Sometimes, a political practice that is not expressly illegal still may cast a negative light. One of those practices is nepotism. Nepotism is defined in the dictionary as “patronage bestowed or favoritism shown on the basis of family relationship, as in business and politics.”
And a Hudson County politician has decided to do something about it.
New Jersey State Assembly Speaker and West New York Mayor Albio Sires two weeks ago handed down a directive in the legislature barring any incoming Assembly members from hiring family as part of their staffs.
“I directed the clerk of the Assembly, Christine Riebe, not to process the payroll forms of any family members of legislators,” said Sires in a recent interview.
While not technically illegal, the practice has received increasing media attention. According to many published reports, it was partly to blame for the defeat of a handful of incumbent Assembly candidates across New Jersey. Assembly Speaker Sires recently explained his reasoning for handing down the directive.
“It’s a perception thing,” said Sires. “It’s been done forever. It’s become an accepted practice, but I think the people of New Jersey want it stopped. It just plain looks bad.”
Assembly members and state senators get a $110,000 budget to hire legislative aides. Five years ago, it was $100,000. While some have used it to hire office staff, others have given $2,000 and $3,000 per year to political contacts.
Sires said last week that nepotism became an issue in the recent elections.
“Five people were targeted [by voters] because of nepotism,” said Sires. “One of them was Gary Guear of the 14th District [Mercer County]. He had his wife on his staff and she was making $57,000.”
And he wasn’t the only one ejected from office because of nepotism, according to Sires. The Senate co-president, John Bennet of the 12th District (R-Monmouth County) was beaten by Ellen Karcher, he said. Karcher was seen as an underdog in the Assembly election but according to Sires, Karcher’s upset win had everything to do with voters not liking the fact that Bennett had faced charges of political patronage and nepotism.
In Bergen County, Assemblywoman Rose Heck lost a tightly contested race to incumbent Joseph Congilio. Sires stated that Heck had faced some negative press about having family members and friends on her staff.
While many legislators over the years have been forced to answer questions regarding the hiring of friends and family members on their staffs, according to some legislators, there is a good reason for the practice. In a 1998 Reporter article, it is stated that legislators utilize well-connected people who they consider “plugged into” the communities they represent. To the legislators, friends and family act as liaisons to their constituents.
In that article, State Sen. Bernard Kenny, who at the time employed then-Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo’s son and Russo’s secretary Angela Servello, stated, “I used to have people from each town who were generally recommended by the mayor of each town. They basically act as my liaisons in my communities. They are my eyes and ears in the communities. When I go to events and such, frequently they are there… sometimes they may, over the years, have done specific projects. I’ve called them to ask them things. They talk to City Hall and get back to me.”
Most aides hired by legislators and Senators make anywhere from $500 to $15,000 per year. Certainly, these salaries aren’t large, but considering that each Assembly person is given, once they are sworn in, $110,000 to hire staff, the process, until recently, remained largely unregulated. The above-mentioned Assembly members who had wives making $57,000 are examples of what Sires wants to stop.
The $110,000 that each member receives can help pay for office rent, furniture and staff. Most members employ a decent number of staffers, therefore their salaries remain very low.
But this issue once again, goes back to image and perception, according to Sires.
“This is the very beginning of ethics reform in New Jersey,” said Sires. “It’s just a step.” Sires also mentioned that there have been discussions about banning gifts as well, but that discussion is still in its infancy.
Interestingly, according to Sires, “Some of the biggest offenders aren’t even in Hudson County, believe it or not.” According to Sires, the directive, at this point, is just that – a policy. It has not been introduced as a bill as of yet, but will be introduced during the next session of the Assembly, opening in December.
When asked if he thought anyone would ignore his order, Sires grinned and said, “I simply wouldn’t process the request. I don’t think anyone would think of doing that.”
Added Sires, “This is an outcry of the people of New Jersey. The people want this practice stopped, and it is my intent to use my powers to end nepotism by individual legislators.”