Morning News Digest: December 22, 2009

Russo continues to eschew possible County Executive candidacy

If members of the Bergen County Republican Organization (BCRO) are looking for a replacement county executive candidate for Jack Zisa, Assemblyman David Russo (R-Ridgewood) says don't look to him. "A couple people asked me and I told them I wasn't interested," said Russo, who said that taking on the position would mean giving up his law practice. "There are a lot of things. You've got to give up your business and everything else. It's a full-time thing, and I don't know if I can really do that." Russo's name is one of several that popped up in response to rumors that Zisa, the former mayor of Hackensack, would not run for the county's top post. Zisa, who has not commented on whether he will run, could not be reached for comment. But most party insiders are under the impression that he either will drop his bid shortly or already has. Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin, for his part, said he is under that impression, too, but stressed that he had "no official word" on Zisa's status and added that "Jack never officially told me he was running." Whether Bergen County Republicans scour the party for a Zisa replacement will give some idea of how well Yudin and his allies have patched things up with County Clerk Kathleen Donovan, who has indicated that she was likely to run in a letter to county committee members earlier this month. Donovan and her allies have long had a tense relationship with the Yudin faction. Yudin, however, said the party was "not scouring anything." "There are a number of people stepping up contemplating running," he said. "People are reaching out, and they have a right to do that.” (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Vowing to fight on in court, Roque says of Vega, 'I'm going to be his worst nightmare'

The forces of Mayor Sal Vega want the vanquished Dr. Felix Roque to get in his Bentley, put it in gear, and floor it out of town for keeps. Roque's petition drive against Vega failed today. Of his 6,236 petition signatures, the clerk's offfice ruled 3,441 of them valid, falling short of the required 5,200. But the army commander said he's not going anywhere. In fact, "I'm going to make his life a living hell from now until 2011," said Roque, who intends to go to court to fight Town Clerk Carmela Ricccie's decision rendering nearly 2,000 of his petition signatures invalid. Vega's up for re-election in 2011, but Roque expressed confidence that a court will overturn Riccie's rendering, thereby requiring a recall election prior to that time. "I'm going to be his worst nightmare, making sure he does the right thing," said the physician. "We're going to fight this in court. It's statistically impossible to say half your petitions are no good. They made that up. I believe in Carmella's integrity, but she has the $1 million dollar hawk (the town attorney) hovering over her. She works for this guy, who works for Vega. "I don't trust the process," added Roque, who said the clerk's office threw out the petition signatures of elderly residents with arthritic hands who promised to affirm the recall effort if Roque's people filled out the fine print. "They also disqualified a woman who had a change of address," Roque said. As for Vega's allies constantly bringing up the fact that the doctor drives a luxury automobile and presents a clashing figure with the workaday world of the Hudson County town, Roque said, "If you work hard, you get the fringe benefits. Vega's a human vampire, and he's talking about my Bentley?" He reiterated his commitment to no surrender. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Hill stays positive as he explores House bid vs. Adler

Ask Toms River Councilman Maurice "Mo" Hill what he thought of Jon Runyan's recent press roll out, and he prefers to turn the conversation towards his own experience. "My fear is what's going on in DC. It's the economy, and yet they're dealing with everything but that right now," said Hill, who at the moment appears to be the Ocean County Republicans' leading choice to run for congress. As much as party leaders from Ocean and Burlington Counties say they want to avoid another primary like in 2008 — when the two parties went to war in an expensive primary — they appear to once again be on a collision course. Ocean County Republicans are bolstered by the 70,000 vote plurality they gave to Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie last month. Burlington County Republicans, however, believe they have a game changing candidate in Jon Runyan, a professional footballer who spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles and is expected to self-fund at least a portion of his candidacy. And late last week, Runyan was shepherded by Burlington GOP consultant Chris Russell through a marathon of short phone interviews with reporters. Both county organizations are going through with the formalities. Each party will invite candidates to go before their screening committees, who will then recommend a candidate to the county committee. Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore has already met with Runyan, and Burlington County Republican Chairman Bill Layton has met with Hill. "In the interview I came away with the very distinct impression that he's locked on with Jon Runyan," said Hill, who later added "I think Ocean County is looking to put forth a candidate. Whether I'm that candidate or not remains to be seen." (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Court tosses defamation suit against Hudson Dems

