Untangling the Sheriff Rochford Imbroglio in Morris County

Sheriff Ed Rochford has been battling with Morris County freeholders over control of the jail and other matters.

From co-employer to supervisor in one fell swoop.

That, in effect, is the result of a memorandum of understanding agreed to publically Wednesday by the Morris County Board of Freeholders and Sheriff Edward Rochford.

After a year of a public dispute with the sheriff, the freeholders by the agreement ended the co-employment status of the Morris County jail under which the sheriff and the freeholders shared responsibility for jail operations.

The agreement said Rochford would provide “guidance” and “assistance” on some jail matters to the jail warden, expected to be Chris Klein, the current warden.

This agreement is expected to be the basis for a contract between Rochford and the county to be finalized in the near future.

On Sept. 1 the control of the 550-bed jail will be the sole responsibility of the freeholders. The Morris freeholders will join 10 other New Jersey such boards as the sole operators of a county jail.

Rochford, outside Netcong Borough Hall, where the freeholders had held one of their “traveling” meetings, issued a brief, tongue-biting statement: “Control of the jail should remain with the sheriff. I disagree with this MOU, but will abide by it.”

The freeholders’ statements were less fiery.

“This is simply a managerial change,” said Freeholder Director Kathy DeFillippo. “The county administration will be directly in charge of the jail through the warden.”

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The statement by Freeholder Douglas Cabana, the board’s liaison to the law and public safety departments, had a little more bite.

“I am pleased to announce tonight that the freeholders have reached an agreement with Sheriff Rochford to allow him to have a role in the jail after the county administration assumes control of the facility from Sept. 1. Under terms of the agreement, Sheriff Rochford will supervise and guide the warden.”

On July 8, when the freeholders announced the decision to take over the jail, Cabana said, “This step was necessary to deal with the lack of fiscal and management accountability by the sheriff.”

Cabana’s July 8 public statement also suggested the level that the situation had become a stare-down.

At a June meeting, Cabana quoted Rochford’s attorney John McCann, declaring the freeholders had no jurisdiction over the jail by saying, “If you don’t like it, you can always take the jail back.”

Well, they did.

This is a tale somewhat uncommon for wealthy, deeply Republican and seemingly gentile Morris County that has pitted long-time associates and colleagues against one another.

The public dispute played out in freeholder resolutions, press releases and eventually social media.

Cabana said that both sides had agreed to not debate the issue “in the newspapers,” as was once was the expression, but in recent weeks Rochford was stating positions all over social media.

That activity worked its way into the MOU: “All press and social media, including but not limited to Facebook, web pages and other materials for distribution, related to the Morris County Correctional Facility must be approved by the County of Morris and Undersheriff (William) Schievella in advance or distribution and posting.”

Like all disputes this one has a public side, which is about budget numbers, policy and administrative actions, and a non-pubic side.

The non-public side of this dispute is sensitive enough that sources who were willing to discuss the public side of the issues would not discuss the personal side of it on the record; one eventually concluded that the state of the sheriff’s office, which has seen staff changes, now leaves Rochford, “surrounded by yes-men.”

The political side of the dispute also leaves Republican eight-term Rochford expecting a primary challenge in 2016.

But, he said, “I’ve faced primary challenges before and won easily.”

For Deputy Director John Cesaro, who was not at the Wednesday’s Netcong meeting, and who in the past abstained twice on measures to take over the jail, this action was all about politics.

The genesis, Cesaro said, was an effort by the board under then-Director Tom Mastrangelo to consider an aborted effort to merge the sheriff’s office with the county park police, and a 2014 study that called for administrative changes in the sheriff’s office.

Cesaro had Rochford’s support in the June GOP primary, in which he and his running mate Christine Myers of Mendham Township defeated incumbents John Krickus of Washington Township and David Scapicchio of Mount Olive.

That testy primary also divided the Morris County’s state legislators with Senator Anthony R. Bucco and his son Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, supporting Krickus and Scapicchio, and Senator Joseph Pennacchio support Cesaro’s team.

A test of the political impact of the vote could come next year when Mastrangelo, Cabana and DeFillippo are up for their seats.

Cabana, in the end, said this was not about politics, but about management and control of the jail.

