Morning News Digest: December 2, 2009

McKeon: It’s the right thing to do Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter Sign Up Thank you for signing up!

McKeon: It’s the right thing to do

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Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange) said he did not think about changing the way the governor appoints U.S. senators until after Republican Chris Christie was elected to the state’s top office, but that does not make it wrong. Asked about the bill today, Christie erupted into a jokingly self-described “rant” about its partisan nature and the diminishing of power of the governor’s office. “I would have hoped that as Governor-elect he would have handled it in a more statesmanlike fashion,” said McKeon. “The bottom line is this: I think it’s antiquated and unfair the way we currently do it. I’ll be the first to say I didn’t much think about this until the day after the election, knowing that there’s never been a more significant time when it comes to Democratic representation.” In the event of a vacancy, current law allows the governor to either call a special election or appoint someone to the seat to hold it until the next general election. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

For now, Hawkins noncommittal on county executive endorsement

Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins wants to confer with local party people before making a statement of support – or lack of support – for Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, who's running for his third term next year and fighting the specter of a banged up – and incensed – Senate President Richard Codey (D-Newark). Hawkins, a Codey ally, last night reported to a meeting of municipal chairs of the Essex County Democratic Committee after party pooh-bahs had already read a resolution of support for DiVincenzo. The mayor, who also chairs the Democratic Party Committee in his hometown, said he had a previous engagement that prevented a more timely entrance to the county committee affair at Nanina's in the Park. For now, he's noncommittal concerning the Essex County exec's re-election. "I respect the good Joe's done but the reality is Codey's loved in Orange," said Hawkins of the home grown former governor. "Before stepping out to endorse, I owe it to sit with the local committee. I wouldn't want to speak without talking to them first. It is better to speak with those you represent rather than jumping out on your own." (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

In Codey-DiVincenzo rivalry, Councilman Rice confronts familiar dichotomy

Never a stranger to straddling polar opposites in Newark's urban imbroglio, West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice now finds himself up against the countywide Codey-DiVincenzo political taffy pull, which may result in the former backing a challenger to the two-term county executive up for re-election next year. The political forces of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo say the county committee support he commands in the party smothers any potential state Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) may have for a counter offensive, but Codey's people all along have argued their best shot – if they take it – against the organization-driven DiVincenzo would mostly infuse independent Democrats. Now just days in front of DiVincenzo's Dec. 11th campaign kickoff with Codey forces still stinging in the wake of a formal vote that ousted their man from his chair of power in the senate, Rice gave a nod toward those similar contradictions that have always informed his local alliances, where he serves as one of Mayor Cory Booker's closest confidantes while remaining the loyal son of dedicated Booker antagonist state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark). (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Christie: Inaugural ball will have fewer frills

Governor-Elect Chris Christie says that his inaugural ball will be toned down to match the economy. “I don’t feel and Kim doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of having some really fancy black tie ball given what’s going on in the state. We’ll have a dignified celebration that night,” he said. Instead of black tie, guests will be asked to come in business attire. “I think we need to be sensitive to the idea that there are a lot of people unemployed and that are suffering,” he said. Christie said he did not know where the ball would be yet. It’s being planned by his brother, Todd, and his close friend and advisor, Bill Palatucci. Governor Jon Corzine’s inaugural ball four years ago, held at the Jadwin Gym at Princeton University, was black tie affair, but guests were charged half of the price of previous administration’s balls and food was served in a buffet. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Christie calls plans to change U.S. Senate vacancy appointment rules a power play by the losing party

Assemblyman John McKeon's (D-West Orange) proposed legislation to change the way the governor appoints U.S. senators in the event of a vacancy has drawn outrage from top Republicans, including Gov.-elect Christopher Christie."It's garbage. It's political lying," said Christie during an eventful press conference in which he also rallied against pensions for non-government employees and the appointment of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Joseph Spicuzzo to a seat on the Sports and Exposition Authority. "There are no niceties to be put around this. This is a political power play by the party that's losing power, and it's wrong." Christie said McKeon's claim that his bill would save $10 million by eliminating the option for governors to call special elections a "fantasy." "Do you really think that's John McKeon is intent on this? Did he wake up one morning and say I'm worried that a governor might call a special election?" said Christie. At one point, a reporter tried to follow up on one of Christie's points. "Let me finish please. I'm in the middle of a rant here," Christie joked. State law empowers the governor to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat by appointment until the next general election. But Christie noted that Corzine filled his own senate seat upon assuming the governorship under the old rules, and urged him to veto any legislation that changed the appointment law. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. investigations unit reports huge payouts by local government

They receive paid days off for Christmas shopping, donating blood and weddings. And when these public employees retire, they can cash in tens of thousands of dollars worth of unused sick time and vacation days. Extensive taxpayer-funded benefits for some local government employees are straining the budgets of New Jersey municipalities, according to a report the State Commission of Investigation released today. Despite a recession that has depleted tax revenue and forced layoffs, the report says, municipalities continue to spend tens of millions of dollars on big payouts to retiring workers. "The gravy train continues to roll without impediment for select groups of employees on the public payroll," it reads. "Startling amounts of taxpayer-funded booty continue to be dispensed across New Jersey without regard for the common good." The SCI, which examines crime and corruption and reports to the Legislature, said it discovered $39 million in extravagant payouts after reviewing 75 towns, counties and local authorities. State employees can receive a maximum of $15,000 for unused sick time, but such limits aren’t standard at the local level. (Megerian, Star Ledger)

