NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Six months into his eighth term as Mayor, James Cahill has already approved the creation of two new leadership positions for powerful players in his city government.
The City Council also unanimously consented to Mayor Cahill’s picks for department heads and selected a new City Clerk earlier this year, marking the biggest paradigm shift in recent memory as the 28-year-old administration reboots for another four-year term in power.
The recent appointment of Keith Jones II as Cahill’s first-ever Chief of Staff capped an 18-month period where more than half of the Mayor’s cabinet turned over, the city’s police command structure was overhauled, and new shared services deals were struck with Rutgers University.
Cahill won re-election in November 2018, but soon after lost two of his key city department heads, men who he called “the best in the business” during his every-four-years “State of the City Address” on New Year’s Day.
Planning Director Glenn Patterson and Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin III were the fourth and fifth members of the Mayor’s nine-member cabinet to leave their positions since 2018.
As we reported, Melanie Ford took over as Director of Social Services last February and Thomas Valenti assumed leadership of the Departments of Public Works and Engineering in July 2018.
The departure of the city’s Water Director later that month was kept quiet for over three weeks until this reporter—then a candidate for Mayor—revealed the personnel change to the public on social media.
In another big shake-up, Cahill and his longtime Police Director Anthony Caputo successfully pushed to add a new rank in the chain of command, and another highly paid boss to the brass of the city’s top-heavy department.
The City Council agreed to create the position of Deputy Chief in December.
Little is known about the motivation for creating the new position, but it went to Vincent Sabo, one of the department’s three Captains at the time.
Sabo’s promotion to the position came following an exam that was at least open to all three Captains, but Mayors have the ability to choose from among the top three candidates, under civil service regulations.
Since 2008, Sabo has given at least $1,850 to Mayor Cahill’s campaigns. He lives in Hillsborough, according to campaign finance records.
One ranking officer told New Brunswick Today that little has changed since Sabo took on the new role. He was already the department’s “executive officer” before the new position was created.
But one thing that has changed is the size Sabo’s paycheck.
The maximum annual salary for the position is $185,000, according to the Council’s December 2018 ordinance. Sabo is being paid $176,063 per year to start, up from his $154,117 Captain salary.
So far this year, Sabo is the highest-paid city worker thanks to an additional $20,297.25 in “extra-duty” pay, and $1,246.95 in overtime pay.
When questioned about the Deputy Chief position on January 2, newly-installed Council President Anderson would only say that it was “something the Mayor wanted.”
As we reported, Caputo was given an additional five years on the NBPA Board of Commissioners by Cahill. Like Sabo, Caputo does not attend City Council meetings, leaving a Captain or sometimes a Lieutenant to field any questions.
The NBPA is perhaps the city’s most powerful board, and its seats have been stepping stones that helped two former board members—Kevin Egan and John Anderson—to find their way on to the Democratic ticket for City Council in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
Another NBPA board member in recent years, Anthony Barber, saw his spouse secure the Democratic Party’s support to become a Middlesex County Freeholder.
Sabo quietly began his term as Deputy Chief on January 8, six days after the Council struggled to field questions about the reasons for the move.
Unlike the civilian “Director” position, the Deputy Chief is a sworn law enforcement officer with police powers, and falls under the Civil Service Commission regulations that affect most government jobs in New Brunswick.
“Only Captains could compete for the title,” Loughlin told New Brunswick Today before he left office. The department continues to have no Chief and no Deputy Director.
After Cahill’s decision to promote Sabo went into effect, the public was not informed about the personnel change until one week later, when an official statement was posted to the city website.
“Deputy Chief Sabo is a trusted senior member of our team of NBPD supervisors, and this new role will allow us to better streamline command and oversight of our police department, which is now staffed at its highest level ever,” Mayor Cahill was quoted in the statement. “Through this arrangement, we will be able to optimize our management capabilities and our service to the New Brunswick community.”
“Vinny’s the right guy for the job,” said Captain JT Miller, who said he was not in the running for the new position. The other Captain eligible for the promotion was Michael Bobadilla.
About three weeks later, the department promoted two Lieutenants to the rank of Captain: Christopher Goldeski and Chirstopher Plowucha. All Captains earn $154,117 per year, and they are also eligible for extra-duty and overtime pay.
After he and his City Council running mates were sworn in, Cahill used his January 1 speech to name City Clerk Daniel Torrisi as the first new Business Administrator in a generation.
