VENTNOR – The issue of public dime work continued to dominate the 2nd District today, as Assemblyman Vince Polistina, (R-2), Egg Harbor Township, attacked state Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), of Atlantic City for collecting $6,000 as secretary to the mayor a decade ago, suggesting Whelan didn’t do anything to earn the money, but people close to city government said Whelan did advise on a development project gone bust.
“The final scene of the crime,” Polistina pronounced, standing outside City Hall here where Whelan picked up a paycheck from June 2002 to December 2003.
“He took the money and there is no work product for any work that he did,” Polistina said of Whelan. “There is not a single document, email, shred of evidence that this was anything other than an attempt to remain in the pension system.”
Whelan said there’s a simple reason for that: regime change.
The Republican mayor who hired Whelan, Tim Kreischer, lost an election trying to shoulder the very development project proposed by Pulte Homes on which Whelan advised the city.
A veteran of Atlantic City from his tenure as mayor, Whelan told PolitickerNJ.com he was deservedly paid for work fulfilled in the service of the mayor and commission in Ventnor.
“I was an advisor to the mayor and to the commission and I attended numerous redevelopment meetings,” Whelan said.
Former attorney John Scott Abbott confirmed that Whelan worked for the city.
“He was a consultant for us and his knowledge of redevelopment issues was critical,” said Abbott. “With Jim Whelan’s help we had gotten to the point where a Fortune 500 company was looking to come in here and develop. He attended dozens of meetings. Keep in mind, Jim Whelan had tremendous experience in redevelopment. He helped pave the way for the Borgata in Atlantic City when he was mayor. To suggest Jim Whelan didn’t do anything is ludicrous. This guy is one of the most knowledgeable in the state of New Jersey when it comes to improving the infrastructure of your town.”
The area in question was less than 30 acres on the north side of Ventnor, occupied by 300 homes. Pulte wanted to exert eminent domain to get rid of the neighborhood and redevelop.
The leader of the ultimately successful community effort opposing the project, Realtor Richard Grober said he remembers Whelan actively engaged in Ventnor on behalf of the mayor.
“I don’t hate Jim Whelan, but he was going to hurt the people of Ventnor,” said Grober, who remembers when he first heard of the public-private partnership to redevelop the north end of town.
“In 1999 the City of Ventnor sent out a registered letter concerning the north end of Ventnor,” the activist recalled. “What happened is they held a meeting at the school and when I walked out of that meeting I was very nervous. They said eminent domain would only be used as a last resort, but I knew better.
“We struggled for eight years and, yes, they hired Jim Whelan as an advisor, they paid him $6,000,” Grober added. “He did come to meetings. All I can tell you is I’m very proud to say I was instrumental in getting (the hiring mayor, Kreischer) kicked out of office.”
Polistina today said Whelan’s employment by the City of Ventnor – a hire facilitated by then-administrator Andrew McCrosson – constituted an abuse, and represented little more than the senator’s attempt to remain in the pension system after getting bounced out of the Atlantic City mayor’s seat and before he was elected to the Assembly.
Troubled by the fact that Whelan’s job as an advisor was never publicly posted and lacked an official job description, Polistina today was prepared to say Whelan should return the money to the City of Ventnor.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And withdraw from the pension system.”
An engineer with his own firm and a million dollars in public contracts, by his own admission, Polistina has himself tried to evade the public trough tag he continues to try to hang on his opponent, but the assemblyman insisted there is a difference.
“I operate a business and employ 11 people who work for me,” Polistina said. “There is no equating me being a business owner who does public work to him gaming the system.”
A public school swim coach and teacher who dropped his own salary by a third in order to save the swim program after Gov. Chris Christie imposed cuts, Whelan said the current system is set up for what he calls the service of citizen legislators.
“There are people, like myself, in the Legislature, who have other jobs,” he said. “I don’t think we should restrict it. People in the district are well aware that I have a day job as a teacher. We don’t want a Legislature filled up with lawyers, for example.
“But there are other issues we should be discussing – sensitive issues like jobs and the economy.”