In a war of words that has caused the political race for county executive to take over operations of government, preoccupying the legal staff for the county freeholders and becoming the dominating subject of county meeting after county meeting, the answer still depends upon whom you ask.
County Executive Bernard Hartnett, who is running for re-election with the backing of Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, flatly refused to appear before the Hudson County Freeholders on May 23 when they called him to testify about the raises he gave, but agreed to answer any questions they might put to him in writing.
Hartnett said he believed his memo issued to the freeholders had explained the situation.
Freeholders are threatening to rescind the raises.
Last month, the freeholders unanimously voted to reverse Hartnett's termination of six county employees, who Hartnett acknowledged he had fired because they supported rival Tom DeGise, backed by Congressman Bob Menendez, in the campaign. Hartnett's attorney said that it's hard to have people working for you if they don't support your actions.
Freeholder Chairman Sal Vega was particularly miffed by the fact that he and other members of the County's Personnel Committee had also been snubbed after a promise by Hartnett to appear there to explain the raises.
Citing what they are claiming are 'obscene raises" given to specific county employees, the Hudson Country Freeholder passed two resolution at its May 23 meeting demanding that County Executive Bernard Hartnett rescind the raises and immediately establish a wage and salary freeze.
Nearly 150 raises have been given to county employees since October, and though the Freeholders formally requested a copy of the payroll as early as February, they did not get a break down of the raises until May. This was, according to several Freeholders, only a partial list. A more complete list was issued only after repeated demands.
Hartnett had been requested to appear before the Freeholder's Personnel Committee on May 22 (the day before the full freeholder meeting) to explain the raises and changes of position that in some cases resulted in salary increases of $10,000 to $20,000. Minutes before he was scheduled to appear, Hartnett sent a memo saying he would not. According to Mariano Vega, Director of Public Resources for the county and a man Hartnett tried to fire in April, Hartnett issued orders to department heads and directors not to appear before any Freeholder Committee or answer questions before the Freeholder Board - unless specifically ordered by the County Executive to do so. Vega - in an interview before the freeholder meeting - said he had expressed concern about how this action might interfere in running government.
"This is like closing the door on government," he said.
Freeholder Chairman Vega has ordered the freeholders' legal department to take the matter to court to force Hartnett to appear, and said that he would not wait until after the June 4 Democratic primary (which is for county executive and a number of other positions) to get answers.
"Although I know that anyone who seeks an office in government must get involved in politics," Vega said, "there is good politics and there is bad politics, and these actions by the county executive are bad politics."
Freeholder Bill O'Dea - who is running with Hartnett - urged the freeholders to impose the wage freeze and to consult those department heads who did show up for the meeting.
"Of 54 raises that might be questioned, I see 22 that I need to get answers about," O'Dea said.
Supported by equally strong rhetoric from the other freeholders, Vega said he would demand answers from the county executive, and in a memo issued to the freeholder board, said Hartnett should either do what's right or resign his post.
DeGise joins attack on raises
Tom DeGise, who running against Hartnett for office, has joined the growing criticism against Hartnett, saying the county executive should not have issued salary increases that in one case amounted to $23,000. While DeGise said he believed the county staffers who received salary increases of 3 to 4 percent were justified, he questioned what people had done to earn increases that were 10 times that amount.
"When you look at some of these increases, they are as much as some of the rank and file staff of the county make in one year," DeGise said.
During a later interview, Hartnett said the raises were not obscene, but part of a systematic upgrading of salaries since his coming into office last November.
"I started giving the raises last November," Hartnett said. "Most of the people who received the raises were part of the Janiszewski administration. [Janiszewski resigned last fall during a corruption investigation, and Hartnett, a 71-year-old attorney, came in to clean things up.] Many of them were people who were not making the proper salary for the positions they held. Many of these employees were black. I tried to correct the situation."
In some cases, promotions were given to lower staff members when they were required to fill positions vacated by people who had resigned after Janiszewski's resignation. Promotions included replacing the county administrator and the finance officer.
"These were not cronies of mine," Hartnett explained. "I have no cronies. There were hardworking people in the county that I promoted to fill those positions, and so they got raises. In other cases, I found that some employees had not had raises in many years, despite the fact that people in comparable positions had. The salaries were sometimes $10,000 below other people's doing comparable work. These recommendations came from the personnel director who called them inequalities. We corrected them."
Hartnett said some salary increases were due to fee schedules imposed from above. By giving the county clerk or the county surrogate an increase, the county was bound under state statute to compensate lower employees in those departments. In some cases, Hartnett gave raises to people politically opposed to him.
"This whole thing is a farcical," he said, saying that the freeholders are seeking to make "a holy circus" out of the raises by opening discussions up to the public. But he noted that under the state's Open Meetings act, personnel issues weren't supposed to be part of public discourse.
"What are these terrible things I'm doing?" Hartnett asked. "People who are running against me claim I've paid my political cronies. But I don't have any political cronies. There is not a single person from my family on the county payroll."
Two key people
Hartnett said he brought only a few people with him into the county seat, specific people he could trust such as Joe Cardwell and Steve Ross.
Both of these people have come under fire from Hartnett's opponent DeGise, who claims that Cardwell has had contracts with Jersey City waterfront developers. However, DeGise and others have not produced any evidence of Cardwell's consulting contracts. He did have other kinds of contracts with the county, which expired before he took his current job.
