A CFO THEY’D LOVE, IF ONLY HE’D LET THEM

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Usually, when a chief financial officer is in the news, you’re talking crisis.

Think Enron. Think WorldCom. Think Borough of Red Bank last August.

That’s when things kind of blew up at Borough Hall, with the disclosure that freshly-resigned CFO Terrence Whalen hadn’t exactly been running the tightest ship, in bookkeeping terms.

No fraud was ever alleged. But checks were being deposited into the wrong accounts, according to outside auditor David Kaplan. Accounts weren’t being balanced. Refunds from developers’ escrow accounts were being made in duplicate.

The fallout from the sloppiness was real, as borough taxpayers took a hit in the form of a four-cents-per-$100 of property value tax increase for 2006-2007, all of it attributable to poor recordkeeping, officials said.

There was political fallout, too. Then-Mayor Ed McKenna blamed Councilman John Curley, who was head of the council’s finance committee, for failure to keep an eye on Whalen’s operation. McKenna bounced Curley from the high-profile assignment, and in a heated exchange, Curley uttered his infamous Why don’t you just take me down to Broad Street and hang me? retort. It all became fodder for last year’s mayoral race, which Curley lost to now-Mayor Pasquale Menna.

Well, what a different story 10 months can make, as evidence by the lovefest that erupted at last night’s council meeting for new CFO Frank Mason and his five-person crew of green eyeshades.

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THE ‘ENERGIZER BUNNY’ OF PRESERVATION

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Considering its dire implications, the news earlier this month that a Red Bank house had been had been designated one of New Jersey’s 10 most endangered historic sites was oddly encouraging to a near-octagenarian with a weatherbeaten voice and fu manchu straight out of the ’60s.

Oddly, that is, because inclusion on the list put together by Preservation New Jersey provides no guarantees that the house will be saved. It offers no legal leverage against a present or future owner who might decide to knock the house down. There’s no money in it, either.

In sum, the appellation is as toothless as a newborn.

Yet George Bowden was ecstatic. He’d known that the house, once the home of pioneering African-American newspaperman T. (Timothy) Thomas Fortune, might land on the list, but asked that that not be publicized until it was official, after which “we can blow it sky high,” he told redbankgreen with characteristic enthusiasm.

Once it was announced, Bowden started making plans to leverage the endorsement of historians across the state. He began planning outreach to community groups, leaders of African-American congregations — he’s even reached out to Oprah. Whatever it takes to get the word out.

“You can try to prevent it through the press, or local support,” he says, “but there’s no legal groundwork for preventing demolition.”

“He’s like the Energizer bunny,” says Ed Zipprich, a candidate for council this year who serves on the borough’s Historical Preservation Commission that Bowden heads.

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O’HERN REVIEW CLEARS CORZINE-KATZ

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A two-man state ethics panel headed by former Red Bank Mayor and Associate Supreme Court Justice Daniel O’Hern has ruled that Gov. Jon Corzine’s relationship with ex-girlfriend and labor leader Carla Katz should not have barred him from participating in contract negotiations with the one of the state’s largest public unions earlier this year, the Star-Ledger reports.

In its 37-page report, though, the panel warns that relationships such as Corzine’s and Katz’s “can easily lead to the appearance of conflicting interests” when the principals become involved in matters having to do with the governor’s official duties, the Ledger reports.

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WALRATH: ‘MY HEAD’S NOT IN IT’

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For the second time in seven years, Fair Haven Councilman Chris Walrath is stepping down, again citing work and family obligations as distractions from his public duty.

“This will be my last council meeting,” Walrath announced at the end of a two-hour council session last night, eliciting gasps from the audience. “My head is not in it right now,” he said.

He apologized for not finishing out his term, which runs through 2008.

Mayor Mike Halfacre said he’d been aware of Walrath’s thinking and had been trying to talk him out of resigining for three months. He praised Walrath’s service.

