Senate President Stephen Sweeney recently announced his retirement – from his other elected office, Director of the Board of Freeholders in Gloucester County.
That the ranking Democratic lawmaker in the state could hold two elected offices at once is unthinkable in almost every other state in the nation. Not so in New Jersey. Here, dual office holding has traditionally been viewed as a peculiarity, much like buying tags to use the public beaches or not being able to pump your own gas.
At least one of those traditions will end, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Sweeney’s retirement reduces to ten the number of dual office holders remaining in New Jersey, all of whom are covered by a special provision in the law that ended the practice more than two years ago.
Lawmakers in Trenton in 2007 voted to ban dual office holding for all state, county and municipal elected officials. However, the amendment to the law exempted those members of the Legislature who were already serving in another elected office on the day it took effect, Feb. 1, 2008. This ” grandfathering” allowed 19 of the 120 members of the Legislature to continue to hold dual offices – a practice outlawed in almost every state, as well as in federal law.
Before the law was rewritten in 2007, New Jersey statute explicitly permitted dual office holding. The law was originally written and enacted by the Legislature in 1962 in a direct response to a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in 1961 that barred a Morris County freeholder from also serving as a mayor in Dover Township.
Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub, writing for the unanimous court, said: ” As government becomes more complex and additional roles are assigned, the opportunities for dual office-holding must inevitably diminish. What remains constant is the demand of sound public policy that the incumbent in public office shall act with undivided devotion to duty. “
For nearly 50 years, elected officials in New Jersey have flouted that ruling. The singular argument for holding dual offices was that the people had the right to elect whomever they wanted to as their representative, and if it didn’t bother voters why should it bother others?
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, our 2006 report written by Tom O’Neill, NJPP considered the practice of dual office holding and found that it often insulated the office holder from accountability; frustrated the democratic system of checks and balances and inflated pork barrel spending. The report concluded: ” By creating a class of elected officials whose entire lives are embedded in politics and government, dual office holding raises the stakes of politics unacceptably high and erodes the idea of the citizen-legislator. It encourages expensive, cut-throat campaigns and protects elected officials from competition. Perhaps most serious for the long term well-being of New Jersey, it strengthens the most counter-productive aspects of our home-rule tradition. “
There is a growing, bi-partisan consensus in Trenton that the practice should end entirely.
Gov. Christie campaigned for election on a platform that included outlawing all dual office holding immediately, including for those grandfathered into the legislation. ” Dual office holding is simply wrong,” he said. A spokesman for the governor recently suggested that the governor was poised to announce a new package of legislation to address enduring issues, like dual office holding as well as a perhaps even larger ethical conflict, dual public employment.
Sweeney’s announcement last week did not come as a complete surprise. He has been promising to give up his post as Director of the Board of Freeholders since the dual-office holding ban was enacted.
Sweeney, who lists his occupation as an organizer for the International Ironworkers Association, has served on the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders since 1997. He became director in 1998. Three years later he was elected to the state Senate, and earlier this year was chosen by members of the Senate to serve as Senate President.
The timing was also opportune. The board, which oversees Gloucester County government, has come under scrutiny after being accused of more than 50 violations of the state’s open meetings law. State Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr., who sits in Camden, has appointed an independent monitor to observe the freeholders’ meetings for six months and report back to him.
Regardless of the timing, Sweeney’s decision also sets a good precedent and should prove to the holdouts that giving up the authority of a local office will not diminish the power of a state office.
With Sweeney’s retirement, there are 10 dual office holders left in Trenton. They are:
Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, elected to the Senate in 1993. Sacco has been mayor of North Bergen since 1991, following six years serving as a city commissioner. He also has a full-time job as assistant superintendent in the North Bergen School District.
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, appointed to the Senate in 2003, after serving two years in the Assembly. Sarlo has been mayor of Wood-Ridge since 2000, after serving the previous five years on the town council. He chairs the powerful Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, elected to the Senate in 1993, after serving six years in the Assembly. Singer has been a committeeman in Lakewood since 1980 and served as mayor four times, most recently in 2009.
Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, elected to the Senate in 2007, after serving four years in the Assembly. Stack has been mayor of Union City since 2000. At one point, in 2003-04, Stack held three elected posts: Mayor, Freeholder and Assemblyman.
Asm. John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, elected to the Assembly in 2001. Burzichelli has been mayor of Paulsboro since 1996.
Asm. Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, elected to the Assembly in 2007, after serving previously from 1968 to 1972. Caputo has been a freeholder in Essex County since 2002. One of the last “grandfathers” allowed by the legislation, Caputo sought and won re-election to his freeholder post in 2008.
Asm. Ronald Dancer, R-Ocean, appointed to the Assembly in 2002. Dancer has been mayor of Plumsted since 1990.
Asm. Joseph V. Egan, D-Middlesex, elected to the Assembly in 2001. Egan has been a city councilman in New Brunswick since 1982, but is not seeking re-election and his term will expire in January.
Asm. John McKeon, D-Essex, elected to the Assembly in 2001. McKeon has been mayor of West Orange since 1998 and was a council member for six years prior to his election as mayor.
Asm. Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, elected to the Assembly in 2005. Schaer has been a city councilman in Passaic since 1995, serving as council president for ten years. He served as acting mayor for 10 months in 2008, after Mayor Samuel Rivera pled guilty to attempted extortion in 2008.