"Hartnett should relieve County Chief of Staff Joe Cardwell from his position until the ethics allegations leveled against him have been thoroughly and fairly investigated," DeGise said, also asking the county to abolish the position of county deputy chief of staff position Hartnett created, which Ross occupies.
Hartnett, however, said no conflict of interest currently exists, and that the creation of a deputy chief of staff was necessary when he first took office.
"When I came on as county executive, I asked Joe Cardwell to be a part of my administration," Hartnett said. "He reluctantly agreed to work for me part time, later when it became clear just how much work there was to be done, he became a full-time staff member."
Hartnett - whose legal firm does represent a waterfront developer - said Cardwell had existing contracts that were either completed or dismissed by the time he became a full-time staff member.
Ross was hired as a deputy chief of staff in order to provide full coverage during the period when Cardwell was part time, Hartnett said. Since then, the two men have taken on different roles, Hartnett said.
"Joe Cardwell has great experience in getting federal and state grants," Hartnett said. "Steve Ross handles much of the day-to-day operations."
Cardwell could not be contacted for comment last week. One source said he had been admitted to a hospital. But Ross said he had handled many of the raises since November, and said many of them came at the request of the freeholders and the mayors of Hudson County's municipalities.
"If the freeholders vote to roll back these raises," he said. "They will be rolling back raises that they themselves asked us to give. Many of the freeholders and the mayors have asked us to get jobs or give raises to their supporters."
Mayor Glenn Cunningham said that the race is not about jobs, and who has control of doling out political jobs, as it seemed in the beginning.
"This is all about Bernie Hartnett doing the right thing," Cunningham said, "reviewing contracts from attorneys, contracts from consultants, and he found out Dennis Enright was a consultant to county government [and also a] consultant to the Progressive [a health care firm seeking a county contract]. When Bernie first got in, he called it to everyone's attention, and said he can't have both of those contracts. It's not about jobs; it's those contracts. That's why they want to control it." Court refuses to play politics
In a hearing on May 24 before Superior Court Judge Arthur N. D'Italia, the county freeholders' attorney, Ed Florio, asked the court to order County Executive Bernard Hartnett to explain the raises given to employees since November.
In court, Florio acknowledged that Hartnett had the power to issue raises, but argued these could have an impact on the annual budget.
An extremely critical Judge D'Italia said the freeholders had presented no evidence supporting the claim of an immediate negative impact on the budget that would justify him ordering an immediate hearing before the freeholders.
"You want Mr. Hartnett to show cause why he should not be enjoined from interfering with the practice of good government," D'Italia told Florio, noting that the freeholders' claims seemed a little broad. "It is like saying 'Stop beating your wife' when there's no evidence that she's been beaten."
D'Italia said he would not become a supervisor of the county executive, second-guessing everything Hartnett does based on practices of good government.
"Whatever on earth that may be," he said.
But the judge did agree that the freeholders asking questions about the raises was a legitimate area of inquiry. While the county freeholders claimed that Hartnett ordered department directors not to appear, the judge found no evidence to support that claim - despite reports by Mariano Vega, director of the county's Department of Public Resources, that County Executive Hartnett had ordered Hudson County directors to remain silent when questioned by freeholders about the raises.
But the judge did agree this was another area about which the freeholders could ask questions.
D'Italia would not push to have the public hearing before the freeholders set before the June 4 primary election, calling the request a political move by the freeholders.
"There is no reason other than to make a political statement and to support the individual that they have chose as the next county executive," the judge said. "There is no other reason under the sun why we should rush through the process."
He set the hearing for June 6, two days after the primary. - Al Sullivan
Slates for Democratic primary
Although former Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann wound up briefly on the ballot for the 4th Freeholder District in Jersey City Heights, a quick correction erased his name, leaving Democratic primary battle in that district between incumbent freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon and Eliu Rivera. McCann was ruled ineligible to run because some of his petition signatures were not valid.
Davila-Colon is running on the ticket backed by Hudson County Chairman Rep. Bob Menendez (D-13th Dist.) While Menendez and the Hudson County Democrats, led by Tom DeGise for county executive, are running a full slate of nine candidates for the freeholder slots, the Reform Democrats, headed by incumbent County Executive Bernard Hartnett, are running only seven.
Freeholders Brian Stack of Union City (District 6) and Albert Cifelli of Kearny (District 9) are running unopposed.
Jersey City Councilman Peter Brennan and Councilwoman Melissa Holloway are running with the County Democrats against incumbent Freeholders William O'Dea (District 2) and William Braker (District 3) of Jersey City, who are running as Reform Democrats.
Incumbent freeholders Barry Dugan of Bayonne (District 1), Maurice Fitzgibbons of Hoboken (Dist. 5), Sal Vega of West New York (Dist. 7), and Thomas Liggio of North Bergen (Dist. 8), running as Hudson County Democrats, are opposed respectively by Reform Democrats Gerald Mattaliano of Bayonne, Carrie Gilliard of Hoboken, Jesus Vega of West New York and Russell Pascale Jr. of North Bergen.
Thomas Murphy of Jersey City has filed as an independent Democrat in District 5 against Fitzgibbons and Gilliard.
In the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli is running unopposed.
In the 9th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman, representing Secaucus and parts of North Bergen and Jersey City, is also unopposed.
In the 10th District, Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, who represents part of Jersey City, is being challenged by the Rev. Edward Allen of Jersey City and Edmund Proctor of Elizabeth. - Al Sullivan