‘Power struggle’ in Union County

Four municipal employees may face penalties for using public generators for personal needs

File Photo
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the possible use of public generators by municipal employees for personal needs in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is looking into exactly how many county employees helped themselves to generators immediately following superstorm Sandy.

County sources with knowledge of how this unfolded confirmed Monday that there were four public works employees in addition to “at least” one person in the public safety department that took home generators for personal use.

The source, however, would not say whether the public safety employee was a department head or among the rank and file.

The issue first surfaced two weeks ago on a county watchdog group blog who reported that 15 to 20 county employees took home the county-owned property to use right after the storm hit. On Nov. 29 at their regular meeting, the Union County Freeholder Board went on the record about the matter to explain what steps were being take to uncover the culprits.

“The county administration initiated an inquiry but that has been suspended at the request of, and pending the completion of an inquiry being conducted by the Union County Prosecutors Office,” said board attorney Bob Barry Thursday night.

Barry said the county is cooperating with the prosecutor’s inquiry and when concluded, the county will launch its own inquiry and “take whatever administrative actions we deem appropriate.”

Freeholder board Chairman Al Mirabella explained the freeholder’s position on the inquiry.

“We look forward to completion of the prosecutor’s inquiry and we are ready to take any action necessary. The misuse of generators by public employees during a time when the public is suffering is offensive and unacceptable,” Mirabella said.

Earlier the same day a high ranking law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the facts told LocalSource the information posted on Union County Watchdog beginning Nov. 14 was “ill informed and exaggerated.”

“The numbers she is quoting are much higher than the known truth,” said the law enforcement official, referring to Union County Watchdog President Tina Renna’s blog which ignited a firestorm of rumors among taxpayers and county officials alike.

Renna, who reported on the alleged use of generators by county employees and officials, maintained as early as Nov. 14 the prosecutor’s office was looking into the issue. Initially, though, the county refused to comment on the issue, while the prosecutor’s office could not confirm whether an  investigation or  inquiry was ongoing.

Renna, who has battled the county for years over various issues, including the controversial topic of MusicFest, strongly pointed out in a Nov. 16 blog post that politically connected employees “have been thieving for years, with no thought of being caught or held accountable.”

The watchdog group, who has brought multiple lawsuits against the county in the past, cited several past instances of county employees being investigated by the prosecutor’s office for taking county property. These instances, though, are still under investigation or deemed unfounded.

Other sources from within county government said the information Renna posted was based on rumors, which were then exaggerated when passed along.

“I’m not going to say no one took home generators, but the information being put out there is all wrong and inflated. There was only a small number of employees who took home generators and their immediate supervisors knew about it,” said one county department head who preferred their name not be connected with the issue.

“This thing totally got blown out of proportion,” said another source, admitting he knew the employees involved in the department of public works and they were not high on the employee roster.

The prosecutor’s office, on the other hand, said last week they could “neither confirm nor deny there was an ongoing investigation.”

Union County is not the only county that had issues with generators being taken home for personal use during the post storm power outage. One of the things Renna mentioned in her blog was that Union County is the only county with an ongoing investigation that has dragged on. In multiple other instances of public generators being used for private means, the offending parties have already been punished. In her online blog, Renna says  “It’s fascinating to compare the three counties and their responses to employee theft.”

A Sussex county under sheriff resigned three weeks ago amid allegations that he ordered an employee to bring two generators to his home. The official did send the generators back after a neighbor saw the units being delivered and called authorities.

It seems no one is exempt from getting in trouble over generators, even mayors.

In Passaic County, the North Haledon borough mayor took home a generator after the superintendent of public works mentioned he had a spare. The mayor admitted it was bad judgement, but he had an excuse. Seems he owned an ice cream parlor that lost power and he was just trying to keep his stock from melting.

This mayor also came under fire because he allowed the police chief to take a generator home the day after the storm. The police chief felt he had a good reason to do so because his 86-year-old mother was staying with him at the time.

In Ewing two police officers were disciplined for taking a pair of department-owned portable generators from headquarters after power was lost in the township. They two officers were disciplined for their action, but did not lose their jobs.

The Westwood school superintendent, who earns $218,982 annually, took home a generator for his own use and took heat for it later. He claimed the school generator  enabled him to work remotely from his home in Boonton in order to coordinate getting the schools open again.

There was no word whether this issue was resolved or if the school superintendent was penalized for his action.

Although most county, municipal and school districts have policies regarding the use of equipment, many do not.

In Sussex County, for example, employees are responsible for the proper care of county property and equipment assigned to them. Damaged or lost property may result in the responsible individual reimbursing the county along with having disciplinary action taken against them.

This county also makes it clear in their policy handbook that employees are not allowed to use property or equipment for personal use.

Likewise in Union County, the employee handbook, issued in 2008 when George Devanney was county manager, clearly states on page 25 that county equipment is only for county business purposes. The handbook also points out what can happen if employees fail to obey these rules.

“Employees who violate this policy shall be subject to discipline up to and including termination in accordance with applicable regulations and procedures.”