Perhaps to indicate how much of an insider’s games this all is — that is, all policy and procedure with little extended reach beyond its core issues — none of the 20 or so Netcong residents at Wednesday’s meeting took up DeFillippo’s offer to comment on the change, but they did rise to praise the county’s effort to help preserve the Stanhope United Methodist Church.

So, what’s this all mean?

In one respect, Rochford, an elected, constitutional officer, got his wings clipped.

His, and, unless this vote is reversed by some future freeholder board, the wings of his successors.

The Morris Sheriff’s office will still be fully in charge of the Bureau of Law Enforcement, which provides court security and crime investigative support, and the civilian division that includes home foreclosure sales.

A transition team led by two former jail wardens, Ralph McGrane and Frank Corrente, and including County Administrator John Bonnani and other top county financial, law enforcement and labor officials, has begun meeting to implement the changes.

The move was about bringing some financial sanity back to the sheriff’s office, Cabana said.

In the past year Rochford was rebuffed on thousands in bonuses he tried to hand out to his staff without consultation with the county, unilaterally negotiated four contracts with sheriff’s department unions that proposed raises of 22 to 30 percent, each far in excess the state-mandated 2 percent budget cap, had approved overtime payments for jail officers that rose from $864,251 in 2008, to $2.02 million in 2014, and sued the county three times in 2014, Cabana said.

Rochford had claimed that a state appeals court ruling on a similar contract issue in Bergen County gave him the sole authority over the jail and its finances and personnel. That ruling overturned the denial of raises by the Bergen County executive after the freeholder board had approved them.

Cabana pointed out that while the Bergen freeholders had approved the raises in question, the Morris freeholder had not approved the disputed raises.

The county, he said, under another overriding state statute, can compel the sheriff, like other key departments, to comply with annual budget procedures and accounting controls.

Further, the court noted, that in Bergen, they overturned the denial of the raises because it was done by the county executive, who in the court’s opinion, did not have direct jurisdiction over the matter.

The Morris County jail, located in Morris Township, opened in 2000. The facility has received high marks from national correctional organizations and in state inspections. It has 165 corrections officers and 269 inmates.

Rochford said he was trying to raise Morris jail officer’s pay to stem the growing loss of officers, 39 percent since 2012. He said the raises included in the four contracts he negotiated totaled about $600,000, half the cost of replacing officers annually.

The growing overtime was a result of the continued staff departures, Rochford said, despite the concurrent drop in the number of inmates.

The jail in 2010 housed 376 inmates, according to county figures, and now houses 269.

That figure is deceptive, Rochford said, because as long as inmates are present in the three security levels of the jail, corrections officers must also be continually present.

Cabana did not dispute that assertion, but questioned the rapid growth of the over time bill.

Cabana questioned the assertion that Morris underpays its connections officers. Its starting salary of $44,000 is the highest in the state, and it has the fifth highest maximum salary.

Turnover is related to jail officers accepting other law enforcement positions, including three this year who transferred to the sheriff’s law enforcement bureau and six who moved to other police departments, he said.

Changes in the state’s pension system has also spurred more retirements, Cabana said, including 19 in the past two years. The jail has hired 37 replacements in two years, the county said.

The drop in inmate population is related to voter-mandated changes in the state’s bail system, which has meant that more lower-level suspects are being released on bail instead of being houses at such county facilities, Cabana said.

The changes, he said, have started background discussions among counties about the possibilities that jails could consolidate.

So where does this leave Rochford?

He claimed Wednesday that “we,” meaning his team, were still in charge.

Not quite. Possibility in charge with a really short leash.

The MOU makes it clear that the freeholders’ intent was to reduce the sheriff’s direct oversight of jail operations, leaving him in an advisory role at that facility, but one that would insure compliance will all operational standards.

It is clear, from the language in the agreement that the freeholders took control of the jail.

Some of the changes are obvious: all jail officers and civilians are employees not of the sheriff’s office, but Morris County; all personal decisions are subject to “and require” freeholder approval; the county office of labor negotiations will handle all contract talks.

Others are more subtle: no civilian on the sheriff’s office, unless assigned to the jail, will have “interaction” with the facility “unless preapproved by the county administrator.”

Then there is this: If the agreement is terminated by either aside, which would be allowed, the jail warden would report, not to the sheriff, but a county department director.

That seems pretty final

Michael Daigle is a journalist from Warren County. Untangling the Sheriff Rochford Imbroglio in Morris County