Crabb, Vohden, Mudrick appoint crony to top job

Earlier this year, Sussex County Human Services Administrator Stephen Gruchacz, aged 67, was telling people that he was all set to retire.  Many believed that Gruchacz would be the fifth top county bureaucrat to hand in his resignation in the aftermath of the county's solar debacle. 

Instead, three of the five county freeholders got around the State's Open Public Meetings Act to successfully negotiate a deal with Gruchacz to stay on -- provided he got a promotion and a 22% salary increase.  At Wednesday's meeting of the county's Freeholder Board, Gruchacz was appointed County Administrator, Sussex County's top unelected bureaucrat, on a 3-2 vote (Crabb, Vohden, Mudrick voted yes; Phoebus and Graham voted no).

Of course, the $30,000-per-year salary increase the three Freeholders gave Gruchacz came with a three-year contract.  In effect, they gave him a pension boost as well.  It's nice to have friends in high places.  Word has it that the votes of the three Freeholders for Gruchacz were delivered by outgoing County Administrator Johnny "Wildthing" Eskilson. 

On the same day that Freeholder Vohden was insisting that destroying the audio recordings of what he said during the negotiations that led to the solar debacle was nothing more than "following the law",  Vohden led a posse of Crabb and Mudrick in ignoring the County's law that requires the top job be filled by someone residing in Sussex County.  Gruchacz lives in Somerset County and pays his property taxes there.  Taxpayers screwed again.  This man doesn't even feel our pain. 

However, the Gruchacz appointment did make it plain who runs the county -- it's the outgoing County Administrator and the three Freeholders (Vohden, Crabb, and Mudrick) one of whom was just defeated for re-election (Mudrick came in four out of four).  Instead of taking the will of the voters into account, Gruchacz was appointed over the strong objections of the County's legislative delegation, other elected county officials, and numerous local elected officials.

Nobody thought it a good idea to hand Gruchacz a three year contract.  All these elected officials advised giving him no more than an interim contract as provided for by law, but Eskilson got to Crabb who infected Vohden, leaving Mudrick, who just slavishly obeys.  One can only wonder what kind of cooperation the County will get from Trenton after pulling a stunt like this.

At Wednesday's meeting, Freeholder Crabb referred to Gruchacz as "Best of Breed" -- apparently forgetting that the term is used in judging dogs.  On the other hand, this might well be a real dog of an appointment. 



Freeholder Crabb misleads public again

In his attempts to mislead Sussex County taxpayers, Freeholder Director Phil Crabb is sounding more and more like one of those old comedic send-ups of a flannel-mouthed politician.  Case in point:  Crabb's pal Johnny Eskilson got caught trying to "clean up" the document trail as he leaves office.  Clean up, as in shred and incinerate. 

Crabb failed to return any calls or emails or text messages when asked about it for the story in Wednesday's New Jersey Herald.   But having a day to rehearse, Crabb did his best "good old country-boy, I wouldn't lie to you" Senator Claghorn routine at Wednesday's Freeholder meeting. 


The Freeholder Director must have had his fingers crossed when he tried to calm the public present at the meeting with the smooth words that the records that the County Administrator had sought to destroy were just odds and ends, nothing important.  "A few bid hearings" and what not, Crabb told the taxpayers attending the meeting.

But Freeholder Crabb's words do not reflect what is listed on the legal request filed with the New Jersey Department of the Treasury.  That document (CR-AA-0005), a "Request and Authorization for Records Disposal" was filed by the personal secretary to the Sussex County Administrator on April 9, 2015.  It was approved by the Sussex County Administrator that day. 

Yes, let's say that again.  The Sussex County Administrator had his personal secretary, Cathy Williams, "request" that the records be destroyed.  And then he approved her request.  How cozy is that? 

Office of the CountyAdministrator
Sussex County Administrative Center
One Spring Street
Newton, NJ  07860

Telephone:   (973) 579-0250
Fax:  (973) 579-0259
Cathy Williams, Secretary 

At last evening's Freeholder's meeting, Crabb complained about the volume of the records the Board had to deal with -- and he received some sympathy from those members of the public in attendance.  But guess what?  Crabb was pulling your chain again. 