200 NJ Dems press for vote on gay marriage

Seeking to sway their party’s leaders with a sweeping show of support, more than 200 core Democrats sent a letter today urging the passage of a gay marriage law before the legislative session runs out. The letter, initially signed by elected leaders, government workers, fundraisers and campaign staffers, also was signed by at least a thousand New Jerseyans after it was posted on "We appreciate that this is a difficult issue for some state legislators. But marriage equality is an idea whose time has come. We are confident that the voters will stand by those elected officials who do the right thing," the letter states. Among those signing the letter are U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.), Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Public Advocate Ronald Chen, the Communications Workers of America’s New Jersey director Hetty Rosenstein, American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Ed Barocas, Democratic consultant Julie Roginsky and Newark City Councilman Ron Rice Jr. Those signing the letter did so as individuals and not necessarily as representatives of their organizations. Steven Goldstein, chair of gay rights advocacy group Garden State Equality said the letter shows how "profoundly important" the bill is to the party base. (Fuchs, Star Ledger)

N.J. municipalities consider suing state for freezing aid in effort to cut budget gap

The state told cities and towns today it would withhold $20.6 million in promised municipal aid to try to patch a growing budget hole, immediately drawing threats of lawsuits from municipal representatives and fire from state lawmakers trying to shift responsibility to local officials. The decision to freeze the December payment, which municipal officials called "unprecendented," came less than a week after the state revealed a $1 billion shortfall in the current $29 billion budget. Municipal officials said they were counting on the money to supplement property taxes, working it into budgets certified by two state departments. "We did what we were supposed to do to live up to our budget," said Raymond McCarthy, mayor of Bloomfield Township, slated to miss a $212,000 payment. "We’ll have to put in double to cover our deficit next year and create a never-ending cycle. It’s not fair to us, and it’s not fair to taxpayers." Treasury spokesman Tom Bell said the payments are being held back "at this time" to give Gov. Jon Corzine time to weigh options. He said a final decision to cut the aid permanently has not been made. The New Jersey League of Municipalities said it was considering suing the state. "The state is essentially breaking a binding contract," said Bill Dressel, the league’s executive director. "We’ve got to exhaust every possible means to make sure that the state lives up to their commitment." The move will affect 465 municipalities — which are expecting payments as little as 60 cents due to Corbin City in Atlantic County to almost $2.2 million due to Newark — according to state data. (Heininger/Fleisher, Star Ledger)

Christie: Spicuzzo unqualified, McKeon playing

In a wide-ranging press conference, Gov.-elect Chris Christie attacked proposed bills to change the way a U.S. senator would be replaced if a vacancy occurred between elections and the appointment of Middlesex County Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority who Christie says is probably the most singularly unqualified candidate ever named to the authority. “He is being pushed through for purely partisan political reasons.” Assemblyman John McKeon, who double-dips as mayor of West Orange and is a political ally of Sen. Dick Codey, says his goal is to eliminate special elections that could cost $10 million and would have the governor choose someone from the same party as the departed U.S. senator within 30 days. “This is why I got elected,” Christie said, in a middle of the worst financial crisis the state has ever seen they’re playing politics. (It does seem the lawmakers think now that the election is over, it is business as usual like when Corzine talked big but didn’t deliver.) Christie said Gov. Corzine didn’t complain, nor did the Legislature when he used the system in place today to name Bob Menendez to the Senate to replace Corzine when he became governor. Referring to the $10 million price tax for a special election, Christie said, “This is garbage, political lying.” (Ingle, Gannett)

Essex County Freeholder Samuel Gonzalez charged with election fraud in wife's Senate campaign

A criminal investigation into voter fraud reached deep into the Essex County Democratic machine today with indictment of five campaign workers from the 2007 election of state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, including her husband a county freeholder. A state grand jury indicted Freeholder Samuel Gonzalez, as well as aides to Democratic power broker Steven Adubato and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and two other county employees, all on charges of ballot tampering in connection with Ruiz’s Senate race in Essex County’s 29th Legislative District. Ruiz, who won handily, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. "We charge that these campaign workers fraudulently submitted absentee ballots on behalf of residents who never received the ballots or had an opportunity to cast their votes," said Attorney General Anne Milgram. The investigation, which has been playing out for months, has already led to charges against several Essex County workers who had been volunteering for the Ruiz campaign. The new indictments today widened the inquiry to a number of politically connected individuals, including Gonzalez, 39, who also serves as an aide to Newark City Councilman Anibal Ramos. Others charged included Jonathon Kowalski, 32, of Newark, a $121,115-a-year fundraiser for the North Ward Center, the social service non-profit organization in Newark founded by Adubato. (Sherman, Star Ledger)

Scathing N.J. report details millions of taxpayer dollars spent on municipal employee perks

Hundreds of North Jersey municipal employees are guaranteed paid time off — at taxpayers’ expense — to go Christmas shopping, attend weddings, and even donate blood, according to a scathing report released Tuesday by the State Commission of Investigation. The 108-page report examined a cross-section of local government contracts and policies across the state, finding that tens of millions in taxpayer dollars are being wasted to fund luxurious benefits for municipal employees. Among North Jersey’s biggest offenders are Englewood Cliffs, Fort Lee and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, which each doled out massive lump-sum cash payouts for unused sick time and personal and vacation leave. Several other towns, including Englewood and Paterson, were cited for shelling out “exceptional perks,” such as paid days off — in addition to regularly allotted vacation and personal time — for getting married or donating blood. (Fabiano, The Record)

Morning News Digest: December 2, 2009