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Essex County Republican Chairman John P. Renna and Assemblyman Bob Franks in 1987.

The O’Toole Chronicles: Never leave your notes behind

By Kevin O'Toole, November 16 2021 12:01 am

We’ve all seen the images of notes used by President Biden and his predecessor that are used as reminders of key talking points and seen debates at every level of government (President down to town council) where the candidates have taken notes of points made by their opponent. During my time as an elected official, I cannot recall how many meetings I attended where I witnessed legislators or committee members doodling and writing notes on the documents that were provided to assist the them during the meeting. It was and is a common practice for almost everyone (think planning and zoning board members, municipal officials, county commissioners, state legislators, board members) to write on provided pads, including questions, comments, and observations during the course of a given hearing or meeting.

Why does this matter?

Imagine if you will, being able to see those notes in the margins. Imagine capturing the state of mind behind a pivotal vote, the thought process behind their thinking, seeing in their own handwriting the pros or cons or bias of a given vote? That is exactly what thousands of public officials have done, and my guess, will continue to do. While I do not comment on the legality or ethics of gathering or reading the “trash” of others, the idea of public officials leaving a breadcrumb trail on their vote is something that, if discovered, would keep many folks up at night.

Example 1: I am told that during one particularly hostile period of time at a large state agency, a brazen staffer would routinely gather notes left behind on provided notepads, pick up crumbled up notes in garbage cans left by the commissioners, occasionally taking those note pads that were seemingly blank back to their office and run a pencil over the impressions to see if there were any discernable notes or writings. Sounds diabolically evil. As legend has it; during one nasty meeting, a large discovery of notes that were left behind, and later deciphered, showed the intent of certain commissioners to prejudge a vote and that led to unrest of gargantuan proportions.

Lesson learned from Example 1: If you do use note pads, take the writings, and note pad, with you and either dispose of them in some off-site container or catalog the notes for your records. Under no circumstances should you leave behind your written notes (or impressions) of the meeting. Whether it be a shopping list, reasons for voting for or against, or the underpinnings of opposition research on a fellow board member, be smart and take your notes with you.

Example 2: (Disclaimer – I had help archiving the following events from a fact witness who shall remain nameless to protect his much-prized privacy). A lot of people remember the late Bob Franks as a highly energetic congressman (think Josh Gottheimer), GOP state chairman and longtime assemblyman; but way back in 1977, Bob was a recent law school graduate who had more fun cutting his teeth as a political operative.

After Senator Ray Bateman beat then Assemblyman Tom Kean in the gubernatorial primary, John Renna, the controversial and gladiatorial West Orange Republican Chairman who backed Bateman, decided to run for GOP county chair in Essex. The still-smarting Kean wing was supporting Assemblyman Carl Orechio, who came from Nutley’s bi-partisan Orechio family. The race was close, and Essex being Essex, there were many county committee members committing to both candidates (think Senators in recent contest for Senate President – fade to Senate President-elect Scutari laughing hysterically in corner). Renna needed to know who the liars were – so he could lean on them – and he needed to know who were neutral, but had actually committed to Orechio – so he could flip them by dangling trinkets from the presumed Bateman governorship.

Enter operative Bob Franks.

Renna turned to Franks, Bateman’s field director, to manage his one-week campaign for county chair. (Editorial note: To this day I contend that Bobby Franks was the single smartest politico in New Jersey and should have been governor).

Back to our example. Franks knew that Team Orechio was having a meeting (led by his newspaper publisher brother Frank) at a restaurant in Nutley. This particular restaurant used large rolls of paper as tablecloths. Bob Franks knew that Frank Orechio had a penchant for taking notes on these tablecloths. He figured that this meeting would be like all others, so he went up to the restaurant in Nutley, waited for the meeting to end, and went into the kitchen and actually bought the tablecloth from a kitchen worker.

Then Franks raced back to Renna’s headquarters at the venerable Pals Cabin (now a CVS). He walked in with the tablecloth that had every town in Essex listed and how many votes were committed from each town. Renna and his longtime aide-decamp, Joe Butera from East Orange, stapled the tablecloth to the wall. It was the treasure map they had been searching for.

That is how John Renna became Chairman of the Essex GOP.

The lessons from these stories is be careful what you write down, what you leave behind after a meeting, and NEVER use the tablecloth!

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