February 26, 2008

Questioning County Government

You might well be reading an article on the Open Space Trust Fund, or at least glancing past a headline with the words ‘Slush Fund’ punned, had I gotten the freeholders’ perspective. This fund takes money from Union County taxpayers so the freeholders can dole it back to favored municipalities or for pet projects. To get balance for the article I went to a recent freeholder meeting and wanted to know what the board members considered to be the major accomplishments of this fund.

Comment time came and I posed my question succinctly with a good four and a half minutes allocated for their answers. I did not get any. Freeholder Chairman Estrada informed me that this was my time. I could speak for up to five minutes as long as I didn’t curse or insult the freeholders or wasn’t Tina Renna. This seemed pointless to me as I could just as easily have gone outside and chatted with the odd passerby outside the UC Administration building to greater effect.

Was this normal? Are we not supposed to question county government? I had to know so I asked, though not at any county meeting, of course. If they do not answer questions then going up there and saying the words: “do you ask questions?” ran the risk of reenacting a Beckett play without the dialogue and we might all still have been there if they didn’t happen to have a time limit. Instead, I went to 21 county websites and posed the question. Here is how a sampling of counties in New Jersey handle comment time.

Most open their meetings to the public first on only agenda items scheduled for that meeting and then on any topic. Some counties (Mercer, Warren. Burlington and Cumberland) begin their meetings with public comments. This allows the public who usually show up on time to give their input and skip whatever ceremonies or routine matters fill out the program if they wish. Contrast that to a recent Union County meeting I attended where, to discuss personnel matters, the freeholders went into executive session for well over an hour as the press (one guy from the Westfield Leader) and three civilians chatted amongst ourselves waiting for public comment time. What could the freeholders have been thinking? This was the equivalent of putting prisoners together to give them time to plan their next caper.

Of those counties that answered, a majority had a time limit on speakers. Only Cumberland, Warren, and Mercer had no time limit. Most common was 5 minutes but Monmouth and Gloucester indicated it was flexible and in Morris County “rarely enforced.” In Hunterdon the ‘new Director of the Board does not feel there should be a limit” though past Board Directors “have set a limit of 5 minutes per person.” Passaic has “a 3 minute limit that is strictly enforced. Questions may be asked and they are addressed at the end of the public portion. There are no questions from the public and answers from the Freeholder while the person is at the podium.”

Most county websites responding answered that questions were allowed at public meetings and presumably would be answered. Perhaps the 9 counties who did not respond by email, or phone like Bergen did, also do not respond to questions at their meetings. We may never know.

And what about Union County? They answered in their uniquely terse manner: “Questions are allowed, time limit is 5 minutes.”

Maybe Chairman Estrada didn’t get the memo at the time I took to the podium. Maybe they changed their policy after some soul-searching. Maybe whoever responded for the county somehow avoids being a seat-filler at freeholder meetings and only knows what official and not actual policy is. We might never know and I just don’t feel like asking.

February 24, 2008

Maybe Voters Should Stand-up to be Counted

The ability to participate in electing government leadership is perhaps an Americans single most precious privilege which has distinguished us from other nations around the world. At election time we are reminded frequently how every single vote counts and can make a difference, which of course is true. However this week the saga of the troubled electronic voting machines continues to make the news and perhaps voters should speak-up and request paper and pencils be provided instead for the next go round.

NJ Attorney General Anne Milgram said that NJ will miss another deadline to retrofit the Sequoia Voting machines with paper printers, intended to allow voters to see a paper record of their ballot selections. It seems that testing of the machines with the new apparatus has been delayed, once again and it will not be possible to have the equipment voter ready for the June 3rd primary.

Meanwhile back at the Union County Ranch, in a Star Ledger article on 2/20/08, Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi tells of the difficulty she had in verifying returns in the recent presidential primary, it seems that the numbers on some of the Sequoias just didn’t jibe. Rajoppi learned that similar problems existed in Bergen, Gloucester, Middlesex and Ocean Counties.

Further it has also been reported that Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes, in a letter to the state attorney general voiced his concerns regarding discrepancies as well when problems with the numbers cropped up in 30 of the county’s 600 Sequoia Voting Systems machines. Sequoia called the discrepancy “an anomaly” and they suspect a corrupted computer chip to be the culprit. However, when it comes to voting there is not any room for anomalies or corrupted computer chips or excuses for any kind of malfunction.

