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The League of Municipalities Conference

A Catalyst for
Statewide Reform

Ken Gardner

By Ken Gardner
Woodbridge Fire Commissioner

Both the day and evening at last November’s annual League Conference proved to be useful to the Woodbridge property taxpayers. The conference gathering gave me an opportunity to speak with key state decision makers who play a large role in the rules we follow when governing. It also gave me the opportunity to meet with fellow local officials to discuss their implementation of the state rules.

I had identified a clause in our paid firefighters’ contract that allowed the use of sick time to “conduct personal business.” From my many years of involvement in government, including having served as Council President in Woodbridge Township, I knew this was an improper use of time. Firstly, “sick time” and “personal (time) business” were an obvious contradiction. Secondly, when accumulation of sick days is taken into consideration, the ramifications of this ridiculous policy are magnified.

It is also difficult to administer this clause. While serving as the Chairman of the Personnel Committee, I questioned an employee on his month long use of sick time. The employee first filed internal harassment charges against me when I asked him to justify his use of sick time. It appeared the employee was trying to back me off by hiding behind the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPA). When I rejected his original incomplete “sick note” and asked him to detail his harassment claim he withdrew the charge. He then admitted he was using sick time to “conduct personal business.”

See caption below

The conference gathering gave me an opportunity to speak with key state decision makers
who play a large role in the rules we follow when governing.

Leading up to the conference I noticed that State Comptroller Matthew Boxer was part of a session’s panel on the schedule. I attended that session in an effort to discuss the Woodbridge contract with Mr. Boxer. I thought that the Comptroller’s Office mission would be sensitive to my cause in correcting our contract. Following the session, I asked if he thought “sick time” could be used for “personal business.” Of course he said he did not think so, but was not shocked that this clause was part of a contract.

Navigating the state bureaucracy can be a challenge. Although I knew this issue would end up before the Civil Service Commission, I hoped that the Comptroller’s research and request for a review by the Commission would help. It turned out to be the right approach.

Much later in the day at the conference I had the opportunity to meet Hope Cooper, the Chair of the New Jersey State Civil Service Commission. This meeting happened simply by the fact that both Hope and I were attending the League Conference representing our respective agencies.

You cannot help but get good work done for your property taxpayers by being in this productive setting. Impromptu gatherings take place at the conference all day and into the evening. This meeting was very helpful since I clearly understood the difficult challenge I was undertaking. Proving that a contract provision was illegal was no free throw. Obviously, meeting the Chair was another step toward correcting our local contract. However, in fact, this meeting was a product of the League Conference rather than seeking the Chair out.

I also had the opportunity to meet with many other individuals who would understand our situation. In addition these other New Jersey leaders would know the landscape. As I traveled around the conference it was easy to have conversations with mayors, council members, administrators, personnel directors, municipal lawyers, labor counsels and labor leaders. They all brought their diverse experience and opinions. I asked, “Have you ever see this before?”

one had seen this particular abuse which added moral support to my fight. However, had some of their opinions or examples been contrary, it would have provided me additional insight. These useful discussions help us all become more informed and save property tax dollars.

As a result of the connections I made at the League Conference I followed up with the State Comptroller’s Office. They conducted some research and passed the information along to the State Civil Service Commission with the suggestion that they investigate the Woodbridge contract. The Civil Service Commission then did their own review. As a result of my discussion with Chair Cooper at the League Conference I was able to make the right contacts at the Commission to check the status of this ongoing review.

As many of us have seen, there are various levels of review. Some issues can be resolved by letter. Others require a formal decision by the Commission. Following the right course can save both time and legal fees. A ruling in my favor was eventually granted by the Commission.

The ruling had statewide ramifications. Because of our discussions and the numerous regulations they oversee, the Commission also ordered a complete review of sick time policy that guides all civil service employees. With recent estimates of local level accumulated sick time being valued at over $2 billion, the saving to local taxpayers in stopping this type of abuse is obvious.

I passed this ruling back to Comptroller Boxer’s office. The Comptroller in turn said that sick time and contract abuse would be part of all future reviews that his office does of government offices and agencies.

The League Conference helped me navigate the often difficult state bureaucracy. The meetings & discussion that took place at the conference turned out to be a benefit not only to Woodbridge property taxpayers but also to property taxpayers across the State of New Jersey.


Ken Gardner is a Woodbridge Fire Commissioner. He previously served as Woodbridge Township Council President, Woodbridge Fire Chief & was a candidate for Congress. He has attended many League Conferences as either an elected official or as a government banker/ financial advisor.

 

This article appeared in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 87, Number 6, June 2010

 

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