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TINTON FALLS HOLDS LINE ON TAXES

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Overriding the preference of the borough’s finance chief, the Tinton Falls Borough Council last night shot down a budget proposed by Mayor Peter Maclearie in favor of one with no increase in the property tax rate, today’s Asbury Park Press reports.

Maclearie’s plan would have boosted the rate by 1.8 cents per $100 of property valuation. Instead, the council opted to use $300,000 of surplus to offset the increase, the Press reports.

The unanimous action came just a week before an election in which three of the council’s five seats are up for grabs.

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AGREED: NEW TOWN HALL SUCKS

The six candidates vying for three council seats in next week’s election in Tinton Falls assembled last night for what turned out to be a “congenial” debate, according to today’s Asbury Park Press.

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Among the points of agreement: the new borough hall is… something less than desired. One candidate called it a “disgusting embarassment,” though it’s not clear if he was talking about the building itself or the fact that it is overdue and over-budget or both.

“Candidates from both slates pledged to ensure that taxpayer money would never be spent in that manner again,” the Press reports.

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THAT’S YOUR NAME? HERE’S A SEAT

The results are finally in from last week’s Red Bank Board of Education election, which were delayed by a snafu.

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In addition to the previously announced victor Ben Forest, an incumbent, winners were write-in winners Ann Goldman
of McLaren Street and Marjorie Lowe of Wall Street, the Asbury Park Press reports.

Three seats were open, but only Forest formally declared an interest in having one. He got 352 votes.

But because of multiple spellings of names of write-in candidates, officials could not immediately sort out who might have won the two seats that went unsought on the ballot.

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‘MANAGER OF RED BANK’ SAYS MANGIA

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At 9:30a Wednesday, Mayor Pasquale Menna was in his law office talking on the phone with redbankgreen about some borough business and trying to get off the line posthaste.

He had an obligation to meet. Back in March, while reading to a pre-kindergarten class at the Red Bank Primary School, Menna had promised the kids that he’d make them lunch, and today was the day to deliver on the promise. But there he was, stuck at his desk getting grilled about some boring ordinance, and he hadn’t even shopped for groceries yet.

Facing a noontime showdown with hungry four- and five-year-olds, Menna quipped that he might have to find a White Castle and pick up a bag of sliders.

But ten minutes ahead of the appointed hour, Menna rolled down the corridors of the primary school pushing an audio-visual cart laden with hot, colorful food that he’d whipped up in his kitchen at home.

“See? You can cook for 23 people in less than a hour,” he announced.

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PILOT PROGRAM BYPASSES 12TH DISTRICT

New Jersey’s 12th legislative district, which includes of much of Monmouth County and a small portion of Mercer County (map), won’t be part of a pilot program to test an expermental approach to financing “clean elections” in November.

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A special state panel headed by former Gov. Jim Florio yesterday chose the 14th district, which covers parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties, as the third of three venues for the test, whereby candidates who agree to raise set amounts of campaign cash in small increments will get state aid.

The aim is to minimize the big-money influence of special interests.

Previously, one solidly Democratic district and one solidly Republican one had been chosen. The 14th was chosen by the panel, in a 3-2 vote criticized by Republicans, as a model for a “split district.”

The choice disappointed Red Bank’s Jennifer Beck, the 12th-district Assembly Republican who said the district “would have been ideal because so much special interest money has been poured into the district in the past,” according to the Asbury Park Press.

The decision was “as expected,” Beck told PoliticsNJ.com

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SALARIES OK’D, INCLUDING WATSON’S

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Public Works Director Gary Watson’s $10,000 pay raise was greenlighted by the borough council last night over ‘no’ votes by the two Republicans on the governing body, John Curley and newcomer Grace Cangemi.

The increase was part of a slate of 3.5-percent pay raises approved for non-unionized borough employees, from Planning Board secretary, whose pay rises to $2,153, to $104,008 for a construction/fire official.

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PRESS: BIFANI WON’T SEEK NEW TERM

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Red Bank Councilman R.J. Bifani, a Democrat, won’t seek re-election in November, the Asbury Park Press is reporting.