The following night, the City Council consented to Torrisi’s nomination, picked a new President and Vice President from their own ranks, and announced a new rule meant to further limit the public’s time to comment during the Council’s meetings.
Torrisi, a Sixth Ward resident whose grandfather served as a New Brunswick firefighter and rose through the ranks to become Fire Chief, became City Clerk the same year Cahill began his tenure as Mayor, back in 1991.
Torrisi’s wife Maria has previously served on the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment and his brother works for the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.
City Clerk is the only paid position in New Brunswick’s government that is directly appointed by the City Council alone, ostensibly independent of the Mayor.
For Torrisi, the Business Administrator job came with a $160,000 starting salary, up from the $112,866 he made as Clerk. Loughlin made $187,202 per year in the job, and was the city’s highest-paid employee before he retired on December 31.
The City Council also named Leslie Zeledon as Torrisi’s replacement in the important position of City Clerk, which is responsible for maintaining and releasing public records, as well as administering every election that happens in the Hub City.
Zeledon has been with the city since January 2008, and got her start working in the Mayor’s Office. As Deputy City Clerk, she earned $46,321.
In the new position, her salary increased to $75,000.
She is the first person to hold the job in nearly three decades, and likely the first Latina City Clerk in the history of the city.
Unlike Loughlin, Torrisi enjoys the help of not one, but two different Assistant Business Administrators working under him: Brandon Goldberg and Michael Drulis.
Both men earn $125,000 annual salaries in the new arrangement, but Goldberg’s salary is tucked into the Water Utility budget, according to public records.
Goldberg, a resident of downtown, joined the city government during the summer of 2018, after serving as the Business Administrator for Middlesex Borough.
Drulis previously lived in New Brunswick’s Fifth Ward, but has since relocated outside the county. He has worked as a lobbyist with ties to Cahill.
Prior to 2014, there were no Assistant Business Administrators in New Brunswick. At that time, the position was first created for Russell Marchetta, Cahill’s former spokesman.
Loughlin, the brother-in-law of former public works director Steve Zarecki, moved to New Brunswick and landed positions at the city’s Housing Authority and Parking Authority before joining the team at City Hall 26 years ago.
After a stint as the Executive Director of the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) and a partial term on the board of the Housing Authority, Loughlin was selected by Cahill to replace Gregory Fehrenbach as his Business Administrator in 1993, halfway through Cahill’s first term as Mayor.
For more than five years, Loughlin was also in charge of the city’s troubled Water Utility, following the suicide of Water Director Shaun Maloney in 2007.
During that period, at a Water Utility official who donated to Mayor Cahill’s campaigns endangered the public’s health by covering up problems with the drinking water over the course several years.
Edward O’Rourke, the city’s “licensed operator” for decades, was only caught after a qualified Water Director was finally hired, and he was later imprisoned for the crimes.
The scandal kicked off a revolving door of different Water Directors, as well as a controversial privatization and additional water quality violations.
In the same vote where they confirmed Torrisi, the City Council also gave its official advice and consent to the re-installation of Alexei Walus as Water Director.
The move capped off a prolonged saga that saw three different Water Directors—plus two stints with the Mayor installing himself as Acting Director of the utility—since 2014.
Walus served as Director from October 2014 until March 2015, when Cahill demoted him for “an incident involving the use of derogatory and inappropriate language.”
But on August 6, 2018, Walus was promoted back into the top job following Mark Lavenberg’s departure for a position with the City of Newark. That move made him the Acting Water Director, pending an official nomination from the Mayor and confirmation by City Council.
The Council eventually made Walus the permanent Water Director at their first meeting of 2019, and he now receives a salary of $115,808.
In response to questions about the move to put Walus back in charge of the embattleed department, Mayor Cahill’s spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw wrote: “Our focus hasn’t been on who has left, our focus has been on who is still here, running our daily water treatment and distribution operations.”
Walus’ salary was bumped by $10,000 when he received the acting title, and increased by an additional $5,000 this year. His pay had been cut by the same $10,000 when he was demoted in 2015.
Lavenberg had been the fourth man named to the post in a one-year period, bringing some stability to the troubled agency over his three-year tenure.
