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff

An Elizabeth city councilman and school principal was robbed at gunpoint and pistol-whipped around the corner from City Hall last weekend after a night out with teachers from his school.
Frank Cuesta, a councilman at large and the principal of Elizabeth's Alexander Hamilton Middle School, suffered fractures to his skull and right eye socket during the attack, which occurred on Dickinson Street around 1 a.m. Saturday, he said yesterday.
Cuesta was also robbed of his wallet, keys, credit cards and $1,000 in cash by the unidentified mugger, according to the police report.
"It's been a very traumatic experience," said Cuesta, 54. "From what my friends tell me, I'm just lucky to be alive."
About 65 staff members from Hamilton Middle School gathered after work Friday at the Sun Tavern in Roselle Park, Cuesta said, as part of a social outing he had organized to "build morale and rela tionships" at the school. After leaving the Sun Tavern, Cuesta and several of his colleagues made their way to Dolce, a popular restaurant and lounge on Broad Street in midtown Elizabeth.
Around 1 a.m., Cuesta left the restaurant to walk one of his teachers to her car. The teacher, a 25-year-old Parsippany woman, was taking her pocketbook out of the car's trunk when a man in a hooded sweatshirt walked out of the nearby alley. He walked up behind Cuesta, put a black handgun to the side of his head and demanded money, the police report said.
After Cuesta handed over his wallet, keys and cash, the mugger struck him in the temple with his gun.
"It happened so fast. Before I knew it, he struck me in the head and I guess I went down," Cuesta said.
The mugger then turned his attention to the teacher, who had locked herself inside her car to call 911. After tapping on her car window with his gun, the man got into another car that was waiting nearby and drove off, the report said. The teacher was not injured.
Cuesta was taken to Trinitas Hospital, where he was treated and released later that morning. He said doctors expect him to make a full recovery without surgery.
Meanwhile, police are searching for his attacker, who was last seen riding east on Dickinson Street. Detectives are hoping that at least one of several private surveillance cameras posted near the scene will help identify the mugger and his getaway car, said police spokesman, Sgt. Stephen Negrey.
Jonathan Casiano may be reached at (908) 527-4012 or jcasia no@starledger.com.

January 16, 2008

Waiting on the A.G. in UC

In the Lobby reports today:
Hot off the press!

WAITING ON THE A.G.: Rumors are rampant that the state probe into Union County politics may have widespread political implications; there’s tremendous angst among politicos waiting for the multiple shoes to drop. We hear that the case may also include no-show jobs. (1/16/08)

January 09, 2008

A Victory for Democracy

Ballots that were signed by Roselle Councilman Jamel Holey

APPELLATE DIVISION UPHOLDS DANSEREAU VICTORY IN ROSELLE ELECTION! Cites "rampant statutory violations" of the handling of absentee ballots by Roselle Councilman Jamel Holley and other members of the Bullock campaign

The players:

Judge John Malone former Democrat Chairman, whose wife works for Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage was originally assigned to the case and threw it out. He claimed Dansereau’s argument was “convoluted, contradictory and confusing.” A Superior Court appellate panel, reversed Judge Malone’s decision to dismiss the case. They ruled that Malone was too narrow and restrictive in his view of the law in dismissing the matter.

Jamel Holley admitted there were "minor procedural issues" with the way some of the ballots were collected, but at the time, contended they should not have been invalidated. "In some instances, people left it for me to pick up. You don't invalidate someone's vote because of something minor like that," Holley said. Worrall Community Newspapers 1/9/08

"I won fair and square," "Sometimes disappointment hurts. She (Dansereau) needs to do something positive for the community." Said Rosemary Bullock immediately after the election. The Star-Ledger

"This is a victory less for me, and more for the people," says Councilwoman Christine Dansereau. "It is a victory for democracy." 1/8/08

January 8, 2008
Contact: Renée Steinhagen, Executive Director, New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, 973-735-0523/ Diana H. Jeffrey, Esq. Director of Government Accountability Program, 973-981-5862

Roselle, NJ - The Appellate Division issued an opinion today affirming a lower court's ruling that "improprieties" on the part of Rosemarie Bullock's campaign workers necessitated the invalidation of 31 absentee ballots cast for Bullock in the 2006 primary for the Borough of Roselle's 5th Ward council seat. Those invalidated ballots voided Bullock's victory, resulting in Christine Dansereau emerging as the winner of the primary. After Bullock filed an unsuccessful emergent appeal of that decision, Dansereau went on to win in the general election. Bullock then appealed the lower court's decision, asking the court to reverse the lower court's ruling, install her as the winner and/or invalidate the election results and hold a special election.