So Council President Sharon Lee will be joined on the party’s ticket by Kathleen Horgan of Branch Avenue, the Press reports.

Bifani isn’t quoted in the item, and no reason for his decision to step aside is given. The Press says he’s been on council since the early 1990s. He’s currently the council liaison to the Public Works department.

Bifani did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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MENNA MAY OPT OUT OF HEALTHCARE

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Mayor Pasquale Menna has concluded that the public is opposed to the continuation of healthcare coverage for elected and appointed officials, and will waive the benefit for himself if the council doesn’t eliminate it.

“If the recommendation by the [council finance] committee is to maintain the benefits, something I don’t think is defensible from a public policy standpoint, I will individually opt out,” Menna told redbankgreen last week.

Led by freshman Councilman Michael DuPont, the finance committee recently began looking into why the benefit was adopted by the borough some 20 years ago, how widespread its use is among New Jersey towns, and what it costs.

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O’HERN TO REVIEW CORZINE-KATZ

At the request of Gov. Jon Corzine, former Red Bank Mayor and state Supreme Court Justice Daniel O’Hern Sr. is looking into labor-contract negotiations between Corzine and his former girlfriend, labor leader Carla Katz, according to today’s Star-Ledger.

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A resident of Little Silver, O’Hern is one of two members of the governor’s Ethics Advisory Panel, established under a 2003 executive order that laid out a gubernatorial code of conduct. The other member is former New Jersey Attorney General John J. Farmer, Jr.

O’Hern told the newspaper that the review had begun, but declined to discuss details. “We’ve taken this under advisement,” he told the Ledger. “I do expect we will have something to report fairly soon.”

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MENNA GETS THE ROYAL TREATMENT

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Whenever he got the chance, former Red Bank Mayor Ed McKenna would jet off to Ireland to play golf and maybe have a pint among village locals.

McKenna’s successor, Pasquale Menna, though, takes the idea of global schmoozing to literally another level, preferring to put on a tuxedo and rub elbows with royals and pretenders to thrones, redbankgreen has learned.

Three weeks ago, Menna spent a long weekend in the Italian Alps, where he hobnobbed with Savoy royalty. While there, Menna tells us, he attended “a number of receptions hosted by Prince Emmanuel-Philibert,” heir-apparent to the last King of Italy, Umberto II, who died in 1983, 37 years after the end of the Italian monarchy.

Menna says the 35-year-old prince is “a close friend.”

Last Saturday, Menna was in New York for a banquet given by Crown Prince Nikola II of Montenegro, another would-be king if not for the vagaries of history.

There, hizzoner was among the latest inductees into the Order of Prince Danilo I, a designation bestowed on “prominent champions of the preservation of Montenegrin independence,” according to the order’s website. Past recipients include Queen Victoria and King Edward VII of Great Britain.

By then, Menna had already bagged similar recognition from Italy: admittance to the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, a philanthropic organization for which he’s the New Jersey representative.

“I have a little bit more of a life than Red Bank and the practice of law,” says Menna. “I’m international in scope.”

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PRESS: TIFFANY ‘NICE,’ BUT…

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Its ad-sales staff is probably still wetting itself with glee, but the editorial board of the Asbury Park Press today offers faint praise for the news last month that Tiffany & Company plans to open a store in downtown Red Bank.

In an editorial today about a tentative plan by Red Bank RiverCenter to install Smart Card dispensers (which the editorial writers favor) appears this somewhat incongruous paragraph:

The new Tiffany & Co. store may be a nice draw for Red Bank, but officials should make sure too many upscale shops don’t drive out old favorites. Prown’s, the variety store that had everything, is as missed today as much as it was when it closed four years ago.

Never mind that the paragraph is a non sequitur (it’s not made clear what Tiffany has to do with Smart Card machines). There’s a radical notion woven into the warm-and-fuzzies expressed n those two sentences.

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BAUER HEADED INTO PORT

Virginia S. ‘Ginny’ Bauer, New Jersey’s Secretary of Commerce and the widow of a man killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, is Gov. Jon Corzine’s choice to fill a seat on the board of the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Star-Ledger is reporting.