An appellate court panel today tossed out a previously unpublicized defamation claim against the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), several of its prominent members and political consultant Rick Shaftan that dates back to the Hudson County Democratic civil war of 2007. At issue were two flyers Shaftan authored for the HCDO that named a former aide to then-Assemblyman and Union City Mayor Brian Stack as having been arrested and convicted of selling cocaine. One of the flyers called the plaintiff, whose name is withheld in the published version of the suit, a "DRUG DEALER who went to JAIL for FIVE YEARS for selling coke near a public school. After getting out of jail, [D.] landed a job as a highly paid "aide" to Mayor Stack." That conviction, which was from 1993, was expunged in 2006. The plaintiff argued that since his conviction was expunged, it legally never occurred, and that the defendants had defamed him with the flyer. He filed suit in June, 2007 against then-HCDO chairman and Senate Majority Leader Bernie Kenny (D-Hoboken), and a year later filed suit against Shaftan and his wife, CarryAnne, who together are the principals of Neighborhood Research; HCDO Executive Director Craig Guyl party operative Bud Demellier; former Union City Mayor Rudy Garcia and his wife, Nicole Harrison-Garcia. Judge Dorothea Wefing noted that the defendants were unaware of the expungement (records of the conviction were available on the Department of Corrections Web site until August, 2008), but ruled that ultimately expungement of information from public record did not make the use of the information defamatory. "We also agree that these flyers are, as a matter of law, not defamatory because the information they contain is true," she wrote. "…It is undisputed that plaintiff was, in fact, arrested and convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance with the intent to distribute it. Plaintiff contends that the subsequent expungement of the record of his arrest and conviction renders defendants' reporting of them false and defamatory. In our judgment, plaintiff's successful expungement of this record does not make defendants' statements about that record "false." (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

N.J. Senate President Codey blocking nomination of multiple public job holder

As the outgoing and incoming governors battle over lame-duck nominations, Senate President Richard Codey is using his power to block a political foe’s nomination to the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey board of directors. Nominee Phil Alagia, chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, is a key lieutenant of Newark Democratic power broker Steve Adubato Sr., a longtime Codey nemesis. Adubato and DiVincenzo helped orchestrate the deal that will oust Codey (D-Essex) from the Senate presidency next month. Codey’s decision to exercise "senatorial courtesy" over the nominee from his home county comes amid the furor over dozens of nominations Gov. Jon Corzine submitted in the waning days of his term. Gov.-elect Chris Christie has objected to Corzine’s tactics and threatened to have Senate Republicans stand in the way of approval. Codey said political paybacks are not at play and he is blocking Alagia simply because he already has a public job. He said he was also going to withdraw his support — for the same reason — for Newark City Councilman Ronald C. Rice Jr., the son of Codey ally Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), who was nominated to a post on the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. But Codey said last night the younger Rice had agreed to serve on the commission without pay so "it’s not the same situation." "I informed Mr. Alagia that I am not going to sign off on his appointment because it is very inappropriate at a time when unemployment is 10.8 percent in Essex County for one person to have multiple public jobs because of connections," Codey said. "I think it’s time to stop this kind of politics." Alagia said Codey informed him he would be blocking anyone already on the public payroll to eliminate "dual office-holding" and said he did not view himself as a victim of the perpetual battling between Codey and Adubato. "He has the right as a senator to block nominations, so we’ll move forward," Alagia said. "He told me I wasn’t the only one." (Margolin/Heininger, Star Ledger)

