Published: October 24, 2008

Councilman Puts Double-Dipping Issue Before Voters


LIKE many politicians, Steven Fulop, a Jersey City councilman, has a Web site that explains who he is, where he came from and what he has done. But leave off the “N” in “Steven” and type in “,” and you’ll be directed to a Web site that has a large photo of Alfred E. Neuman, with a caption underneath that reads, “Give Me Money.”

“Mature, right?” Mr. Fulop said.

He suspects the Web site is the work of enemies he has made in Hudson County politics as he has fought against pay-to-play — the practice in New Jersey of extracting campaign donations from public contractors — and politicians holding more than one public job. Since putting forth ordinances banning both, Mr. Fulop said many of his fellow members won’t speak to him and at least one asked to be seated farther away from him at City Council meetings.

The 31-year-old Democrat has been ruffling feathers in the Hudson County Democratic Party since 2004. That year, with the backing of the late Mayor Glenn Cunningham, he ran for the United States Congress against Robert Menendez. Mr. Fulop lost, but it set the stage for his Council run a year later when, in an upset victory, he beat out an incumbent councilman, E. Junior Maldonado.

But it is Mr. Fulop’s efforts to bar Council members from accepting more than one public salary that has made him particularly unpopular. Six of Jersey City’s nine Council members work for either Hudson County or Jersey City, and a seventh is a retired city employee, entitling them to two public pensions.

“Being in public service should really be about serving the public,” he said. “But what you have in New Jersey is a culture in which people make themselves wealthy off of their elected positions.”

Mr. Fulop hopes to put the matter before voters in an election next year.

He initially tried to get the Council to pass an ordinance barring members from holding more than one public job, but it met with such resistance, he decided to put it directly to voters via a referendum on the November ballot.

He said the city clerk initially told him he needed 1,506 signatures, or 10 percent of those who voted in last year’s election, to get it on the ballot. But a day before the submission deadline, as he was turning in his petition, the clerk said he actually needed 12,000 signatures, or 10 percent of the city’s registered voters — six times the number needed to run for mayor. Mr. Fulop said that if anyone is trying to make it harder for him to pass his measure, he will not be deterred.

“It shows the extent to which politicians in New Jersey will go to protect the extra pension and salary,” Mr. Fulop said.

Holding dual offices poses inherent conflicts, said Mr. Fulop, who works as a hedge fund trader at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company LLC.

Council members sometimes vote on issues that benefit the city at the expense of the county, he said, and if their full-time job is with the county, they are not going to want to jeopardize that. Moreover, he pointed out, some spend hours conducting City Council business on the county’s tab. Last week, for instance, several Council members spent much of the day at a news conference for the Council’s new plans for Journal Square, Mr. Fulop said.

Indeed, a recent report by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, singled out Hudson County as having a high proportion of government workers holding more than one public position. Six of nine county freeholders, for instance, hold a second job paid for by taxpayers. Only Essex County had that high a percentage. And seven of Hudson County’s nine-member legislative delegation held a public job in addition to their elected office. Four are mayors.

Those opposed to the double-dipping measure say Council positions pay so little — in Jersey City, the job is part time and pays $33,430 a year — that members need another job to make ends meet. For the salary to be high enough, the position would have to be made a full-time one, and city officials interviewed said that was not likely to happen. Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy of Jersey City said such a move would cost $500,000 a year, a cost taxpayers would not want to bear. Moreover, making the job full time would make it impossible for some people to serve in municipal government, he said.

“Why should a doctor, a teacher, lawyer or stockbroker, for example, be precluded from serving on their City Council?” the mayor asked.

Councilman Steve Lipski said he admired Mr. Fulop’s zeal but questioned his focus. Instead of concentrating on double-dipping, Mr. Fulop should take aim at elected officials who use their position to then obtain a lucrative government job, Mr. Lipski said.

“When he makes these proposals, it makes the rest of the council feel like we’re criminals and crooks and that we’re double-dippers,” Mr. Lipski said. “I know a number of my colleagues work for the county or some other government agency, but I think only one or two had gotten their jobs after they were elected.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company