Should the County Counsel have his own SuperPAC?

A decade ago, in response to economic conditions and the state’s pay-to-play laws, government vendors around the state set-up a number of so-called “SuperPACs”. These political action committees (PACs, for short) collect money from vendors and their allies and then distribute that money to elected officials, many of whom will be in a position to influence the hiring of those vendors or to renew their contracts.

The Skylands Victory Continuing Political Committee (or PAC) was incorporated on February 19, 2010, as a non-profit organization. In the certificate of incorporation filed with the New Jersey State Treasurer, three “trustees” were listed. First among them was Kevin Kelly, a Newton attorney, who was also listed as the “registered agent” on the certificate of incorporation.

In an updated “status report” issued by the New Jersey Department of Revenue, as of yesterday – September 4, 2019 – two of the three original “trustees” have been replaced with two new names. One name remains consistent: Kevin Kelly, the Newton attorney, who also continues to be listed as the “registered agent”.

In June of 2018, Kevin Kelly was appointed by the former Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders to serve as the County Counsel, an unelected position with massive powers, given the type of administrative code under which the county labors. The vote was 3-0 on Kelly, whose name was placed before the Freeholder Board after it was determined by a “selection committee” headed by the County Administrator.

As with so much else in Sussex County – the appointment of trustees to the Board of Sussex County Community College comes to mind – power is exercised by unelected bureaucrats, with the elected representatives of the people serving little more than an advisory role. Senior bureaucrats often ignore these elected representatives and view them with contempt, as “flak catchers” – elected excuse makers, who bear the public’s anger when the unelected, but richly-paid, senior bureaucrats screw up. And they frequently do screw-up (especially in their relations with rank-and-file county workers) because there are no penalties for their screw-ups. They know that the elected Freeholders will always be the ones made to suffer for their mistakes… and so they make them with nary a concern.

The question that Watchdog has is this: Did anyone properly vet Kevin Kelly during the process to determine his central role in the county’s most influential vendors’ SuperPAC?

Does anyone think it is a good idea for the County Counsel – with his enormous power to hand out appointments to other attorneys – to have such a prominent role in a PAC that accepts money from attorney vendors? A case-in-point is Archer Greiner, a Haddonfield law firm that featured very prominently in the Sussex Solar scandal. This law firm and its attorneys have made several large contributions to the Skylands Victory PAC. We should note that despite the controversial role it played in the solar scandal, the firm was recently re-hired by the county.

Sussex County taxpayers and the county workers who serve them are suffering because a few senior bureaucrats have consolidated too much power. These bureaucrats operate behind the scenes and are totally unaccountable to the public they get paid by. They use the Open Public Meetings Act to isolate and contain elected reformers. The county’s administrative code puts them in charge and relegates the elected freeholders to cleaning up the messes they make… like the solar scam, the profligate and wasteful community college, and the poor working relationship between the administration and county workers.

Steps need to be taken to restore some measure of democracy to the operation of county government. Senior bureaucrats who are paid handsomely should take their direction from the elected representatives of the people… not the other way round.