Lavenberg’s tenure saw the exposure of a second criminal scheme, one that resulted in two Water Utility workers pleading guilty to taking bribes in exchange for discounts on their water bills. The two men are still awaiting sentencing and are likely to face at least five years in state prison.
On July 13, three months after the men pled guilty, Lavenberg abruptly left New Brunswick to take a higher-paying position with the City of Newark’s embattled Water Department, giving Walus a shot to win back his old job.
Without announcing it to the public, Cahill named Walus the city’s Acting Water Director on August 6, and Kouaoeric “Eric” Ekoue took over Walus’ old position, Water Treatment Plant Superintendent. Ekoue is paid $90,000 per year for his service to the city.
“Walus exercised an instance of poor judgement in 2015 while previously serving as Water Director, for which he was disciplined and his pay reduced,” said Cahill’s spokesperson after the promotion became public knowledge. “Since that time, his employee performance has been positive.”
When questioned in September 2018, Loughlin and the Council defended the decision to re-install Walus, saying he had paid for his mistake.
“People change, people make mistakes,” said Glenn Fleming, then the President of the City Council.
Meanwhile, one of the city’s nine departments still doesn’t have a permanent leader in place and hasn’t all year.
Daniel Dominguez has been the city’s “Acting” Planning Director since January 1, ostensibly while a search was conducted for someone to replace Glenn Patterson, who worked for the city since 1988.
The Planning Department also lost Patterson’s number-two: city planner Mark Siegle, who earned $73,600 per year but left the adminsitration on December 31 to take a job with Ocean County’s Planning Department.
At their December 19, 2018 meeting, the Council approved a $14,500 agreement with Cranford-based Jersey Professional Management to help Cahill find a new leader for the department, officially called the Department of Planning, Community, and Economic Development.
But now the Cahill administration says that the interviews conducted as a result of that contract did not yield any “satisfactory” candidates, and it will let Dominguez keep the job leading the department, at least for now.
“We currently have Daniel Dominguez as the Acting Director and he’s doing fine,” said Torrisi at the July 2 City Council meeting. “So we’re not actively looking to replace Mr. Patterson at this time.”
Dominguez previously worked for the Catholic Charities project Unity Square before joining Patterson’s Department in April 2017.
Dominguez’s job title was “coordinator of monitoring and evaluation,” and he earned $48,000 per year, a rate that was increased to $54,000 after his promotion to Acting Director.
As of July 1, he now earns $60,000 per year.
The department currently has nine employees including Dominguez, whose full name is Daniel Dominguez Rodriguez.
He told New Brunswick Today his department is still looking to hire a Principal Planner, and crossed his fingers when asked about the prospect of him continuing to lead the department.
Patterson’s salary was $124,490 at the end of his career. Like Loughlin, he joined the New Brunswick machine during the administration of Cahill’s predecessor and cousin, the notorious John Lynch, Jr.
During his term as Planning Director, Patterson presided over the largest physical overhaul of the city in generations, with massive investments in real estate projects around the city, particularly in downtown.
When he joined the city government in 1988, New Brunswick had just seven buildings taller than 100 feet and the tallest was Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters.
Over the next 30 years, the city saw another thirteen come online. Two more structures that will reach almost 3o0 feet tall are set to come online this year and next.
Patterson worked to put together complex financing arrangements for large housing and redevelopment projects, including the Civic Square project that included a new home for the city’s court and police, and served as his department’s home base.
But not every project worked out as planned. For example, a supermarket space owned by the NBPA was heavily hyped as a crucial addition to the city’s growing downtown before tenants twice went belly up owing hundreds of thousands to the government.
Regardless of the project, Patterson often helped focus the discussion and asked important questions at Zoning and Planning Board hearings, where he served as Board Secretary.
The Zoning Board also saw a big change this year as longtime member John Cox, a former NBPA employee, took over as Chairman.
It’s the first time in seven years that Nancy Coppola, whose husband Kevin McTernan is an official at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and chairs the NBPA Board, is not chairing the Zoning board. Though she was re-appointed by the Mayor, she has only attended one meeting so far this year.
That left Cox, the board’s most senior member and its Vice Chair for several years, in a position to assume the Chair role.
Last year, Coppola also left her position as the head of the New Brunswick Education Association (NBEA), the union for New Brunswick school district employees. She had been in the role for nearly a decade.
This year alone, the city’s Zoning Board has approved a 55-unit apartment building on Hamilton Street, a dialysis center on George Street, a 94-unit apartment building on Courtlandt Street, and several other development projects.
