Archive for the ‘Public Employees’ Category

The completely underrated Mid-80’s classic involved a a cross country road trip for John Cusack. He is going to visit his friend Anthony Edwards on the West Coast who will introduce him to a college co-ed who is described as a “sure thing.” And by “introduced” they mean much more than that, but I’ll spare you the specifics ( this a family friendly blog after all! ).

The point of the movie and the roundabout way I will tie it to State House politics is this: there is no such thing as a sure thing. It is never as simple as someone makes it sound.

Last week, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver announced a deal on arbitration reform. When I say “deal” it was pretty much a deal amongst Democrats and their constituent groups since the Governor had no part of it, and subsequently reminded us of that at his own presser shortly thereafter. ( The Governor teed off on the Democrats for failing to enact the tool kit…although I might be one of the few people who thinks that they are actually not that far apart on the substance of arbitration reform. But that is for another day. )

At the same announcement, Sweeney indicated they are “very close” on civil service reform. That being the other “big game”  that needs to be successfully hunted and speared to finish the tool kit.

But one Democrat tells me that you simply cannot take away seniority. If that is the case, civil service reform won’t save all that much $. Roughly a third of all municipalaties have civil service. That is it. And if you can’t fire the guy who makes $95,000 for pushing paper ( slowly ), because he has 25 more years than the young go-getter who actually cares about his job, the argument for civil service as a catch-all for savings weakens.

This Democrat says seniority is basically a “property right.” What that means and how far courts would be willing to go to protect it remain to be seen. We are in unprecendented economic times, and many of these issues take us into into unchartered legal territory ( although the court tends to be liberal which works against those who want to challenge some of these basic assumptions now ).

Here is what we do know. Section 11A:8-1 of the civil service statute requires layoffs to occur “in inverse order of seniority.” That is the law. It could be changed by the legislature, but as we just noted that would likely be challenged in court…and any good lawyer will tell you that you never want to end up in court if you can avoid it. ( Wow. Did I just endorse back-room deals?? )

So, could civil service reform be useful without eliminating seniority? Sure it could. The 4000 to 5000 state government titles could be streamlined ( I mean, there are supposedly 17 titles for tree cutters ! ).

In fact, almost all of these tool kit items make for better government, and should be enacted. But will they actually reduce costs for towns? Some would argue that is less than a sure thing.

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In the late 1960’s Governor Richard Hughes decided to do something once and for all about the media blackout in New Jersey. With Philly and New York paying scant attention to New Jersey issues and politics, Hughes helped create what is today New Jersey Network.

It was both a terrific and a flawed idea. On the one hand, New Jersey needs its own source of news and information. And having the profit motive taken out of the equation allowed NJN to focus on issues and substance rather than fluff and entertainment ( yes, even then people cared about celebrities although when they read glossy magazines I’m not sure they bothered to dog-ear the pages just to make sure they don’t miss anything as I’ve seen people do today with US Weekly and other mags ).

But there were also some mistakes which can be clearly understood now with the benefit of hindsight. To begin with the future of communications was all television back then. No one could predict how much that would change. Television isn’t going anywhere, but it’s impact as the dominant medium is clearly being diluted.

Moreover, by the State taking on the role of TV station, then failing to adapt as the media environment did, NJN was left languishing in some 1960’s vision of what the “media” is. So a fair argument can be made that New Jersey should never have gotten into the television biz to begin with.

But here is the problem: it did. And for the last 40 years, NJN has been almost fully funded by the State. So, when a decision was made to end that relationship, there were plenty of people who said ‘good idea.’ But to go from 40 years of State aid to zero State aid in a matter of six months has left some supporters of this station slightly puzzled about how that can work. Funding runs out here on January 1 which as you might imagine has created a bit of a panic within the building.

But lemme go back to the operative phrase hidden in my last paragraph about State support for 40 years, then going cold turkey ( get it? “turkey”…Thanksgiving. Duh ) in six months. Government systems are not designed to move quickly. Our Constitutional Republic form of Government which is replicated by the states is programmed to move deliberately and methodically. They were set up that way for a reason. It is my opinion that people are somewhat conservative by nature and don’t like huge changes from their government in short periods of time.

Like it or not…NJN is a branch of State Government, and the truth is, I have some problems with that. And I have also had some frustrations on a professional level working within that system. But as the bloated Titanic of this network heads for the metaphoric iceberg just understand that if the boat sinks, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

95% of all Public TV stations get some public funding, according to The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’m all for making NJN one of the stations that doesn’t. But the current structure here may need a little more time to make that transition which is what the bi-partisan NJN Legislative Task Force concluded.

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The criticism of Governor Christie has often been that he has tendency shoot first and ask questions later. Or as one State House veteran put it, ‘The Governor likes to begin a conversation by tossing a hand grenade into the room.’

There is something to be said for this as a negotiating tactic, but there are also potential pratfalls. Critics say the situation with LeRoy Seitz appears to be one of those.