Quite frankly Sequoia’s attitude seemed rather cavalier which come to think of it doesn’t appear to be anything new. In 2006 a company representative referred to machine problems in CA, WA, FL and NM as “minor glitches” and “extremely minor if they exist at all” this according to an article in the Rocky Mountain News regarding the Denver City Council purchasing Sequoias and the quandary that Essex County, NJ faced regarding their order for the same electronic voting machines. . http://www.votetrustusa.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1326&Itemid=51

Voter’s rights activists here in New Jersey appeared before a Mercer County assignment judge in Feb. of ’07 in an attempt to have all 10,000 of New Jersey’s electronic voting machines withheld from use. The Judge told state officials to start making backup plans to replace Sequoia electronic voting machines used by 18 of 21 counties if they cannot be equipped with paper printers by the start of 2008, which would have been in time for the recent presidential primary.

The lawyer for the group, Penny M. Venetis cited the research work of Princeton University computer science professor, Andrew W. Appel, who had purchased 5 electronic voting machines off the internet for a total of $82. Mr. Appel is an expert in computer security and said that a more secure voting system would have a separate paper ballot that could be verified by voters. One of Mr. Appel’s students was able to open up a machine in about seven seconds with a screwdriver and after having studied the software Appel said that someone with a bachelor’s degree in computer science could subvert it in about 10 minutes. Click here to read Appel’s article, “How I bought used voting machines on the Internet” in its entirety http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~appel/avc/

Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software Inc, is a recognized expert in computer security, especially in electronic voting, says that the machines are not flawless. She says that the electronic voting machines cannot be audited even with paper printouts. "I can teach my first-year students how to show one thing on the screen, print something else on the paper tape, and record something different on the computer disk," Mercuri said. One than has to wonder if pursuing this avenue is really worth the effort.

We hear that at the latest meeting of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders Joanne Rajoppi was praised by some to almost heroic status for being able to notice the discrepancy, but hey, she was doing the job that she is paid handsomely to do and was elected to do. The residents of Union County count on her to keep the county’s records and keep them accurately which admittedly she does. Sequoia insists that their machines problems have no bearing on the vote tallies for each candidate, but it seems that from her reaction to the incidents Rajoppi finds little comfort in their assurances.

Call in the Experts -
Because this is a state wide problem the attorney general is dealing with Sequoia but perhaps the Freeholder Board along with administrations of the other counties need to exert some public pressure on the situation. To be realistic, how can Sequoia retrofit these voting machines with printers to produce a paper trail when they are not able to produce the technology to build a machine which engenders trust from the voters when they are casting their ballots? Sequoia, to be sure, will never willingly throw up their hands and cry uncle as there are really big bucks on the line. But, since voting machines are a far cry from ATM machines might I suggest that they, Sequoia, consult with the good folks at Nintendo who have successfully mastered the world of interactive technology.

February 21, 2008

Board heads back to TV - For real this time

500 and 99 yesterdays ago .....

On July 7, 2006 Senator Raymond Lesniak’s nephew, who is the appointed Union County Manager, was quoted in a Star-Ledger article headlined “Board Heads back to TV” .... “This investment in our sound system, PA and taping system will ensure that the public, our constituents and all entities that do business with the county will continue to receive information about our meetings in a timely and accurate manner,” County Manager George Devanney said yesterday....

The article went on to quote me as the President of the Union County Watchdog Association “…$78,000 seemed like an extraordinary amount to pay for new equipment .... “For 80,000 she said, “I would hope they would be Webcasting meetings too." .... “Actually, the county is looking into that” said Delia (county public information officer).

The county replaced their equipment in 2006 but they never distributed the meetings to the local cable stations, nor did they ever Webcast their meetings. The bills the UCWA eventually obtained through OPRA show the county spent $110,000 for the new equipment.

The UCWA has been Webcasting freeholder meetings as well as county budget hearings since January 2007.

One 2008 Union County Watchdog Association initiative is to have freeholder meetings broadcast on the local cable channels. Many towns have already moved to request these meetings and will begin to air them shortly.