Meanwhile, a couple of new schemes to partner with other public entities were set to take effect this year, though one has all but run its course and the other partnership forecasted fizzled out.
The city government sprung for a $200,000, six-month deal with Rutgers University to replace services performed by some of its key construction code officials who also left December 31.
That deal came shortly after the city implemented an agreement with the university to take over its 9-1-1 dispatch service, a suggestion first offered by this reporter after Cahill, Caputo, and Loughlin had sought to privatize the service.
The move eventually led Rutgers Police to take over NBPD’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system on December 10, 2018.
Departing were construction official William Schrum, who made $110,157 per year and has been with the city since 1994, and electrical inspector Kenneth Krug, who made a salary of $93,700 and had been with the city since 1993.
Also quitting at the same time was building sub-code official Leopold Marmurczak, who joined the administration in 2009 and made $81,554.
Going forward, however, Rutgers employees will be serving similar functions under an agreement added at the last-minute to the City Council’s December 27, 2018 meeting.
“In light of the fact our construction official and sub-code officials are retiring, we are going to enter into a shared services agreement with Rutgers to utilize their officials and see how that works,” said City Attorney TK Shamy at the time.
Six months later, the city still needs some of the services, due to the tragic loss of one new hire.
“We are going to extend it probably for another month,” explained Torrisi on July 2, noting that a replacement electrical inspector hired earlier this year had passed away.
In February, Edward Grobelny took office as the new construction official at a $90,000 annual salary. In April, Bryan McLarnon was hired for $72,000 to serve as electrical inspector, but he fell ill and passed away shortly thereafter.
On June 3, the city made two more hires, bringing on plumbing subcode official John Randazzo for $69,000 per year, and Michael Porter as building subcode official at $65,000 per year.
The vacant electrical inspector position is currently posted with the Civil Service Commission and advertised on the bulletin board in the lobby of City Hall.
The local government was also set to hand off its human resources functions to the Middlesex County government on January 1 in an usual arrangement that never came to pass.
City officials cited the second departure of Patricia Egan, a city employee related to the Councilman. She quit her city job nearly a decade ago only to return as a $30-per-hour employee.
Patricia Egan was set to retire at the end of 2018, but prior to the Mayor election, the City Council and County Freeholders both voted to approve a deal handing over the city’s human resources (HR) responsibilities to the county. Had the county deal been implemented, it would have been one way for the local political machine to exercise continued control of the city’s hiring process even if this reporter pulled off an upset victory over Cahill.
But, after the election, the whole plan was scrapped as impractical. County officials gave various excuses for the delays and before Torrisi went on the record, arguing it would be burdensome for city employees to be required to cross Bayard Street and go through the county building’s high-security checkpoint to access the city’s HR functions.
As expected, the Council kept with the tradition of rotating the officer positions, with outgoing Council President Glenn Fleming making the motion to promote John Anderson to the position he held for the past two years.
The Council’s newest member, Suzanne Sicora-Ludwig, replaced Anderson as Vice President. Anderson has had perfect attendance this year, so Sicora-Ludwig has not yet been given the opportunity to run her first meeting since joining the Council in 2017.
Along with Fleming, Anderson and Sicora-Ludwig will be up for re-election in 2020, and all three are likely to seek re-election.
The Council will continue most of its existing liason assignments, with Sicora-Ludwig continuing to have her vote on the city’s powerful Planning Board. She will also serve as the Council’s representative on the New Brunswick City Market Board of Directors, a role previous filled by Anderson.
The Council also used the January 2 “re-organization meeting” to make an unannounced change to their policy, in an apparent attempt to limit the amount of time members of the public will have to address them.
Previously, the five minutes alloted would only count down while the member of the public was speaking, and the clock would pause while officials responded. Anderson declared the new “running clock” rule after a stealth attempt to institute at the December 27 meeting failed under Fleming’s leadership.
Anderson declined to say whose idea it was to change the rules when questioned by this reporter, but made it clear he supports the new limitation.
“As Council President, I ultimately have the say,” said Anderson. “I’m not saying it was my idea, but it was my idea to do it.”
Charlie is a community organizer, a Rutgers journalism graduate, and a 2018 independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.
He can be reached at (732) 993-9697 or editor@NewBrunswickToday.com.