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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  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 . 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, , 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 over her efforts to take away their health benefits and stipends, and when they refused her demands. In a preliminary ruling last month, 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  to disband the county police and merge some of their operations into his department.

He's and said the group Donovan put together to review the Guidepost study .

“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.

3rdGradeLesson May 06, 2012 at 02:55 PM
She is a prime example of the concept that you become and act like the people you surround yourself with.
Heatmizer May 06, 2012 at 03:02 PM
All I can say is "Great job America, you voted for this!"
Deleted because of harassment May 06, 2012 at 03:10 PM
Anyone that challenges "mortgage fraud" O'Malley, and the "Untouchables" on the commissions and boards is doing just what she was elected to do. The corrupt system always fights against those that challenge them, so the suits are to be expected. It's certainly approprate for an executive to have a security detail to protect her from a lot of disguntled political appointees who have found their spree ended and their fiefdoms threatened. As for Saudino, he falls within the same comments. Perhaps the executive would be better served by security without the personal attachments to someone on the attack. Donovan is doing just what she was elected to do. And, Zak, shame on you for providing half-truths that do nothing but spread the very propaganda the paid commenters are also spreading. It serves no one to be a platform for any side.
Jenne May 06, 2012 at 03:59 PM
I agree, if she's serious about savings, she need to drop the security detail. That's crazy. Bergen may be a rich county but what do they expect people will try to do to her? Ask her uncomfortable questions? Honestly, the best reform NJ could have would be to figure out how many positions could be made non-appointive. NJ has way too much political patronage in the system, leading to Tammany Hall crises like these. (How on earth did we get a system where the county executive appoints mayors for towns?)
William Mays May 06, 2012 at 04:27 PM
Why the hell does she have a security detail? I saw Christie at the high school and he had like 5 people escorting him, and hes the governor. She probably wants to make herself seem important.
edmund Burke May 06, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Feeholder David Ganz raised taxes every year he was in office under the Democratic regime of Dennis McNerney, which was finally thrown out of office in 2009. Under Ganz, the BCIA was an integral part of a federal fraud investigation. Under Ganza and McNerney, Overpeck Park became the biggest boondoggle in county history. Now Ganz wants to criticize a county executive who is asking questions and saying no. Would he rather the county go back to the waste and abuse of taxpayer money under the Democratic regime?
John Q. Public May 06, 2012 at 08:14 PM
I like the way you think. Spankings for everyone!
Al Norton May 06, 2012 at 10:41 PM
Political hacks suing to increase their pay/benefits for jobs that we don't need.Yea constituents be damned,give me mine and pay for it,and if you don't give me mine,we'll sue and you'll pay for that as well!
Legal Notice May 06, 2012 at 11:21 PM
It has come to our attention that Kathe Donovan was quoted as saying at a recent private Republican meeting that Alan Marcus speaks for her in all things political. If Alan Marcus is the one hitting the taxpayer political pinata and Bentz from Paramus is the beneficiary he has committed perjury . Just watch for all those Democrat Randall typeads against Republicans in Nov
delgado May 06, 2012 at 11:28 PM
Great article! Finally a bombshell that everyone saw coming. Its clear, NJ's largest county has a complete paranoid running the county, with a lobbyist to the Bergen Record, making tons of money along the way. These lawsuits, (including the explosive $550,000 disgusting sex lawsuit filed as Donovans clerks position)... shes has been the leader of the "good old gyrls" system from being Whtimans State Party Chair, to now her disgraceful administration. This is going to end tragically for the taxpayers, just more and more spending,,,, Donovan needs to move on and finally offically retire...Taxpayers of tired of this and they are going to dig, dig, dig and get to the bottom of this paranoid activity,,, she must be hiding something...
delgado May 06, 2012 at 11:35 PM
Mark this excellent well written, fair and equal article by John Mallinconico as the beginning of the end for the Donovan adminstration. From the double dipping by the Fair Lawn Mayor and Deputy Mayor, there is so much here, that its clear Donovan must consider retirement or step down.
delgado May 06, 2012 at 11:39 PM
there is no justification for 3 cops on security detail. Looks like Donovan is really saying Yes, rather than no. Its sad that hacks supporting this "Good old gyrl" whos been mooching off the taxpayers for 40 years.
delgado May 06, 2012 at 11:42 PM
The Steve Borg Bergen Record reported that this one Alan Marcus also is a highly paid lobbyist for the new government financed shoppiong mall in the Meadowlands that double dipping wants to have the taxpayers financed. Thats what this is all about.
Pete Malvasi May 06, 2012 at 11:53 PM
