It's Battlefield Bergen As Lawsuits Mount For County Executive
Faced with six lawsuits by Bergen officials and a feud with a former ally, County Executive Kathleen Donovan digs in for legal battles, the cost of which will be mostly borne by taxpayers.
Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan has a security detail consisting of three county police officers, one of whom travels with her to all public events. The way things have been going lately, however, she may need to keep a lawyer in tow as well.
In a wave of litigation that’s unprecedented in recent decades, Donovan has found herself the target of six lawsuits filed by current and former Bergen County officials. And that number appears ready to grow even higher, leaving Bergen County taxpayers to foot the bill for all the legal wrangling.
At present, the county clerk, the county surrogate, the county freeholders and the Northwest Bergen County Utilities Authority all have litigation pending against Donovan. In addition, Donovan faces lawsuits filed by the former director of the Bergen County Improvement Authority and by her former director of Community Development.
And Donovan's relationship with Sheriff Michael Saudino, who raised her hand high only 18 months ago as they celebrated the vanquishing of Democratic party rule, has soured to the point that her chief of staff now accuses Saudino of using sheriff's officers to perform surveillance on the county executive and her security detail.
Donovan said she expects another lawsuit will be heading her way, this time from Saudino's department. On Wednesday, the freeholders approved a new labor contract with Bergen County sheriff’s officers that Donovan said will cost the county an extra $10.5 million in salary increases over the next four years. She said she plans to add that resolution to her long list of vetoes, especially because she was not part of the contract negotiating process.
“I don’t think anybody ever told anybody no around here,’’ Donovan said about the flood of litigation. “This is what happens when you change the way government operates. I’m not suing anybody. They’re suing me and I believe very strongly they are incorrect.’’
Donovan, a Republican, has so far taken away benefits from part-time officials, set limits on hirings and given a thumbs-down to pay raises. Those are some of the issues at stake in various lawsuits.
“What they’re used to doing is spend, spend, spend, spend,’’ the county executive said. “I got elected to make changes. I didn’t get elected to sit in a corner and be quiet.’’
Donovan’s critics, however, accuse her of being power hungry. They argue that she has ignored state laws designating the powers of various elected officials, including constitutional officers. They say she has taken a bullish my-way-or-the-highway approach to county government that leaves no room for compromise. And, they insist, she is wasting the taxpayers’ money by picking potentially costly legal fights over minor fiscal issues.
“It can’t be coincidental that she’s got lawsuits with everybody,’’ said Bergen County Surrogate Michael Dressler, a Democrat. “She’s overstepping her bounds.’’
“She was elected to be county executive,’’ said Lou Stellato, the chairman of the Democratic party in Bergen County. “That doesn’t make her the governor of Bergen County. That doesn’t make her a dictator.’’
“This is costing the county money that could be better and wiser spent,’’ Stellato added.
Donovan said she has not calculated the potential cost of the litigation to the county. Most of the cases are in their early stages and it’s far too early to determine how long they will take and exactly how much in legal fees they will generate. The taxpayers will end up picking up the tab for the lawyers on both sides in most instances because county officials are suing each other.
In some cases, staff lawyers are handling the cases as part of their regular work. In others, the county has hired outside counsel.
For example, on April 18 the freeholders approved a resolution to pay the law firm Wolf-Samson up to $15,000 to defend Donovan in the lawsuit brought by Dressler. On March 21, the freeholders approved a $10,000 limit for Donovan’s defense against the lawsuit filed by Bergen County Clerk John Hogan.
In January, the freeholders approved two other resolutions for private law firms to defend Donovan. One was for $15,000 for a lawsuit filed by Elizabeth Musso, the former Community Director who says she was fired by Donovan for trying to expose illegal use of federal grants.
The other was for $15,000 for a suit involving Dennis McNerney’s eleventh-hour appointment of an executive director at the Bergen County Improvement Authority, a move that Donovan overturned after taking office.
“You also have to take into account the intangible costs to the county in terms of the time and effort being devoted to these things, as opposed to doing the people’s business,’’ said Democratic Freeholder David Ganz. “Quite frankly, it’s distracting.’’
Ganz is one of several people who say Donovan’s combative approach has taken them by surprise.
“I’ve known Kathe Donovan for almost 20 years and all this has been inconsistent with her personality, her leadership and her style,’’ he said.
“I never saw this coming, no,’’ said Dressler. “I am very surprised, dismayed and disheartened.’’
But the county executive’s allies say anyone who has been surprised didn’t really know Donovan. Freeholder Robert Hermansen said the former county clerk was battle-tested from the eight years she served as the only elected Republican in Bergen County government.
“If anybody thought Kathe Donovan wasn’t going to fight, they judged her wrong,’’ said Hermansen. “I expected it and we needed it. Do you want somebody in there who’s a pushover? That’s not good for the taxpayers.’’
Donovan said she hasn’t changed since being elected county executive. But, she acknowledged, people may have misjudged her because her previous position did not place the same responsibilities on her as county executive.
Alan Marcus, the prominent North Jersey lobbyist and a long-time friend of Donovan, said people make the mistake of assessing her based on her appearance.
“I always say she’s the best example of an iron fist in a velvet glove,’’ Marcus said.
Often, Marcus said, people look at Donovan and see Auntie Mame, the free-spirited and fun-loving character from the 1950s musical of the same name. Ganz, meanwhile, compared Donovan to a different 1950s pop culture icon, Judge Roy Bean, the infamous Old West hanging judge who considered himself “The Law West of the Pecos” and was the subject of an early television series.