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The Red Bank resident, then living in Rumson, vaulted into the public eye by helping secure tax benefits for the families of attack victims in the weeks immediately following the attacks. Nearly two years later, she was picked by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey to head the state lottery. A year ago, she moved to the commerce department at Corzine’s request.

Since the attacks, the Ledger says,

she has become a leading advocate for families of 9/11 victims and has been actively involved in the redevelopment plan for the site, which the Port Authority owns.

Bauer would be the first 9/11 widow from New Jersey to serve on the Port Authority’s board.

Corzine called her the “perfect choice” to fill one of the state’s six seats on the 12-member board that oversees operations of the financially self-sufficient public agency.

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CANGEMI, MENNA’S GAVEL MAKE DEBUTS

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Republican Grace Cangemi’s first two hours as Red Bank’s newest council member Monday night were marked largely by the air of civility that has dominated the governing body’s meetings this year.

“I have a great deal of respect for Mayor [Pasquale] Menna, and I look forward to being part of his administration,” Cangemi said in her opening remarks as she filled the seat left vacant by the January resignation of Kaye Ernst.

“I think we’ve made the right decision, and I think you’ll be a credit to the residents of Red Bank,” Menna replied, as a packed council hearing room looked on.

Later, though, came the first, brief burst of verbal fireworks since Menna took the gavel from his predecessor as mayor, Ed McKenna. And he had to use it, too — not that it did any good.

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ANYTHING WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

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How many of Red Bank’s 3,326 homeowners does it take to cover the cost of healthcare insurance for the 23 elected and appointed officials who use it?

+ Thirteen, in the riverside enclave of Hubbard Park, where the average property assessment is $1.19 million. Collectively, the municipal tax receipts (excluding school and county levies) from every house on Hubbard match the $59,400 cost of insuring elected and appointed officials almost exactly.

+ Thirty-eight, going by the proposed townwide average local property tax bill of $1,556, which is based on an average assessment of $404,981 struck earlier this year.

+ Sixty-nine, on Bank Street, where properties are assessed at an average $224,350, according to Monmouth County records. Except that there are only 55 properties on that three-block street. So even after using every penny of local tax paid by Bank Street property owners to cover this cost, the borough still would need to come up with another $12,000.

That’s the math. Whether or not the spending is appropriate is a political matter — and a hot one, it would appear, judging by a flurry of recent comments posted on redbankgreen. (See the comment trails beneath our stories on the budget, the appointment of Grace Cangemi to the council and elsewhere.)

As Mayor-elect late last year, Pasquale Menna appeared to agree that the issue of healthcare benefits for elected officials was worthy of serious reconsideration. But with a new budget moving forward and no changes to the coverage in evidence, the topic has yet to get a full public airing at the council. Where does Menna stand on it today, and what do each of the sitting council members have to say about it?

redbankgreen invites the mayor and council members to post their opinions on this site, just as all readers are encouraged to do the same.

Meantime, what follows is a Q&A with Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels conducted by email late last week in an effort to establish a basic framework of facts. It’s not an exhaustive review of the topic, but rather a starting point.

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CORZINE: FORT ‘EPICENTER’ OF GROWTH

Gov. Jon Corzine yesterday told a gathering a Brookdale Community College that he supported a plan to transform Fort Monmouth into a private-sector technology center after the military communications facility is shut down in 2011, the Asbury Park Press reports today.

“Fort Monmouth is going to be the epicenter of where we put our efforts to make sure we have sustainable growth,” Corzine told a crowd of 500, the Press reports.

From the story:

Corzine said he was “personally interested” in the Tech Preserve plan, which calls for creating a partnership among a private company or companies, the state and the Army. It aims to absorb at least some of the fort’s 5,000 civilian employees while the post’s mission is transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland by 2011.

Tech Preserve was developed by the Patriots Alliance — a group of defense contractors who also spearheaded the ultimately failed effort to keep Fort Monmouth off the 2005 closure lists during the most recent Base Realignment and Closure round.

