UNION COUNTY — Charlotte DeFilippo, the powerful leader of the Democratic party in Union County who also has been the executive director of the Union County Improvement Authority for the last 11 years, announced she would be giving up both positions in the next several months.
While not expected, the announcement of DeFilippo’s retirement was not surprising after the political leader took a verbal bashing several weeks ago from Tom Neff, head of the Local Finance Board in Trenton. He blasted her regarding the “outrageous” $160,000-a-year job she held with the UCIA, maintaining he would not approve any forthcoming UCIA projects until the matter was rectified.
“I haven’t seen anything that disgusting since I’ve been here in two and a half-years,” Neff said in late April when the UCIA sought approval from the board for $20 million in bonding for a project at Union County College.
But, despite efforts on the part of UCIA legal counsel Jonathan Williams to smooth these unsettled waters, concern mounted that DeFilippo was becoming a liability both to the UCIA and the Democratic party.
In the last two weeks sources indicated discussions had been going on about how the bad press would affect the authority, not to mention the primary where several key positions are being challenged.
Political sources said earlier this week two well known and powerful politicians are vying for the county Democratic chairman position, including Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage and Democrat Assemblyman Jerry Green of Plainfield.
Although both wield considerable weight in the party, it is expected there will be considerable political jockeying for position before a winner is declared. One source indicated the decision will come down to local Democrat committee members in each town who will have the final say in who nabs this coveted political position. Voting on this particular issue will take place a week after the primary election.
DeFilippo will step down as executive director of the UCIA Aug. 1 and as county Democratic chair immediately after the June 4 primary. Despite political undercurrent that fueled rumors DeFilippo stepped down because of bad press jeopardizing the primary election, the Hillside resident said she had been considering the move for a while.
“As I look ahead I believe there are other horizons and challenges awaiting me,” DeFilippo said at the emergency UCIA meeting Friday afternoon.
According to a statement put out by the authority, UCIA Assistant Director Mark Brink will step in to serve as interim director starting Aug. 1 until a replacement can be found for DeFilippo.
At a UCIA emergency meeting late Friday afternoon, though, DeFilippo admitted there were other reasons for her retirement.
“It’s an intolerable position to have people abuse you just because they’re partisans from another party. I am 68-years-old. It’s time for me to retire,” she said at the meeting.
Although her statement was brief, focusing more on the accomplishments she brought about the last 11 years as the head of the UCIA, DeFilippo also acknowledged she had come under an “unwarranted series of criticisms” that threatened the UCIA progress in the future.
“I am grateful that I was well paid by the agency I serve, as it takes into consideration my work product and my 34 years of governmental experience,” she said, but added she valued her reputation and that of the UCIA.
Among the projects the UCIA completed under DeFilippo’s leadership included the new Union County College Kellogg Building in Elizabeth, the new Linden Public Library, four firehouses in Linden, the Raymond Wood Bauer Amphitheater in Linden, the new Juvenile Detention Center in Linden, the Union County Child Advocacy Center in Elizabeth and the Park Madison retail and office development in Plainfield.
All of these projects, said one county official, help save taxpayer dollars through low financing rates, which spurred the creation of important public projects that might not have otherwise been built.
Also noted was the fact the county has an excellent bond rating, which enabled other projects, such as road improvements, parking facilities, business relocation and the purchase of police and fire vehicles to take place.
But while DeFilippo did plow her way through multiple multi-million dollar projects over the last 11 years, providing valuable hands-on guidance throughout the construction phase of each, politically that carried little weight, if any.
Real Democrats for Change waited less than an hour to make a statement after the announcement came that DeFilippo was stepping down.
“Several weeks ago we called on Charlotte DeFilippo to resign as Executive Director of the UCIA. Today as evidence mounts of her inability to perform to the level of other directors around the state, she heeded our call,” the statement read, pointing out that her resignation “portends that larger issues surround her.”
Stopping short of mentioning what those issues might be, the party simply said “we hope the rumors that are swirling around her are untrue and that she just goes quietly.”
Donna Obe, the Roselle resident and board of education president who is challenging Democrat Sen. Ray Lesniak for his seat in Trenton, also made a statement about DeFilippo, but was more forthcoming about the political powerhouses who controlled county politics and government for decades.
“It is important to remember, though, that Charlotte DeFilippo was the puppet and Ray Lesniak was the master. The second rate Improvement Authority our county has been saddled with is by Mr. Lesniak’s design,” she said, but did not stop there.
“People will be outraged when they realize how much of their property tax bill goes to paying Mr. Lesniak’s law firm, which was recently fired by the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority for billing work it did not perform,” Obe said in a statement, calling on Lesniak “to do the right thing and resign as well and give our county a chance to start over.”
DeFilippo did not hesitate to defend her tenure both as UCIA executive director and Democrat County chair, when Kenilworth resident John Bury asked at the UCIA emergency meeting for the “real reason” she was stepping down.
“I’m offended by people who don’t know anything about what I do, except that I’m a Democrat, would choose those kind of abhorrent attacks,” she said, adding she had never presented herself in that manner.
“If you knew me, you would know that this was true,” she added.
Although few knew about the impromptu meeting, sources said Democratic party leaders were reeling from all the bad press coming out prior to the primary. Despite this, the authority released slightly more than a two-page statement praising DeFilippo for her service and touting her many accomplishments.
Among the accolades included pointing out that under her direction, the UCIA was able to complete $330 million in economic development and environmental projects “that jump started Union county’s economy.”
Cranford resident Jim Buettner merely made a statement, but one that not only made DeFilippo bristle, but also UCIA board members.
“This is a walk of shame I waited for for four years,” he said, but the remainder of statements were from county officials, employees and freeholders who praised DeFilippo for her years of service and strong political leadership.
Union County Surrogate James LaCorte took a different direction when showing his support of the longtime executive director and leader of his political party.
“The most dangerous people to effective government are the people who sit back and take pot shots and cherry pick to make government officials look bad,” he said, adding that DeFilippo was “the type of government official we all would like to be but in our wildest dreams will never be.”