These people are all bums. The County Government is the junior college of crooks on their way state legislature where you become a bigger their and bloodsucker and upwards from there. Anyone see Senator Lautenburg grill the Christie admin DOT guy on toll increases? He was really onto something. But then the Christie guy exposed Lautenburg was abusing his free ez-pass. Free ez-pass? Really. We don't pay him enough? Our system is dreadfully broken.
kevinsmith May 06, 2012 at 11:54 PM
All the lazy ass democrat's in Bergen county get a real Job ,Do you know what its like to make $30,000- for a family of 4 ? Hell that's like the Bonuses you used to get with the past administrations .I voted for Kathleen and damn proud too ! GOOD LET HER CLEAN UP ALL THE WASTEFUL SPENDING THAT THE Democrats have been doing for the past 50 years.I Don't like the Governor But Kathleen is kicking all your butts and you don't know how to legally get here out of office WWWWWHHHHH ! $161.Billion NO YOU DEMS CAN'T HAVE IT,SENIORS,MEALS ON WHEELS PROGRAMS & VETERAN ARE MORE DESERVING OF A SHARE OF THE MONEY THEN YOU.
Tom Troncone (Editor) May 07, 2012 at 12:32 AM
Here's our story on the finance plan for the former Xanadu... http://patch.com/A-pwHq
Michael Agosta May 07, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Tommy P No one "kicked" me out of the 'club'. In fact, neither she nor Trawinski were members. They had not paid their $10 dues in two years. I resigned because I do not want to be around cowards. Both Baratta and Trawinski are exactly that. Cowards.
delgado May 07, 2012 at 02:14 AM
this is really bad for the property taxpayers of Bergen. When Republicans and Democrats are suing the County Exeuctive, add in the potential theft of Federal funds, its clear there is a lot more that is going to be revealed. Gov Chrisite needs to get in and create a position in Trenton for this train wreck.
Tommy P May 07, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Christie doesn't need to create a position, he needs to eliminate ALL of the county positions.
Dawn Lopez May 07, 2012 at 07:06 PM
I agree wholeheartedly. Kick them all out.
Andy Schmidt May 07, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Looking over the list of issues I'm not opposed to her "questioning" them and actually would applaud her - IF she is within her assigned powers (which I am not qualified to say either way). IF, however, she is doing this in disrespect of the limits of her position then this would be a frivolous "sue me" attitude, but at (twice) MY expense. If I counted correctly, legal fees are already up to 55K (and it's probably twice that if you assume the complainants spent approx. the same on THEIR legal fees). I would feel better if she would put HER money where her mouth is: If the courts find that she acted outside the law and she was just playing politics to impress the electorate, then she should commit to have the expense of both parties "docked" from HER pay. This would signal that she's verified that she's on solid legal grounds before spending our money by inviting lawsuits.
Cengiz Cagar May 07, 2012 at 10:45 PM
There are "parasites" in this county government. Time has come for all of these individuals to go out into the "real world" and compete for the normal jobs that are available. Eliminate these free-loaders !
LivinLocal May 08, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Ms. Donovan is obviously battling the status quo. That process doesn't happen without challenging egos. Ultimately it's our tax dollars that are subsidizing "volunteer" positions and spending that shouldn't be void of accountability. The Sheriff's Department's labor contract was negotiated by an ex-chief with his brothers. Why was the County Executive excluded from the process? Who is the "power hungry" personality? The one spending our tax dollars, buying loyalty and harmony, or the one trying to curtail the superfluous costs? Too many elected officials are elected to bring about change and then shy away from the confrontations. Thank you County Executive Donovan - Kick A$$ and keep fighting to limit the number of hands reaching into my pockets!
Joe N May 08, 2012 at 02:20 PM
plus 5 more you did not see, look at McGreevy he had 12 and 1 that would sneek him off to his boyfriends house at all hours of the night.
Joe N May 08, 2012 at 02:32 PM
well said
Joanna Hafner May 08, 2012 at 02:55 PM
I'm so sick of this people want change and smaller government and less spending and when any one from either side tries to change the old boy network they start screaming about it and filing lawsuits. Give me a break throw them all out and start over!
Mike Kilhaney May 08, 2012 at 09:17 PM
It is great that the "Status Quo", with ALL of the over-spending and corruption and greed that goes along with it, is finally being challenged in Bergen County & NJ. However...public employees should NEVER- EVER be allowed to waste or spend "taxpayer" money on any lawsuit between public employees or political party affiliations. Perhaps this issue must be addressed with a priority taxpayer vote next general election, and surely by Governor Christie in the meantime.The long and short of this is that NJ and Bergen County MUST curtail/cut taxpayer funded spending by an oversized & ineffective political system.The waste is phenomenal !
Patricia Whitney May 08, 2012 at 11:50 PM
Donovan is her job that the people elected her for; Stop Wasteful Spend!
Harry May 09, 2012 at 06:51 AM
2 of those 5 were carrying his lunch.
delgado June 16, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Joanna, double dipper Donovan is worse than the old boy network, she lies and all the liedswill come out. Taxes and waste have skyrocketed under donovan/

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