RAHWAY, NJ – At last week’s city council meeting on May 12, the council voted 8-0, with one absence, in favor of raises for every department head. Most got 2-percent raises. Mayor Samson Steinman, however, received a 246-percent raise, and this raised the ire of the large crowd that turned out to voice their opposition to the measure.
The issue first surfaced a month ago when the story actually garnered national attention with the Associated Press picking up the story. Since, there has been a public outcry demanding to know why a city with a population of around 25,000 needed a full-time mayor with a $72,000 salary.
By contrast, Union, with almost 55,000 residents, has a part-time mayor making around $19,000 a year. Plainfield, also in Union County, has around 50,000 residents and the mayor there makes around $30,000 a year. In Westfield, a city with 5,000 more residents than Rahway, the mayor takes home a $1 salary.
More than one resident was quick to point out this inconsistency during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting, but most were content to simply share their displeasure.
“I just want to know what makes him worth that much money?” asked one man who stepped to the microphone. “My life hasn’t improved and he hasn’t been in office long enough to do it. He ran against the other guy, reduced his salary, now all of the sudden you’re raising his? I oppose it, but I hope you give it to him, because that means he’ll be a one-term mayor.”
These comments were met with loud applause at the well-attended city council meeting. And many people who came to the microphone were quick to mention the past.
In November of 2012, Steinman was still just a councilman in Rahway, but he led the charge to slash former mayor Rick Proctor’s salary from $66,000 plus a $6,000 stipend a year down to $20,808. But the salary slashing was just one part of a larger battle, led by Steinman, between the council and then mayor Proctor.
Proctor had attempted to hire his wife as health officer for Rahway after he stepped down from the position to become mayor. When Proctor failed to remove himself from the decision, the council lashed out against him, filing complaints and taking action.
Ultimately, amid other ethics complaints, Proctor resigned as mayor with a single-sentence letter months after his salary was unanimously slashed by the council, with Steinman leading the charge. Steinman was appointed interim mayor, and a few months later was elected to a full term in office.
Proctor, at the time, said the move was political, but Steinman, in 2012, said the move was intended to balance the mayor’s salary with the salaries of other mayors. In fact, Steinman even said the $20,808 salary was derived through taking the average of mayor salaries throughout Union County. Steinman’s new salary now exceeds that average 2012 salary by $51,192
In addition, Steinman also said publicly during the drawn out confrontation with Proctor that he believed the mayor’s salary should be commensurate with the work he does on the city’s behalf, also criticizing Proctor for rarely showing up at city council meetings.
When the council brought the mayor’s raise to a vote, Steinman was not present, and his absence was noticed by the at times hostile crowd.
“I didn’t come up here to hear that bull that he should get something. He shouldn’t get crap,” said one angry member of the public who spoke during the public comment portion.
This man then proceeded to point directly at each individual Democratic council member and shout “You shouldn’t be here” four times before saying “You guys sat here and picked Proctor apart, and I sat here and watched you.”
The mild mannered man became angrier as he insinuated the members were simply flexing their muscles because former mayor Proctor would not do what they wanted him to do.
“You guys did that,” he shouted, receiving applause from the audience. “All of y’all should be indicted for the bull crap you’ve done,” he continued, shouting over applause. “Even the Linden mayor only makes $67,000 with no business administrator. Then last year you overpaid to bring her in here,” he said pointing at Business Administrator Cheron Rountree, “and so you say we saved ourselves some money so let’s give ourselves a little raise. You’re not representing us. You’re representing yourselves. And where’s Steinman? Is he upstairs watching it or is he out working hard? Y’all are full of it.”
These sentiments were echoed by a about a dozen vocal citizens, and many more in the form of applause.
“For you to go along with this is an embarrassment,” said another resident. “And as a lifelong resident, I am embarrassed. It is a slap in the face to taxpayers and it should not stand.” This man’s statements, too, were met with loud applause.
Resident Patrick Cassio, an often outspoken Republican in Rahway that ran against Steinman for mayor, was in attendance, and he took an opportunity to speak late into the public comment portion.