On two consecutive days the Governor went after Seitz personally for his recent re-up on his Schools Superintendent contract in Parsippany-Troy Hills. The guy already makes more than 210, and by the last year of his five year new deal he’ll be making more than $230,000. That is indeed a lot of money.  But there are plenty of government positions that pull in big $’s. Anyway, not the point.

Here is what is interesting…school officials say they never received a single phone call from anyone connected to the Governor telling them to dial it back. In other words, there was no back channel attempt to prevent the contract from being approved. Instead, after a months long negotiation process the Governor decided to single Seitz out in a public forum on the day of the vote.

Moreover, we were recently told that Kathleen Serafino, the County Superintendent signed off on the contract. She is answerable to the Administration. The County Supes are representatives of the Department of Education which is located in the Executive Branch of Government.

Christie first announced in July that there would be caps on these salaries. The policy is winding it’s way through and could be implemented by February ( Legislature not needed on this one, although some were surprised at the way the Governor described the necessary public hearings to get this done…as if public hearings are for sissies ).

Finally, there is the Mendham connection. The Mendham Township School Board re-upped Superintendent Kristopher Harrison’s contract back in September. It also exceeds the cap. Then the Mendham School Board President tells the Daily Record that they approved it knowing that a cap was imminent ( !!! ). Wow. Mendham is of course Christie’s home town, and officials there were spared a public lashing.

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NJN Future

This is the story we did from Friday night on last Thursday’s NJN hearing. Friday night stories sometimes get lost in the shuffle, so I wanted to send it out via Twitter and blog. It was probably the best NJN hearing. A lot came out. The only thing that fails to come across is how hot it was in that room. Apparently, the thermostat box was locked.

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In the famous book of the same title, we learn about the fictional characters in a Nigerian village. For centuries their way of life was preserved…until the arrival of Missionaries. Slowly but surely, The Missionaries began making inroads and wound up winning over converts to their new, and in many ways more appealing existence.

They set up a Church with a new form of government that was hardly tolerant of the traditions it was supplanting. And of course we all know what happens next. As some villagers began to embrace the new doctrine the rituals and customs of the tribe began to crumble. The old way of life – however imperfect – was eventually lost. Forever.

I have been very reluctant to write about the situation at NJN for a lot of reasons including that there are many strongly opinionated factions with different views about what is best for the Network. So rather than publicly cast my lot with any of those, I will offer an insider’s view about what needs to be preserved for whatever direction the decision makers ultimately decide to steer us.

Live coverage is essential. Are there ways to maybe do it more efficiently? Absolutely. That can be worked out. But it cannot be worked out if we move resources away from news. We can’t shed bodies in the transition and we cannot possibly put on the newscast for less money. We barely get it on the air now. There needs to be a live newscast with capability to cover legislative hearings and other major events live. New Jersey has a dearth of political coverage to begin with ( due to it’s odd geographic designation which situates it between two major media markets – NY and Philly ). The loss of NJN will only make that worse.

The Legislative hearings by the NJN Task Force have hit home this point. Next month the members will make their recommendations to the Governor. As I understand it, there is a hope that the report will be bi-partisan and unanimous. Some kind of conversion of NJN seems inevitable at this point. And if that transition is handled fairly and responsibly that may wind up being what is best. There are two pieces of legislation out there. One favored by CWA – the union representing NJN’s state workers which would convert NJN to a more autonomous authority. The ties to State Government would still exist, but the station would have more independence. The other bill introduced by Republicans ( and presumably favored by the Governor ) would create an independent entity that would sever ties from the state of New Jersey. There are good ideas in both bills. And much like the property tax cap bill was amended to reflect new negotiated terms, it occurs to me that a negotiation could produce a final bill in this case that all parties can live with.

In the meantime, while the starting points for that negotiation are currently being staked out…Lawmakers and others who care about the station must compile a mental list of what absolutely needs to stay in order to ensure that NJN remains well, NJN. That includes but is not limited to an extensive video library that has captured New Jersey history over the past 40 years. A broadcast outlet to air that video is also essential – meaning at least one channel dedicated to news and public affairs. And finally, coverage of New Jersey’s ongoing history needs to continue. If New Jersey doesn’t feel a need to preserve it’s very own documentarian going forward then things really do fall apart…and it will be lost. Forever.

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In the mid-90’s there was an “independent film” ( I put that in quotation marks because this was around the time America was obsessed with movies that were well – you know, ‘independent’ ) called “Kicking and Screaming” about a bunch of college friends who graduate school, but can’t really let it go. So, instead of  moving back home and trying their luck in the real world, they return to school to attend freshman parties and live in a big house together off-campus. Anyway, you can imagine where this goes from here…a buncha over-educated and under-skilled dudes who make pithy comments and wry observations about college life when in fact, they are the losers who have failed to move on.