Channel 26 programming is controlled by Comcast and is broadcast to most Union County towns. The UCWA will routinely request the meeting tape from the county through OPRA (pay $15.00 for it) and drop it to Comcast. The Dec. 20 meeting will be the first (the one the county claimed didn’t exist until the UCWA asked the Prosecutor’s office to investigate) it will be aired on February 28th @ 9:30 pm.

Things that make you go Hmmm.....

In response to the UCWA’s recent efforts to return freeholder meetings to the public cable viewing audiences throughout Union County the county’s extensive office of public information has revamped their efforts to distribute the freeholders taxpayer funded infomercial and have begun dropping off their ½ hour "Freeholder Forum" shows to cable stations – BUT not their meeting recordings.

The county has been promoting this show, which usually features a freeholder who is up for re-election, steadily on their website since approximately a million yesterdays ago.


Freeholder meetings are avialalbe on the UCWA Veotag account

Board heads back to TV - Star Ledger 7/7/06

Freeholder Forum Show county website promotion

County Watchers "What were they trying to keep from you?"

February 17, 2008

"THERE THEY GO AGAIN" Revised Employee Numbers

County Manager George Devanney proposed his 2008 Exec. Budget to the Board of Chosen Freeholders last week. His $436.8 Mil spending plan called for raising county taxes 6.5% or $22 mil over last year. It is a sure bet that had he been around the late President Ronald Reagan would have greeted this announcement by shaking his head gently while saying “There they go again.”

2008 marks the eighth consecutive year that the county operating budget has been increased and while daily spending was just a tad under $1 Mil in 2004 with this proposed budget we are now talking about $1.357Mil a day in just 4 years time. Ask yourself what do you see for this kind of money, what services do you receive that justifies this kind of spending?

A Star Ledger article appearing on Wednesday, January 24, 2007 reported that an increase of 5.7% was to be laid on the backs of the tax payers in ‘07or the county would have to cut programs that were popular with the county residents. Devanney specifically cited: Meals on Wheels, a prescription drug program and concerts in the parks, this was very odd as seniors contribute to the cost of their meals, the prescription drug program is paid for by the participants and the concerts, according to county officials are funded by sponsors. How did these items impact the budget?

The article also went on to report that the Freeholders hoped to trim about 50 positions from the county’s work force of almost 3,000 employees, but not thru layoffs. Instead the positions would be left vacant after resignations and retirements. But according to county employee records, obtained thru OPRA and presented on Excel Spreadsheets, in 2007 there were a total of 3112 employees http://unioncountywatchdog.org/docs/2007UCEmployeeList.xls (note this list list does not include 269 Seasonal employees) with 2008 showing 3,289 employees http://unioncountywatchdog.org/docs/2008UCEmployeeList.XLS. (list includes seasonal employees) Now after the recent UC jail debacle they are hiring 51 new corrections officers which it appears will put the number of employees well over 3,300.
Is it any wonder that the costs of medical insurance and pension contributions have soared but what of the early retirement packages offered in 2006 and 2007 that were intended to cut the payroll budget? (It appears that there are 177 more employees in 2008 than 2007 not to include the 51 potential new hires.)

Is it any wonder that the costs of medical insurance and pension contributions have soared but what of the early retirement packages offered in 2006 and 2007 that were intended to cut the payroll budget? It almost appears that 2 workers were hired to replace each that left the ranks so where are the savings?

Also impacting the county budget is the county run Runnells Hospital that has only operated in the black one year out of the last 17 years. This facility is nothing more than a money pit which has been given more than ample time to prove its worth. The time has come for the county to rid itself of this albatross from the resident’s necks and either privatize its operation perhaps on a trial basis or just sell it outright and stop the bleeding.

The story changes little from year to year with the Freeholders and the County Manager blaming everyone and every thing but themselves for what will be a cumulative tax increase of over 60% since the year 2000. County government keeps growing every year, as shown by the numbers that they continue to employ.

Then of course there is their unwillingness to admit that perhaps Runnells should be cut from the county portfolio rather than to continue to throw good money after bad. We will have to wait and see what the upcoming budget hearings will bring but it is a pretty safe bet based on their past performance that when the residents receive their tax bills for 2008 they will be saying “There they go again.”

February 10, 2008

What were they trying to keep from you?

Earlier we reported that after the county claimed that the Dec. 20th freeholder meeting wasn’t recorded, despite the camera’s visably rolling, the UCWA issued a press release and asked the prosecutor’s office to investigate. The county then changed their script and the Clerk emailed “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 ….”