 The actual volume of the documents written on the official legal request (Form CR-AA-0005) to destroy these documents is 1 cubic foot.  That is 1,728 cubic inches or less than a standard piece of carry-on luggage (2,250 to 2,500 cubic inches).  That is nothing like what Crabb described.

But the most important part is this.  This legal request to destroy the documents (pictured below) is EXACT about what is to be destroyed.  EXACT. 


First, go to "1.A Agency Retention Schedule Number".  This legal request reads: "C820000-009".  What this means is listed in the 33 page document you can access here:

It means pretty much everything. 

Second, go to "9. Record Series #".  The legal request reads: "0511-0000".  Now it gets a little more specific.  According to the Record retention policy set forth by the State of New Jersey Division of Archives and Records Management (DARM), Record Series 0511-0000 are “the recordings of public meetings".  This is supported by the accompanying description found in the official legal request:  "Recordings of Public Meetings - Public Officials - Audio/Video (Analog and Digital)".

Thirdgo to "12. Inclusive Dates".  The legal request reads: "From 01/1992 To 04/2013".  

What this means is that Sussex County asked for permission to destroy EVERY recording of EVERY public meeting (and recordings of "public officials" at non-public meetings, read Freeholder Board executive sessions) in whatever form (analog and digital) covering the dates January 1992 to April 2013. 

And when that is done we will have no actual record of what went on during the discussion stages of the solar project that has cost Sussex taxpayers millions. Because those discussions occurred from late 2010 through 2011.  All we will have are summaries of what happened.  No actual evidentiary record of what was said.  Just a summary approved by the very parties that may be subjects of the investigation.  Real cozy, huh?  Real convenient too.


Is the Sussex GOP "Dysfunctional"?

Gary Larson has been a successful local politician.  He is the Mayor of Frankford Township and has been elected and re-elected to that town's Committee.  At that level -- the small community -- it is tough to avoid hearing from your neighbor, to avoid touching the voters. 

Mayor Larson has also run for county Freeholder twice, in 2013 and again in 2015, and has lost both times.  After each loss, Larson has blamed the Republican Party for his loss.  In his most recent loss, he labeled the party as "dysfunctional".  One can only suppose that if he had won the election, Larson would have said the party was in good working order, functioning as it should.

But Larson does have a point because, by virtue of his running with incumbent Freeholder Dennis Mudrick, he could be described as a candidate of the county's "establishment".  So why didn't he win? 

The weekend before the June 2nd primary election, Larson and Mudrick put out a mailer that listed their support from local and county elected officials. Including Mudrick, three of the five county Freeholders supported Larson.  Their ticket ran a technically better campaign, with unified advertising and more voter contact.  They got their message out, so what went wrong?

Well, what went wrong was the same thing that went so disastrously wrong with the campaign of Marie Bilik.  The message and where it came from.

Instead of looking to the voters for guidance about what their message should be, in Sussex County many would be elected officials look to a small group of political insiders.  They have conversations, conduct their own version of "market research" and then fashion their message based on how they believe these insiders will react to it.  Unfortunately, these insiders represent only a fraction of the primary electorate who actually turnout to vote.  And many have altogether different reasons for voting.

There are levels of "insider" in Sussex County.  At the inner most core exist those who owe their living to government -- county, local, state, and federal (in that order) -- especially those whose living is based on a more fluid relationship with government.  Most county employees have a static relationship with government (35 hours time for X in compensation, week in, week out) and are not political insiders.  However, if you are looking to score a contract from government, it is probably safe to say that you are at least an aspiring insider.  If you are not one of the chattering class, you will soon be.

It is this relationship -- the wanting of something from government -- that makes the Sussex County "insider" so different from the average Republican primary voter in Sussex County.  The insider is looking for something from government:  Money or some consideration that he or she can turn into money.  The average Republican voter doesn't want shat from government.  They simply want to be left alone.  They want government to spend less, so it doesn't have to tax them at the highest rate in America.