N.J. lead poisoning proposal could save $27M in social costs, study says

New Jersey could save as much as $27 billion in costs to society by keeping children free of lead poisoning, a report released today said. In "The Social Costs of Childhood Lead Exposure in New Jersey," Columbia University professor Peter Muennig said fewer children with lead poisoning would save the state on special education, medical treatment and incarceration. "When young children are exposed to environmental lead, permanent damage can occur to parts of the brain involved in higher intellectual function and behavior," Muennig wrote. "The greater the reduction in lead exposure, the more likely New Jersey’s children will achieve success and realize their full potential." The report supports rules New Jersey has proposed to improve lead poisoning detection and treatment. Those regulations came about after a 2008 report by the state’s public advocate revealing a childhood lead poisoning problem that was "stubborn and enduring" — especially in cities with old housing, such as Newark, Trenton and Camden. The changes would reduce the blood lead "level of concern" in children from 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of whole blood to 15. They would reduce the threshold to as low as 10 when a child has two test results between 10 and 14. State officials have said the rules could be adopted as early as spring. "This report provides the new governor and incoming Legislature with information that can be used to build on that progress and ensure all of our children grow up lead free," said Public Advocate Ronald Chen, who supports the rules and commissioned the Muennig report. He made his comments in a news release announcing the new report. Muennig estimates 86,416 New Jersey children, newborn to 6 years old, would have a minimal risk of lead poisoning; 584,520 children a moderate risk; and 12,633 children a moderate to severe risk. (Fuchs, Star Ledger)

N.J. sports authority warns state officials of mounting financial problems

Squeezed by continuing losses at the state’s racetracks, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority may need millions in state funding to keep it afloat, according to sources who have been briefed on the matter. Authority officials denied there was any plan in play to seek state assistance, but said it would not surprise anyone that the agency's mounting financial problems will soon require some hard choices. "Our revenue challenges are well known," spokesman John Samerjan said. However, he said, the authority has yet to finalize a budget and that any assertion of how those numbers will stack up — or for that matter, that a request for state funding had been made — was "simply untrue." Authority Chairman Carl Goldberg said he would not talk about the authority’s growing budget problems until he meets with the incoming administration. He is scheduled to sit down with Gov.-elect Chris Christie today to discuss a number of issues. The two sources, who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the situation, said the sports authority’s executive committee met last week and were looking at a budget deficit of $30 million or more that needed to be plugged. The authority, which anticipates $238.5 million in revenues this year, would have operated at a deficit without a $15 million infusion from the Xanadu entertainment project. The agency does not get a direct state subsidy because all its outstanding debt for past borrowing was taken off the books and assumed by the state of New Jersey as part of the deal to replace Giants Stadium. That outstanding debt is a cost to the state that increased this year by more than 24 percent, to $56.1 million annually, in large part because of tax implications tied to the bonds still outstanding on of the old stadium, state Treasury officials said. (Margolin/Sherman, Star Ledger)

N.J. Gov.-elect Christie looks to streamline boards, authorities

Governor-elect Chris Christie said his transition advisers are looking closely at the state's myriad boards, commissions and authorities with the likelihood of eliminating some and cutting bloated salaries at others. Christie said early reports show some authorities with overlapping responsibilities and others where high-level staffers earn far more than the governor. "The governor is making $175,000 a year and you have the heads of some of these places making almost double that," Christie said Monday as he prepared to volunteer as a box packer at a food bank warehouse. "This is not something that most taxpayers in New Jersey know about; it's something they should know about and something we're going to try to do something about." Christie, who based his statements on last week's initial reports from his transition team, said no final decisions have been made on the best ways to trim the bureaucracy. He will be sworn in on Jan. 19. "There's a lot of money that's being spent out there by these groups, with relatively little oversight," Christie said. Christie said he doesn't yet know how much money the state could save by streamlining the commissions and authorities, but it won't be enough to put more than a dent in the estimated $9 billion budget deficit he inherits for the fiscal year that starts July 1. "It's much more an issue of symbolism to make people know there is someone now in charge who will bring things back under control," he said. Christie has already balked at Governor Corzine's attempt to fill nearly 200 vacancies before leaving office next month. He argued that Corzine lost the right to name people to policy-making boards when he lost the Nov. 3 election. Christie also said he wants the chance to put his own people in power. (AP) Morning News Digest: December 22, 2009