What were they trying to keep from you?

See for yourself at our Veotag account HERE.

February 07, 2008

Addendum - Keywood Strategies

Angie - Where Have You Gone???
Within 24hrs of posting my last blog about Ms. Angie Devanney’s “new” business venture her website seems to have encountered technical difficulties and can no longer be accessed from the link provided in the blog below, that is too bad. Since inquiring minds want to know what the site contained; readers can just click here http://unioncountywatchdog.org/docs/Kewood.pdf as the contents were saved in a PDF format shortly after the original blog was posted.

February 02, 2008

Keywood Strategies - Angie Devanney Principal

The website reads “Navigating you to succeed”, Keywood Strategies, Berkeley Heights, NJ. Keywood Strategies has a proven record of rezoning, planning, and managing key projects by navigating the local governing body, Planning Board, Board of Adjustment or State regulatory process. Westin Hotel, The Connell Companies and Summit Medical Group are among those business interests listed as having received assistance from the principal of Keywood Strategies LLC, Angie D. Devanney.

Until recently Angela Devanney was the Township Administrator of Berkeley Heights, a position she held since 2005 upon leaving her employment with Union County Government where she served as the Administrator of the Union County Open Space and Historic Preservation Trust Fund.

In an interview with “The Alternative Press”, an online newspaper for residents of Summit, Berkeley Heights and New Providence, Ms Devanney cites the personal health scares faced by her and her husband, Union County Manager George Devanney and a desire to spend more time with her young son as her reasons for resigning her Berkeley Heights post. In the article Devanney said she had already been thinking about starting her own business and declined to reveal what she would be doing next but said it would be something done on a consulting basis. She is quoted as saying “I’m going to leave the details out for now.”

Why Angie was leaving the details out is a bit puzzling but perhaps she is as confused as the rest of us as the information about her on the Keywood Strategies website’s About Us/Home page (which is just about Angie) is a bit of a stretch.

The Keywood Site Says:

Angie formed Keywood Strategies, LLC in 2001 and remains the principal.

§ Before launching her own company, Angie also served as the Union County Trust Fund Administrator acquiring over 100 acres of open space 7 years ahead of schedule. Responsible for over $130 million dollars dedicated from a special tax, she also worked closely with Green Acres and wrote the grant applications that yielded millions of dollars in acquisition grants. As a result, Union County was able to add several new parks, expand the Trailside Museum and improve the Union County Arts Center.
In November of 2000 the Union County voters approved a referendum which created the Open Space and Historic Preservation Trust Fund; the Board of Chosen Freeholders started approving the necessary ordinances and resolutions to create the fund and in May of 2001 voted on the final one which authorized the county tax board to dedicate the new tax. If Angie started her company in ’01 how could she have accomplished all of what she claims before hand if the fund wasn’t totally operational till May/June ‘01? Puzzling indeed.

§ The Star Ledger, wrote about the development boom (in Berkeley Heights) in a July 2007 article, an effort spearheaded by Mrs. Devanney through intensive zoning changes and economic development planning.

Equally puzzling – Ms Devanney started her employ with Berkeley Heights in 2005, and left at the end of 2007, during her tenure the Summit Med Group expanded, Connell Companies is expanding and hotels are coming to town. It should be pointed out that these are the same companies that she touts on her website as business references and states that she assisted, but this begs the question what side of the fence was she actually working on and who benefited from and financially compensated her. Was there a conflict here at any time?
More from the website:
Development Planning and Zoning

Keywood Strategies has a proven record of rezoning, planning and managing key projects by navigating the local governing body, Planning Board, Board of Adjustment or State regulatory process. Angie has successfully assisted:
Lifetime Fitness
Westin Hotel
The Connell Company
Hilton Extended Stay Hotel
Summit Medical Group
Berkeley Aquatics Training Facility
Berkeley Heights' Imminent Boom
Projects to getunder way soon
Commercial buildings likely will add estimated $1.5M in revenue

And finally: How disappointing that Mrs. Devanney couldn’t find it in her heart to be honest with the Alternative Press’ reporter when asked what she would be doing upon leaving the Berkeley Heights Business Administrator’s job. Instead she says she has been thinking about starting her own business. Doesn’t this make you wonder what else has been going on behind the scenes.