The appellate court upheld the trial court's finding that there was extensive mishandling of absentee ballots by Bullock campaign workers. Stating that "It is clear the statutory requirements for voting a valid absentee ballot were not followed here, and the deficiencies were more than the technical violations," the court went on to describe the various ways in which Bullock campaign workers' activities violated election laws. "The record is rampant as to the statutory violations," writes the court, pointing to evidence of Bullock campaign workers in some instances appearing to have cast the ballot for the voter; and in many other instances, carrying unsealed voter materials outside of the voter's presence. Testimony of the "haphazard manner of delivery of the absentee ballots pervaded the trial," says the court, describing for instance how some voters testified that they had never met Roselle Councilman Jamal Holley or did not know who he was, but his name appeared as the bearer of their absentee ballots. "The majority of the voters had no idea how their ballots ultimately got to the Election Board. . .somehow, their ballots ended up at the Board, twenty-three of them signed by Holley."

The court rejected Bullock's argument that the trial court lacked sufficient evidence to rule that the invalidated absentee ballots had been cast for Bullock. Citing the "extensive testimony of the direct involvement of other Bullock campaign workers throughout the voting process of these invalidated absentee ballots," the court ruled that "The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming that the absentee voters whose ballots were invalidated by the court cast ballots for Bullock. Given the evidence of the vigorous pursuit of absentee voters by the Bullock campaign and the skewed numbers in the overall absentee count in favor of Bullock, that most likely was a valid conclusion."

"This is a victory less for me, and more for the people," says Councilwoman Christine Dansereau. "It is a victory for democracy."

"This ruling serves as an unambiguous shot across the bow to campaign workers everywhere. Illegal election schemes like this one undermine our guarantee of free and fair elections." says NJ Appleseed's Director of Government Accountability Programs Diana H. Jeffrey, Esq., "The clear victors today are the people of Roselle."

For more information, contact Renée Steinhagen, Executive Director of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center at: New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, 973-735-0523, rsteinhagen@lawsuites.net, www.njappleseed.net, or Diana H. Jeffrey, Esq., Director of Government Accountability Program, 973-981-5862, DHJeffreypilc@aol.com.

January 05, 2008

Pay to Play - MusicFest 2007

Pay to Play, the practice of companies making monetary contributions to political parties, usually the one in power and being awarded lucrative professional contracts seemingly in return, is one of those outrageous situations that Gov. Jon Conzine promised he would tackle during his tenure.

Though legislation has been attempted on more than one occasion over the past couple of years what has resulted has been watered down and containing loopholes. Interestingly the principal players have managed to find some intriguing ways to discreetly continue to do what they always have been doing.

Reviewing the list of “sponsors”, obtained through OPRA, for the Freeholders so called free concert for county residents, MusicFest 2007 proved to be a veritable who’s who of the county’s vendor list.

Case in point:
  • In 1998 the Westfield Leader reported that the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded a $3.4 million contract to Correctional Health Services, Inc. of Verona, to provide health services to inmates at the County Jail and detainees at the county’s juvenile detention center, they would be helping the county switch from public to private management of the two facilities.
  • Citing reports of other counties utilizing CHS then County Manager Michael Lapolla predicted the savings would be at least $350,000 over the following two years. Union County has awarded contracts to CHS since that time to provide medical/health care services at the jail, detention center and also the children’s shelter, for the term of January 2004 thru December 2006 at a cost not to exceed $3.6mil for yr. 1, $3.7mil for yr. 2 and $3,968,940 for 2006.
  • According to reports filed with NJ Elec., Correctional Health Services, Inc. of Verona had awarded contributions to the Union County Democratic Committee in excess of $60,000 for the period from Sept. ’98 thru October’04.
  • Double checking the NJ Elec website showed that indeed, the last contribution to the UCDC was in October of 2004 however lo and behold Correctional Health Services pops up as a MusicFest sponsor to the tune of $5,500.
  • Coincidentially just this month the all Democratic Freeholder board authorized the County Manager to enter into a month-to-month contract with Correctional Health Services, Inc., Verona, New Jersey, to provide medical/health care services for inmates and residents of the Union County Jail and the Juvenile Detention Center for the period of January 1, 2008 through June 30, 2008 in the amount of $2,249,373.

Some other MusicFest sponsors doing business/having done business with the county include: Schoor DePalma Engineers, Pennoni Engineers, 4 Connections, Maser Engineers, Waste Management, Ricci Green Architects, Access Systems and Spruce Industries who contributed a combined $35,500 to the event thus giving the incumbents an actual stage to appear on before thousands of county residents without them having to spend a single campaign dollar.

January 03, 2008

Meeting recording turns up

Last Friday the UCWA asked the Union County Prosecutor to investigate why a copy of the Dec. 20th freeholder meeting wasn't available through the Open Public Records Act. We also sent a press release to local media.

The County Clerk's office sent the following email yesterday:

Dear Mrs. Renna,
This e-mail is a follow-up relative to your OPRA request of December 21, 2007 for a DVD copy (VHS if DVD not available) of the 12/20/07 Freeholder meeting. Please be advised that the response form I faxed to you on December 28, 2007 stating "No recording to provide", was inaccurate. A VHS tape is in fact available and the cost to purchase same is $15.00.
Please accept my apologies for the error. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Office of the County Manager
Union County Administration Building, 6th Fl.
10 Elizabethtown Plaza
Elizabeth, NJ 07207


Meeting can be viewed HERE