I feel like there is a bit of a stubborn reluctance amongst the Democrats to take up the tool kit. The Assembly has passed no bills, and while the Senate has passed one, they haven’t tackled any of the tough stuff even in committees. In fairness, the Senate Budget Committee has been holding hearings through the Summer. And Monday they passed new limits for public workers on unused sick time. But even the Senate Budge hasn’t taken on the sacred cows such as arbitration and civil service reform.

Chairman Paul Sarlo told reporters today that the “civil service opt-out provision is off the table.” Sarlo said Sweeney was the one who said that already, but I don’t recall him being so definitive. Anyway, the larger issue here appears to be in the Assembly.

Republican Assemblymen Vince Polistina and Domenick DiCicco issued statements criticizing the Democrats for convening committees Monday but failing yet again to take on the tool kit items. That prompted a sharply worded response from Dem Communications Director Tom Hester Jr.

The point here is that some of the tool kit will pass, and some will not. Democrats wouldn’t be Democrats if they passed all the bills as they currently are…But one might humbly suggest that they at least get to work figuring out what in those bills will work, and sifting out those ideas that won’t.

Speaker Oliver told us in an interview last month for NJN’s On The Record that she agrees the tool kit is just as important as the 2% cap. That is how the local communities will be able to comply with cap come January. So, let’s get to work.

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“The Jersey guys stick together like glue.”

That is a quote from a Pennsylvanian with connections to the DRPA. More on where that came from in a minute, but first I’d like to share a couple of observations about Wednesday’s board meeting.

It appears as though the push for reform on the board is coming mostly from the Pennsylvania side. PA Treasurer Rob McCord pretty much distinguished himself as the most sensible guy in the room. He was echoed by Pennsylvania Auditor-General Jack Wagner, and Commissioner John Dougherty. The PA triumvirate argued, introduced additional reforms and complained about a DRPA structure that has apparently kept them in the dark for years when they sought basic information.

The Jersey Commissioners were far less vocal. Almost like they had an interest in protecting the current structure. For example, Richard Sweeney ( who wears a large pinky ring, which btw – makes him awesome in my book but may not actually go a long way toward debunking the negative stereotypes PA folks have about the Jersey guys ) didn’t say a word during the five hour meeting. In fairness, Jeff Nash made an eloquent opening statement, and John Matheussen chimed in early on…but for the most part the PA Commishes debated the resolutions amongst themselves.

Perhaps there is a problem with the structure of the board. I mean, why does Pennsylvania have it’s Treasurer and Auditor General as ex-officio members and Jersey has nothing like that?? Why doesn’t Matt Boxer have a seat on the board??? So, give Assemblyman Dominick DiCicco some credit for requesting a change to the DRPA governing Compact. He also lamented that no Jersey colleagues have joined him in this effort. He’s got a point.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney ( brother of the aforementioned Commissioner Richard ) blames the PA folks for blocking reforms. He says they opposed eliminating two positions Wednesday which would save the DRPA money. The latter is certainly true. They opposed eliminating the Assistant to the Chairman job because it is currently filled. And they opposed eliminating the Corporate Secretary job which is currently in litigation and should probably be handled delicately.

But I wanna circle back to that True-Up regarding insurance commissions. According to an insider there are $800,000 – $900,000 in commissions paid out by the DRPA each year to insurance brokers. Under a verbal agreement these were to be split between the Graham Company (PA ) and the Willis Group ( NJ ). But Bill Graham was reportedly unhappy because he was doing all the work, then splitting the commissions in a 50-50 arrangement.

Well, here is a little more on that. Apparently, three people did angrily split off from Graham, but they did not go to work for Willis. They went to work for Conner Strong. That is the firm of George Norcross. A source says Michael Joyce ( the former Assistant to the DRPA Vice Chairman Jeff Nash who most recently served as the former Public Safety Director until he got fired last month ) told Graham he had to fork over $60,000 in commissions to the West Agency – a minority broker. Graham supposedly agreed ( albeit reluctantly ) but then Joyce demanded another $60,000 for another firm. When Graham protested, Joyce allegedly threatened to take away the DRPA business from Graham altogether. As it stands right now “the Jersey guys” are supposedly trying to pull the DRPA out of  four year contract with Graham. In fact, I am told that since Graham wasn’t willing to play ball, the company already lost work it was getting from the Camden school district.

A source tells me the Willis group is being forced to pay $200,000 of it’s share of commissions to “a very powerful” politician. Not necessarily as a lump sum payment. It may very well get split into smaller sums and then distributed to various candidate campaigns or even non-profit groups that support Democratic candidates.

So, it sounds like those “Jersey guys” really do stick together.

DRPA CEO John Matheussen is said to have told investigators he knew nothing about this arrangement, but sources say an email chain suggests otherwise. And those investigators are apparently none too pleased.

here is last night’s story without comment. If the sync is slightly off just remember…it’s not you, it’s me.

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