Assemblywoman’s new job raises ethical questions about Democrats on the payroll

Linda Stender
Linda Stender

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Stender, a seasoned official with more than a dozen years in the legislature, almost tripled her taxpayer funded income recently when she was named deputy director of Union County Improvement Authority.

Stender, who earns $49,000 a year as an assemblywoman, a part-time job, will be paid $90,000 annually by UCIA to oversee various projects the authority has undertaken.

According to Sebastian D’Elia, a commissioner on UCIA who also holds the county position of Director of Public Information, the board had been discussing hiring a deputy director because of the many projects currently on the table.

“We have multiple projects in various stages, including the new family courthouse, renewable energy, Union County College expansion, shared services and a proposed Roselle Community Center,” said D’Elia in an interview with LocalSource.
D’Elia said Stender expressed an interest in the position, and “she was a good fit because of her extensive local and county experience.”

“There was a certain comfort level in hiring someone we knew was well versed in what the UCIA does,” D’Elia added.
Stender served as a councilwoman in Fanwood from 1988 to 1990 and mayor of that municipality from 1992 to 1994. She was first elected to the freeholder board in 1995, serving until 2002. In 2002 she ran for assembly and has served in that capacity since.

The assemblywoman represents the 22nd district which includes the Union County towns Rahway, Clark, Linden, Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Plainfield and Winfield. This district also includes towns in Middlesex and Somerset counties.
The assemblywoman ran for a U.S. Congress seat in 2006 but was narrowly defeated, running again in 2008 but losing by a considerably wider margin to Leonard Lance.

Although Stender can legally hold two public positions, the move has long been criticized by government ethics advocates.
While state law has barred officials from holding dual elected offices since 2008, many elected officials hold non related public jobs, which some maintain are political patronage positions.

For example, in January Gloucester County Assemblyman John Burzichelli was appointed as director of project management with the Gloucester County Improvement Authority, a strikingly similar situation to Stender.
While this smacks of political patronage, this practice is not unusual.

Democrat Union County Freeholder Al Mirabella was appointed Scotch Plains town manager Jan. 1 despite still keeping his seat on the freeholder board.

The position, which pays approximately $120,000 annually, is in addition to the $29,500 he receives for serving as a freeholder.

Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley, who recently was appointed to Joe Cryan’s unexpired assembly term and will receive slightly less than the usual $49,000 salary for assuming this position, also has a job as the Irvington Director of Public Works at an unknown salary. This is in addition to the $15,000 plus he earns as mayor of Roselle.

Cryan held the assemblyman position for years while also serving as a Union County undersheriff, until former sheriff Ralph Froehlich died in June 2014. Cryan, also the Union municipal chairman, ran for the seat and won the sheriff’s position, which he assumed in January.

Likewise, until recently, Rahway Mayor Samson Steinman, who earns $20,000 for that position, held the temporary position of Hillside’s business administrator since early last year while Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr was given a job with the county involving economic development.

Former Freeholder Dan Sullivan also served as freeholder while holding the position of director of the Union County Utilities Authority. However, that changed in 2013 when the UCIA brokered a shared services deal with the UCUA and Sullivan was charged with overseeing both authorities. At that point Sullivan resigned his freeholder seat, giving up the $29,000 stipend.

At issue is the fact these dual positions will boost these elected and former elected officials pensions because the state Public Employees Retirement system, or PERS, calculates pensions based on the highest three years of salary prior to retirement.
D’Elia, though, said freeholders and former freeholders, like Stender and Sullivan, are not only familiar with the county but also have experience that enables them to hit the ground running.

Stender, who served as the assembly deputy director from 2006 to 2009, currently chairs the State Government Committee and serves on transportation, public works and independent authority’s committees.