Ganz said Donovan’s leadership style seems devised to make her “The Law West of the Hudson.” As county executive, Ganz said, Donovan has fashioned herself as judge, jury and executioner, unwilling to cooperate, compromise or communicate.
In private, many county political figures say they believe that Marcus has orchestrated Donovan’s take-no-prisoners style as county executive. When asked about that, Donovan responded by listing her barrier-breaking accomplishments as a woman.
She said she was the first female legislator from her district, the first female county clerk, the county’s first female constitutional officer, the first female chairperson of a state political party, first female chairperson of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and New Jersey’s first female county executive.
“Alan is a dear friend and from time to time an advisor, but no, he’s not pulling my strings,’’ Donovan said. To suggest that, Donovan asserted, “is demeaning to women.’’
It doesn’t hurt that Donovan has the support of Gov. Chris Christie. In March, as the county executive’s behind-the-scenes disputes with Republican County Chairman Bob Yudin were being publicized, Christie intervened. He urged the GOP chiefs from other counties to call Yudin to tell him to end the infighting.
Indeed, as chief executive, Donovan has emphasized many of the same fiscally-conservative themes that Christie has championed in Trenton. She takes pride in savings of all sizes. Under her watch, she said the county has eliminated 100 government cars, along with the free commutes for county workers, a move she says saved $700,000.
At the county Construction Board of Appeal, Donovan stopped paying the $5,000 stipends and health benefits that members had received, which she said produced $135,000 in savings. As a result, the board’s chairman quit, officials said.
At the improvement authority, Donovan said her vetos of agency minutes have reduced the fees paid to engineering firms by $2.2 million, and cut legal fees by $22,000.
At the Bergen County Utilities Authority, Donovan said she has repeatedly vetoed contracts for outside law firms. In one instance, she said, her veto of a $450,000 contract for a politically-connected firm prompted the agency to come back the next month with a reduced deal for $225,000. She said she vetoed that as well.
Overall at the utilities authority, Donovan takes credit for saving $425,000. When asked if those numbers were accurate, the agency’s executive director, Robert Laux said, “I’m not going to confirm or deny what the county executive said.’’
But Donovan’s critics say her cost-cutting efforts often are a matter of personal convenience.
“If you’re one of her people, she doesn’t do anything,’’ said Dressler. “If you’re not one of her people, then she has a problem with you.’’
Some of the lawsuits filed by county officials that are pending against Donovan include:
- The Freeholders sued her over the appointment of the county auditor. The freeholder board, which has five Republicans and two Democrats, says it should pick the auditing firm, especially since the firm would be reviewing the finances under the county executive. But Donovan said the firm picked by the freeholders is the “poster child for pay-to-play’’ and has refused to sign off on their selection. (In separate litigation that Donovan brought against the freeholder board, she prevailed in March in a preliminary ruling in which a judge said the freeholders could not prevent County Administrator Edward Trawinski, a Donovan ally, from speaking and participating at freeholder meetings as a representative of the executive branch of government.)
- Dressler, the surrogate, sued her over promotions he wants to make within his department, including the appointment of his deputy. Dressler said Donovan is interfering with his constitutional responsibility to run the surrogate’s office. Donovan said she blocked the promotions because they amount to 14-percent raises, and she accused Dressler of backdating the promotions to be able to pay his appointees more money. Morever, Donovan said, the promotions will put the surrogate over his budget. Dressler said he is just $6,000 over budget and argued that the lawsuit will end up costing more than that.
- Hogan, the clerk, sued her over her refusal to allow him to hire an outreach specialist to serve the county’s growing Korean population and says the hiring would fall within costs allotted in his total budget. But Donovan says Hogan would exceed the limit on the number of employees within his budget by hiring the extra person. She also argued that Hogan already has a staff member who could serve the needs of the Korean community. “He has a Korean, it just isn’t his Korean,’’ she said.
- The Northwest utilities authority sued her over her efforts to take away their health benefits and stipends, and she eventually fired them when they refused her demands. In a preliminary ruling last month, a judge determined the commissioners could remain in their positions and retain their health benefits, but that Donovan could end their $5,000 stipends.
But it is Donovan’s escalating battles with Saudino that have been particularly perplexing to county political observers because the two Republicans campaigned together in 2010.
Saudino, who did not return several phone messages seeking an interview for this story, has said that Donovan would have saved the county millions of dollars if she followed a proposal from Guideposts to disband the county police and merge some of their operations into his department.
“There’s no question she’s an equal opportunity battler,’’ Ganz said.
“It says something when her own party is taking issue with the way she is running government,’’ said Adam Silverstein, a spokesman for the county Democratic Party.
“I do disagree with people in my party,’’ said Donovan. “But aren’t you supposed to do that? Anybody who gets elected and then agrees with everybody else, I’d be worried about that. I would be worried if I agreed with my party on everything.’’
Freeholder Chairman John Mitchell is among the Republicans who found himself at odds with Donovan, mainly on the auditor and Trawinski issues.
“I think she’s done an excellent job,’’ Mitchell said. “I share her vision that there should be smaller government, smaller but more efficient government.’’
Mitchell said it’s natural that Donovan has run into some rough waters making changes in the county.
“Government is not a speed boat that you can maneuver and turn quickly,’’ he said. “It’s more like the Queen Mary. It takes a little longer to maneuver.’’
Donovan, meanwhile, says she is sticking to her course, even if that means more political squabbles and more lawsuits.
“If the voters didn’t want change, they would have re-elected my predecessor,’’ she said.