Although he once supported Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan's opposition to part-time utility commissioners receiving paid stipends and health benefits, Ridgewood Village Manager Ken Gabbert himself has been collecting paychecks as a utility commissioner.
And he'll continue to, with the Bergen County Freeholder Board on Wednesday overriding Donovan's veto of the Jan. 8 Northwest Bergen County Utility Authority (NBCUA) minutes. The board voted 6-1 to override her veto, with Freeholder Maura DeNicola the one vote in support of the veto.
Gabbert – appointed by fellow Republican Donovan in March of 2012 to the utility board – received a pro-rated $4,200 in last year, he told Patch Wednesday. He does not collect county-funded health benefits, which he receives from the village.
The news Gabbert has collected stipends came as a surprise to Donovan and her office.
In December of 2011, Gabbert, a resident of Upper Saddle River, was one of ten mayors in Northwest Bergen County who supported Donovan's pledge to end benefits for part-time commissioners.
“At a recent meeting of the NW Bergen Mayors Association, our Mayors voted unanimously to support your action of vetoing the subject minutes,” Allendale Mayor Vince Barra wrote to Donovan on behalf of the mayors. “We fully concur with your decision that part time Commissioners should not receive benefits including health insurance and that such expenditures are totally unwarranted. We applaud your concern that taxpayers should be required to shoulder such unreasonable expenditures.”
Gabbert later called the commissioner's role a "volunteer" part-time position when council members questioned if his appointment violated his contract as Ridgewood Village Manager last spring.
Jeanne Baratta, the chief of staff for Donovan, said she spoke with Gabbert Wednesday about the rumors – first reported by The Record – he was receiving payments. According to Baratta, the expectation Gabbert would not receive any payments or benefits was made clear when he was appointed last year.
“He said he began receiving stipends right after the judge's [June] ruling,” she said. “He said he felt there was a middle ground there. My response was, 'So you took the middle ground and did not take the high ground?'"
She added: “We're going to look into what we can do to remove Mr. Gabbert.”
Gabbert told Patch he consulted with the utility board's counsel and was legally entitled to collect a stipend.
His appointment last year came four months prior to Superior Court Judge Alexander Carver's ruling that Donovan could not cut benefits or stipends from commissioners mid-term. Unless an appeals court overturns the ruling, Gabbert can receive up to $5,000 for the next four years. (Appointees sworn in after the date of the judge's ruling are not eligible for benefits or stipends.)
It's unlikely, however, Donovan can oust Gabbert from his commissioner's chair. Her attempt to fire seven commissioners from the board last year was overturned by a judge, who ruled she overstepped the bounds of her power.
The Wednesday Freeholder vote was all about politics, Baratta and ally DeNicola, a Republican, said.
“We all agree that this board should move forward, that new members shouldn't receive stipends or health benefits and it's something we want to eliminate...this is part of the burden on the taxpayer,” said DeNicola following the vote, one she called “disappointing.”
Her colleagues, however, said overriding the veto was about upholding the judge's ruling while fulfilling its “checks and balances” role as a legislative body.
“We were not sent here to be a rubber stamp for the executive’s actions,” Freeholder Chairman David Ganz said. “When it’s in the best interest of the residents of Bergen County, this board will assert itself to prevent an abuse of authority by the Executive.”
The chairman of the Democrat-led board said the freeholders “urge the County Executive to try a different approach – to stop the costly lawsuits and legal fights and focus her energies on moving the county forward, creating jobs and bringing relief to the people of Bergen County.”
The Ridgewood village manager is one member on a nine-person board that oversees sewage collection in ten towns in the Bergen County.
Gabbert did not respond when asked if he'd stop collecting the stipend.