Gov. Phil Murphy got involved in a contested election for vice chairman of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and lost.
In what looks like a give to a powerful legislator led to an embarrassing rebuke by a board Murphy is supposed to control. The vice chairman vacancy occurred last month after Commissioner Ken Lucianin resigned amidst accusations that he inappropriately touched a female employee.
Senate Budget Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) had asked the Governor’s office to pick his ally, Elizabeth Calabrese, to replace Lucianin as vice chair. The vote was to come two days after Murphy announced his budget plan to a lukewarm legislature. The proposal now heads to Sarlo’s committee.
The problem for Murphy was that Newark City Councilman Luis Quintana also wanted the vice chairmanship. And Quintana had the votes.
Murphy’s staff told commissioners that the Governor wanted Calabrese, a former Bergen County Freeholder from Sarlo’s legislative district. Among their blunders: one of the commissioners contacted on behalf of the Governor’s office to support Calabrese was Newark City Councilwoman Mildred Crump, who is running on a ticket with Quintana and Mayor Ras Baraka in the May municipal elections.
In a vote on Thursday, the commissioners voted 7-1 for Quintana, with Calabrese casting the only opposing vote.
Traditionally, independent authorities – an oxymoron in state government – accept the wishes of a new governor on chair and vice chair picks. That’s what makes the rejection of Murphy’s choice so awkward for the fledgling administration.
Potentially more damaging for Murphy is that he poked a bear in Newark by opposing the popular Quintana, who served as Mayor for six months after Cory Booker resigned to become a U.S. Senator. One insider said Murphy probably picked that fight without anticipating the consequences.
Murphy appears to have miscalculated the makeup of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC). Among those being blamed for the mess is Murphy aide Mary Maples, the Authorities Unit director.
The PVSC chairman is Thomas Tucci, Jr., the brother of Nutley Commissioner Mauro Tucci. Maples’ father is Nutley Commissioner Thomas Evans, the Democratic Municipal Chairman. Six years ago, Evans voted against Mauro Tucci becoming the interim mayor, and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Nutley politics knows that grudges like that don’t go away easily.
Maples, who grew up in Nutley before becoming a lawyer for the CIA, understands the composition of the PVSC since she worked in the Authorities Unit under Gov. Chris Christie. The other commissioners include: Franklin Lakes Republican Municipal Chairman David Catuogno; Ringwood Borough Manager and former Mayor Scott Heck; Joseph Isola, a retired Union City firefighter and North Hudson Fire & Rescue captain; and former Harrison Superintendent of Schools James Doran. All were Christie appointees.
Murphy can fill Lucianin’s vacant seat, but statutorily the appointment must come from Passaic County. That means the Governor will need to find a candidate acceptable to Republican State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa), who has senatorial courtesy over all gubernatorial nominations from Passaic.
In 2011, Christie fired all the PVSC commissioners except for Lucianin after discovering allegations that the commission had become bloated with political patronage jobs and misuse of public funds.