“If you vote ‘yes’ to this, you are telling us that our mayor should be paid more than any other mayor in Union County other than Elizabeth,” Cassio began. “The mayor should be compensated for his work, but to do what you are doing now,” he said while shaking his head. “How in good conscience can you do this? This story went across the AP. This is not some lark. This is something that gathered negative attention to the town. And when you vote on this tonight, you’re signing off on something that’s wrong. And you can spin it any way you want, it’s wrong. And you know it’s wrong.
“And because he’s a democrat chairman,” he continued, “you are afraid to vote ‘no,’ because six of you are up for election next year. The bottom line is that if you vote for this now, you are telling everybody that this guy is the best mayor in Union County. That’s a lot to slice. And like the other gentleman said, he’s not here. Why isn’t he here? Be a man, sit there, and answer the questions of these people in this audience. That, to me, is a coward.”
These statements were met with loud applause, and so were the words of several other residents who shared their displeasure, but there were some in attendance who spoke in favor of the salary increase. One in particular was forced to talk over jeers from the crowd, and even exchanged words with an unruly dissenter who interrupted him.
“I don’t want a part-time mayor,” he said. “There is a lot happening, and I don’t want a mayor that is more concerned with having another job to supplement his income when he should be here working for us.”
“A $50,000 increase?” shouted one man from the crowd.
“Can you please give me some respect!” the man shouted back, followed by an inaudible back-and-forth between the pair.
After the very brief verbal melee, the man continued.
“There is a tremendous deal of activity in this city,” he continued. “The arts district is growing. We have added a tremendous number of ratables. While I respect other people’s’ opinions, I just differ,” he finished, and his comments were received by a small, but noticeable round of applause from the crowd.
And finally, to close out the public comment portion of the meeting, a second supporter of the increase stepped to the microphone, saying Steinman has raised the level of respect the city receives.
“The previous mayor, where I was working, it was a joke. It was a constant joke,” he said. “I felt like I had to constantly defend this city. With Mr. Steinman, I feel this city has gotten some respect again. And I would like to see him here full time.”
Following the public comment portion of the meeting, the council president gave council members a chance to respond with their own comments, and to no one’s surprise they overwhelmingly defended the salary increase.
“I just want to be perfectly clear,” said 6th Ward Councilman Raymond Giacobbe, a Democrat. “Through all the political rhetoric, I do agree that Samson Steinman is going to be a good mayor for this time. We are only restoring it to what the previous mayor, Kennedy, got when he left.”
Former Mayor James Kennedy served as mayor from 1991 to 2010 when he declined to seek a sixth term. Kennedy was widely liked by Democrats, Republicans and Independents, and during his five terms, his salary was gradually increased, until it topped out at $72,000, a small portion of which came in the form of a stipend.
When Proctor was elected in 2010, with Steinman as his campaign manager up until the final weeks, he received the same salary as his predecessor, until, in 2012, Steinman spearheaded the effort to reduce it to $20,808.
After Giacobbe expressed his support for raising the salary back up to the level it was during Kennedy’s term, a resident in the crowd shouted over him, and a verbal altercation broke out before a resident was asked to leave.
“You can respect the council,” the council president said.
“I’m trying to respect the council, but it’s difficult,” the resident shouted back before leaving the room.
At-Large Councilman James Baker, a Democrat, shared his support next.
“I don’t particularly appreciate my character being assaulted,” he began. “This council meeting is the council’s meeting. If we want the mayor to attend then we invite him. It is not mandatory that the mayor attend a council meeting. This is the city council’s meeting, not the mayor’s meeting. If he wishes to attend, that’s his discretion.
“We’re not lining our pockets up here,” he continued. “I do have to work a second job. City council salaries have not increased in the last 10 years. It’s not about us making money. It’s not about lining pockets.”
Other council members took time to express their support for the measure and their reasons why, but Council President Robert Bresenhan Jr., a Democrat of the 3rd Ward, had the last word before a vote was taken.
“I believe in Samson Steinman,” he said. “I know his heart is in this community.”
The votes passed with 8 in favor and one absence.
But before the meeting could end, a final general public comment section was held, and one man stepped back up to the microphone to share his disgust.
“I shed a little tear for the city of Rahway today based on what I witnessed here,” he said. “The hypocrisy of this council. You came in here with the notion that you are going to pass what you want no matter what you hear. What do you do for the people? When will you listen to us? You’re day is going to come, and I’m going to be here to point at you.”