CREST HAVEN â€” It’s not the money, County Surrogate W. Robert Hentges told this newspaper after complaining to freeholders Feb. 14. It’s the lack of respect.
Well, maybe it’s the money a little bit, too.
The 68-year-old veteran constitutional officer, serving in his 33rd year and seventh term, cited a list of his most recent achievements, culminating with the county Bar Association’s nomination for the State Bar Association Medal of Honor Award.
Hentges serves with two other elected constitutional officiers, county Clerk Rita Fulginiti, in the audience, and county Sheriff John Callinan, he noted.
“Perhaps you overlooked,” said Hentges, with sarcasm, that the three of them over the last four years turned over fees to the county of $7,545,980 “and 60 cents.”
“I’m sure that money was part of this year’s tax reduction,” he said.
“In keeping with that,” said Hentges, “the constitutional officers have been left in the lurch (in this year’s budget).
“All county employes got salary increases,” said Hentges. “The constitutionals got not even a cost of living increase since 2002.
“I ask you to consider, or reconsider,” said Hentges.
Freeholder Gerald M. Thornton told Hentges there was someone else who “hasn’t received a raise in 18 years â€” the freeholders.”
“It only takes three votes,” said Hentges.
“Motion to adjourn,” said Freeholder-Director Daniel Beyel, who was especially fast with the gavel that Valentine’s night.
The constitutional officers make $91,650, by statute 65 percent of the salaries of Superior Court judges. The freeholders have made $17,973 since 1989. They raised it $1,000 that year, but quickly rescinded it after public outcry. The freeholder director makes $1,000 more.
Fulginiti told the Herald that Hentges “was not the spokesman for us; he did that on his own.”
But, she said, “I don’t disagree with anything he said. He was factual. Mr. Hentges is so respected as a surrogate all over the state; he is worth his weight in gold.”
Callinan also told the Herald that Hentges was not speaking for him, “not that I wouldn’t take the money. It’s hard to ask for money in this county because nobody makes money in this county.”
But, Hentges told this newspaper, “it was not about the money. It was about lack of communication and lack of respect for constitutional officers. It used to be a cohesive cooperation. They don’t talk to anybody anymore.”
Hentges charged that the freeholders, Beyel in particular, “did not permit Angie (Pulvino), John (Callinan) and I to be sworn in with them in 2002. They said do it an hour before their meeting. It was the first time that had happened in our memory.”
“That is not true,” said Beyel. “When I talked to Mrs. Pulvino and Sheriff Callinan, they did not have the same comments (as Hentges). Mrs. Pulvino was sworn in right after the election, and Sheriff Callinan had his own, private ceremony. It was their choice.”
Hentges said the same thing happened this year when Fulginiti “was denied the right to get sworn in with the freeholders.”
“Rita was sworn in at the freeholder ceremony,” said Beyel.
Actually, she was sworn in immediately after the freeholders. Reliable sources said there were days of negotiations over that and the printed county reorganization program listed, after the adjournment, a “ceremonial installation” for Fulginiti, who had taken the official oath weeks earlier.
Fulginiti told this newspaper she “had a talk with Mr. Beyel and Mr. Sheets and Sheriff Callinan regarding taking our oaths together and they of-fered me the opportunity to share the program after their meeting was adjourned. I accepted that. It was the most wonderful day of my life. I cele-brated my oath with the people I love. It was clear I had the admiration of county employes and the people I work with.”
Fulginiti has been attending all freeholder meetings, something Pulvino did not do.
“It’s somethng I will be doing,” she said. “It’s important for the clerk to be informed and part of this government.”
Beyel indicated there could be something to that respect issue with Hentges. Beyel said Hentges had told former State Sen. James Cafiero the free-holders supported the legislation tying the constitutionals’ pay to the Superior Court judges when actually the freeholders did not.
That 2002 legislation gave the constitutionals a $6,000 pay increase, said Beyel,
“The trust is going in the wrong direction in his behalf,” he said.
Beyel noted that Hentges “already collects a pension for being a retired surrogate in addition to his salary. Based upon that, he is probably making $125,000 to do that job. That should be sufficient.”
“That has nothing to do with my job,” said Hentges. He said his $2,365-a-month-pension “is something I paid into the state pension system for 27 years and seven months and that’s what I am entitled to. The county doesn’t contribute to it.”
How do Fulginiti and Callinan feel about the Hentges’ respect and communications complaint?
“I understand how Bob feels,” said Fulginiti. “He did share that history with Mrs. Pulvino, but I believe Mr. Beyel and Mr. Sheets and the other freeholders respect me. I just finished campaigning with them. They treated me like their kid sister, bringing me on board. I choose to view this whole thing differently.”
“I never felt there was a lack of communication,” said Callinan. “I communicate. They communicate. We just don’t always agree.”
Tension between freeholders and constitutional officers here is nothing new. In 1987, Hentges, Pulvino, and then-Sheriff James Plousis asked freeholders to restore longevity pay taken from them in 1983. The freeholders declined.
At that time, Pulvino complained that freeholders “never talk to us in advance.”
Contact Zelnik at (609) 886-8600 Ext. 27 or: firstname.lastname@example.org
stay in the know