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CANGEMI TO GET NOD

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The line of succession, it seems, does run pretty much straight to Grace Cangemi.

After losing a close race for the governing body in November, Cangemi will be nominated tomorrow to complete the council term of Kaye Ernst, who quit in January to move to Pennsylvania.

Mayor Pasquale Menna says he’ll nominate Cangemi at a special meeting of the council to be held at noon. He’s informally polled the governing body, and expects approval, he says.

Though Cangemi emerged immediately as the leading candidate to succeed fellow Republican Ernst, Menna said at the time that her selection was not inevitable.

“This is not a monarchy, and Grace is not the crown princess to the abdicated queen,” Menna told redbankgreen, thus giving us an excuse to doctor Cangemi’s photo with a crown.

But the other two names put forth by the local Republican party with Cangemi’s apparently stirred no support among the majority Democrats.

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HUB SCOOP IN HARRASSMENT CASE

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The Hub has breaking news today on the settlement by Red Bank of its role in a sexual harrasment lawsuit brought by a female employee who claimed to have been stalked and inappropriately touched by former Parking Director Neil Burnip.

The settlement, according to the report, involves the payment of an unspecified sum by the borough to the plaintiff. Burnip, however, is not a party to the settlement, which was approved by the council in closed session Monday night.

The deal puts to rest the employee’s claims that “Borough Administrator Stanley J. Sickels and the borough of Red Bank, jointly, individually and severally, knew of Neil Burnip’s prior incidents involving other female employees and/or other female visitors and were negligent in their hiring, training and supervising of” him.

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CORZINE TO ADDRESS FORT’S FUTURE

Gov. Jon Corzine is scheduled to appear at the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College tomorrow morning to “outline his vision” for the redevelopment of Fort Monmouth and to answer questions from the public, the Asbury Park Press reports today.

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Local officials apparently haven’t been clued into what Corzine will say, but they’re not expecting to hear anything that undermines their goal of turning the 1,100-plus-acre facility into a center for technology R&D.

From the story:

Corzine will “outline what we’ve done so far and what there is yet to do to ensure the redevelopment of Fort Monmouth is the driver of high-tech jobs in the region and the state,” said Brendan Gilfillan, a Corzine spokesman.

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MORE ON RESPONSIVENESS…

That public forum on government responsiveness we told you about immediately below this post?

We’ve solved the mystery about the date: it’s tomorrow, March 13. The start time is in fact 7p, and the location is still the firehouse in Little Silver.

But the event may not be quite as public as suggested by the Asbury Park Press.

Keith Rella, a spokesman for Assemblyman Mike Pantner, said the event is being held by the Democratic clubs of Fair Haven, Little Silver and Shrewsbury, and is not, as one might infer from the Press article, a town-hall style meeting.

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CAN WE GET BACK TO YOU ON THAT?

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Assemblyman Mike Panter thinks local government isn’t as responsive as it should be. So he’s holding a public forum for area residents to tee up the topic.

Want more details? Well, you won’t find them on Panter’s blog, which hasn’t been updated in two months.

We saw a notice of the meeting posted this afternoon on the Asbury Park Press website, which says it will be held at 7p at the Little Silver firehouse at 408 Prospect Avenue.

The Press doesn’t give a date, though, which is why we turned to Pantner’s blog and found only virtual cobwebs.

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ZAZZALI: LET ‘EM GO TO THE VIDEOTAPE

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New Jersey’s citizens have the right to videotape public meetings, the state Supreme Court has ruled in a unanimous opinion written by Rumson resident and Chief Justice James Zazzali.

The Star-Ledger has news of the ruling, which came this morning in the case of a South Jersey man twice arrested for videotaping council meetings in his hometown of Pine Hill.

From the story:

The state Supreme Court today ruled that New Jerseyans have a common-law right to videotape public meetings, although governmental agencies can impose “reasonable guidelines” to make sure the recording does not disrupt their official business.

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