So there's the difference.  The insider wants government to spend taxpayers' money on their product or service.  The average Republican primary voter wants government to spend less and just go away.  It's a difference of perspective and it is why candidates like Gary Larson see "dysfunction" -- because the wants of the insiders he's listening to are different from those of the Republican voters he is trying to convince to vote for him.

And often -- too often -- the insider's game turns into little more than crony capitalism, with products and services considered based on the pedigree of the "representative" (aka "advocate", "lobbyist", "recipient of corporate welfare") as opposed to the needs of the taxpayer.  Who said we needed solar panels on the roof tops of every public building anyway?  Which came first, some insider's need for a score or the taxpayers' need for the product?

So Gary Larson is on to something.  There is something dysfunctional about Sussex County politics.  Too many prospective elected officials dispense with polling the people they want to represent and instead look to the direction of a handful of chattering insiders.  These perspectives couldn't be more different, and so they lose, wonder why, and then call it "dysfunctional".


Does Sussex County have a politicized police force?

The Republican primary to nominate a candidate for the open 24th District Assembly seat being vacated by Alison Littell McHose had a lot of strange elements to it.  None stranger was candidate Marie Bilik's attempts to politicize the police departments of Sussex County.

It began a few days before the start of the Memorial Day weekend, when Bilik campaign chairman Molly Whilesmith sent an email to police chiefs asking them to mobilize their departments in opposition to Freeholder Gail Phoebus, a candidate for Assembly.  At a Blairstown debate, Phoebus had suggested that some police chiefs received excessively large payouts and that some police officers were able to access their pension benefits too early. 

Both positions are perfectly defensible -- particularly in a Republican primary.  In 2013, Assemblyman Gary Chiusano -- then a candidate for Surrogate -- took a much harder line on police pensions and went on to crush a well-funded primary opponent by 20 percentage points. 

But Freeholder Phoebus went to great lengths to claw back her statements.  She personally apologized to individual police chiefs and officers, and she sent out at least two written apologies that we know of.  But apparently, it wasn't enough.  Embracing the idea that having an enemy is better than having a friend, some of the cops went all out to stick it up the poop-chute.  Perhaps they're just those kind of guys.

Watchdog has learned that Whilesmith -- who is a paid representative of Concord Engineering/ Energy, as well as an elected Sparta councilwoman -- organized a meeting of seven police chiefs, for the purpose of coordinating campaign operations against Phoebus.  At a PBA dinner held in Sparta, Bilik was the only candidate invited.  And there was a Facebook campaign organized to get police to vote for Bilik, along with Phoebus running mate Parker Space.  They even made a video ad to aid their efforts.

We've learned that the Phoebus camp was somewhat perplexed by the behavior of the predominately male members, refusing to accept the apology of a woman, more determined to make threats and carry them out.  One memo, obtained by Watchdog, referenced polling numbers on this issue and closed with the term "Assmonkeys", whatever that means.

In the end, this campaign appears to have helped Freeholder Phoebus, whose numbers were much closer to those of incumbent Parker Space than expected.  This is evident when compared to the last contested primary for an open Assembly seat, in 2007.

2007                                                                          2015

McHose (incumbent)        9,600 (35.5%)         Space (incumbent)            6,533 (40%)

Chiusano                               7,705 (28.5%)         Phoebus                    6,048 (37%)

Zellman                                 5,701 (21%)             Bilik                            1,696 (10%)

Woods                                   3,950 (14.5%)         Orr                             2,010 (12%)

Memo to the people who jumped on this scheme:  If you are going to publicly screw an elected official, don't come back with numbers like these.  Apparently however, Phoebus is a genuine friend of the police and a significant contributor to their causes.  She has stated that she looks forward to representing them in Trenton. 

That's a pity, as far as Watchdog is concerned.  We can't say we agree with her.

The bigger issue here is the politicization of the police.  Do we really want police chiefs behaving like party bosses?  Do we really want ward heelers with guns?  Instead of sobriety checks, how about traffic stops to check your voter ID?  Does anybody think having political cops is a good idea?

If the police want to become politicians, they should leave the force and run for office.  Law enforcement and the judiciary should be party blind if they want to maintain their integrity and the public's trust.




(Courtesy of the New Jersey Herald)