ELIZABETH, NJ — State Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s chief of staff was appointed county manager Jan. 25, amid the threat of litigation and pushback over the county freeholders’ hiring process for the full-time position.
Ed Oatman has worked for Scutari for the past six years and will replace Alfred Faella on March 1. Faella announced his retirement Jan. 9, after more than six years as county manager. Scutari represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes parts of Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties.
“Ed has more than 16 years of governmental experience at the state and in working with officials at the local and county levels of government, as well as experience in running a business,” Freeholder Chairman Sergio Granados said in a recent statement. “We are excited to work with him in moving Union County forward.”
Oatman, 42, will handle the county’s day-to-day operations and budget.
But an unidentified Union County resident has retained an attorney and threatened to challenge Oatman’s appointment.
Alexis Enderle, a lawyer based in Passaic who is purportedly representing an “anonymous” Union County resident, wrote a letter to the freeholders three days before they were to officially appoint Oatman.
The letter was sent to LocalSource through an anonymous email and a county spokesman said the freeholder chairman was notified of the letter. Enderle confirmed to LocalSource that she wrote the letter, but did not respond when asked why her client wished to remain anonymous.
The letter contends there were issues with the timeliness and hiring process of Oatman, and threatened possible litigation if the freeholders did not table the vote appointing the new county manager. Enderle did not respond when asked after Oatman was appointed if she will file suit.
Documents obtained by LocalSource through a public records request showed that Oatman was hired Jan. 3 as a part-time seasonal employee in the Union County Manager’s Office for $25 per hour. His expected termination in that capacity is Feb. 28, public records state.
“I can only surmise this was an attempt to avoid and circumvent what your administrative code requires of you,” Enderle wrote in the Jan. 22 letter to the freeholders.
The letter pointed to a portion of the county code that calls for the creation of a Citizens’ Selection Committee for county manager if there is no viable candidate for the position. The committee should have at least four Union County residents, including an editor or publisher of a newspaper circulated in the county.
Enderle contends in her letter that Oatman lacks the proper qualifications, which should have sparked the creation of the selection committee.
“As you are also aware, Mr. Oatman’s curriculum vitae is devoid of ‘appropriate qualifications,'” Enderle’s letter states. “My purpose is not to criticize Mr. Oatman, but to highlight what your administrative code requires of you.”
Oatman lives in Woodbridge and was also recently appointed to the Kean University Board of Trustees, an unpaid position. He is a partner in Parktowne Associates, a political consulting business and served as the Union County campaign coordinator for Gov. Phil Murphy.
Oatman also worked as chief of staff for state Assemblyman Jim Kennedy for two years, and in the same capacity for former state Assemblywoman Linda Stender for about 14 years.
Freeholder Vice Chairwoman Bette Jane Kowalski spoke of Oatman’s experience in a press release one day after his Jan. 25 appointment.
“Ed has great experience in developing solutions to complex issues,” Kowalski said in the statement. “He brings the added dimension of his statewide contacts and experience and his ability to build a consensus in getting things done.”
Union County spokesman Sebastian D’Elia did not respond when asked if any other candidates were considered for the position.
“In compliance with the administrative code, the County has found a qualified, available candidate for the position of county manager, making the claim unjustified,” he said in a Jan. 23 email.
The administrative code also states that a new county manager should be appointed within 14 days of the announcement of Faella’s intent to retire. Oatman was approved 16 days after a county press release announced Faella’s retirement, Enderle’s letter pointed out.
In addition to the anonymous client, Anthony Esposito took issue with Oatman’s appointment. Esposito, of Roselle, told LocalSource he is not the lawyer’s anonymous client but expressed outrage during the freeholders’ meeting at which Oatman was appointed.
Esposito is currently suing the county and other local agencies to halt a $59 million school and recreation project in Roselle. He said he is concerned that this was just another political appointment.
“It seems like the only way the citizens of this county can get good government from the municipalities and from the county (is) they have to go and create lawsuits,” Esposito said. “Which is absolutely ridiculous. Why does a person have to file a lawsuit and incur all the costs of lawsuits when all we’re asking is good government? Just follow your own process, is all we’re asking. We know this guy (Oatman) is politically connected.”
Freeholder Angel Estrada was the only member of the board who voted against the appointment and Freeholder Mohamed Jalloh was not present at the Jan. 25 meeting.
The appointment comes amid an internal Union County Democratic Committee scuffle for control of the committee following the abrupt resignation of its former chairman, state Assemblyman Jerry Green. Scutari has racked up endorsements against Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, the county Democratic party’s vice chairwoman and who has publicly stated her intentions to run for the committee’s top post.
A press release from the county said Oatman plans to maintain the county’s bond rating and focus on infrastructure improvements, job opportunities and economic development.
“We certainly look forward to working with our new governor, who shares many of the same priorities as the freeholder board does,” Oatman said in the press release.
Oatman’s salary has not been approved yet, and he will not continue to work as a chief of staff once he takes over as county manager, the county spokesman said.