From those PBA members who plunged wearing kilts and war paint to those who plunged dressed as superheroes to those who plunged wearing barely anything, they accentuated the reason thousands of them once again stepped up for the Polar Bear Plunge on Feb. 20 in Seaside Heights: Pride.
By Mitchell Krugel
The North Plainfield Police Department bosses had enough of Local 85 State Delegate Mark Messinger. He had been the target of so many internal affairs investigations, with so many of them coming after he helped a member win a grievance.
Now, they were hitting him with an IA probe for “insubordination and criticism of official acts.” The bosses were moving toward having Messinger declared unfit for duty and offered to let him retire, which would have left him with 50 percent of his pension. What he describe as a farce – “The entire thing was a complete fabrication,” Messinger said – caused him to be suspended from duty for three years and threatened to flush his career for doing nothing more than aggressively representing his Local 85 members.
Clearly, Messinger needed protection. This was one of those better-call-a-lawyer-and-wake-him-up moments. This was one of those pickles the NJ State PBA Legal Protection Plan, the vaunted LPP, was built for, and Messinger made that midnight call. With LPP representation in his corner, he sustained the three-year ordeal, reached vindication and was back on the job in 2015.
“It’s nice to know you have somebody in your corner that believes in you and your case,” Messinger declared about the plan and/or the attorney, or probably both. “The target had been on my back for a long time. The plan gives members the opportunity to defend themselves from unjust charges.”
Nearly 25 years ago, the LPP was hatched during a PBA convention at the Crystal Palace in the Bahamas. NJ State PBA attorney Robert Fagella authored the initial document that was intended to provide protection for rookie officers. After 10 years of independent oversight, the LPP came in-house to the PBA in 2002, and under the direction of LPP coordinator Kevin Lyons since 2007, it has grown to be the pre-eminent program of its kind in the entire country.
Covering on-duty-related issues ranging from time and attendance discipline to excessive force complaints, the LPP has leveled the playing field for members dealing with those would-be-king police department administrators who think they can go after anybody for anything. The Plan’s more than 500 attorneys include the best of the state in labor and criminal specialties for less than one-third of the cost to retain this caliber of high-end lawyers, which members will find can protect them, their livelihood and their families.
“We have outperformed expectations,” notes Fagella, whose firm Zazzali Fagella Nowak Kleinbaum & Friedman was one of the plan’s charter members. “I don’t think anybody thought it would be a successful as it turned out to be.”
Adds Stuart Alterman, one of the LPP attorneys who was there at the Crystal Palace that day in 1992: “It became the single most important move that the NJ State PBA made and most certainly one of the reasons why the organization is so successful. If the plan wasn’t there, a lot of members wouldn’t have their jobs.”
The Bahama drama in ’92 bubbled up with a first-pass plan that then-recently-retired member Ron Cohen would administrate through a private insurance company. Legal protections plans had been in use in the corporate and private sector for several years, and that’s what version 1.0 attempted to emulate.
Disciplinary charges were on the rise in 1992, so the initial goal was to give plan members the wherewithal to fight disciplinary claims, some of which were termed frivolous. Similarly, many Locals did not have the funds to provide the substantive defense members would need to meet or beat such challenges.
The private insurance company was operating with pooled money, and as the plan started to grow it became apparent that a cash reserve would probably needed. The growth also created a volume of claims and payments for services. A definitive structure was needed, and Fagella took on his best Thomas Jefferson to create a declaration of legal protection that would facilitate the funding, the process and the talent to put forth a viable Plan.
“Initially, we wanted to have it broken down to cover three categories: Disciplinary, civil matters and criminal cases,” he explained. “As time went on, we kept revising the plan, increasing the coverages and increasing the base of participation among attorneys. We realized we had to increase the membership in the plan, because without a big base we weren’t going to be able to do it.”
And eventually, they wouldn’t be able to do it without bringing the plan in-house. So in 2002, the PBA took over administration of plan finances and formed an LPP Committee, which included Lyons as chair and a Passaic Local 14 member named Marc Kovar as a member. Lyons took on the role as coordinator in 2008 while remaining as chair until he retired in 2013 and turned over leading the committee to Raritan Township Local 337 State Delegate and Executive Board Member Meg Hammond in 2013.
Along the way, the plan has been continuously revised to the point where Fagella says it will always be a work in progress to meet members’ ever-evolving needs. To get attorneys integrated, the LPP conducted seminars to make sure they knew how it worked and how to comply with all the necessary documentation.
Under Lyons’ administration, the LPP has been able to keep up with it ongoing goal of increasing membership. Many Locals made an adjunct to dues because the having the protection has become that important. And the Plan has built up a cash reserve to meet virtually even the most extreme requests like the manslaughter charge Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Local 232 Detective Joseph Walker beat in 2014.
“We have tried to make it very user-friendly,” confided Lyons, whom Fagella compliments for devoting so much to improving the plan. “When I first started, there were about 17 steps to a claim. Now, there are about four. It’s become a big security thing, knowing that you have the PBA behind you funding your legal defense and you don’t have to worry about putting your mortgage up.”
When Alterman speaks to officers, whether in large groups or one-to-one, he reminds them about getting to the “finish line.” The lesson teaches that something will happen to virtually every law enforcement officer during a 25-year career that could threaten making it to the end with full benefits. A shooting, a public complaint, a chief who is out to get you – something is going to necessitate the protection the LPP provides.
“A Local wants somebody they can knock on their door in the middle of the might if they need help quick,” comments Hammond about why members need the LPP and what it does in terms of benefits.
Now, Hammond would not call being an LPP member a no-brainer. But membership in the Basic Plan is a meager $156 per year; the Unlimited Plan is just $256 per year.
So do the math; If you took the Unlimited Plan for the duration of your 25-year career, that $6,400 would buy about 21 hours of legal representation on the open market at the conservative rate of $300 per hour. (LPP lawyers typically get 50 percent more per hour on the open market).
That 21 hours might defend one minor to medium disciplinary complaint. In the Unlimited Plan, you get a $25,000 cap per claim, which at the LPP payout of $130 per billable hour to plan attorneys would net more than 192 hours of representation. For one incident. And that representation covers any on-duty-related matter – administrative, civil or criminal – from bar fights to getting you weapon back for being involved in a domestic to anything threatening loss of pay, rank or certificate, not to mention excessive force, on-duty shootings and whatever might happen with time-and-attendance-related charges.
The reasons for charges that leave members facing an internal are too numerous to list here, and it would take twice that space to explain some of the logic behind those charges being brought. But the more illogical and more nit-picking the charge, the more value from the LPP. As it has evolved, the plan has actually become a deterrent to chiefs and their charges.
“It has helped the members get a little more active negotiating discipline,” Lyons submits. “The LPP doesn’t get a letter in its file for objecting, and it keeps management from thinking you don’t have the money to afford representation to negotiate it from becoming bigger discipline.”
When contemplating the it’s-going-to-happen-to-you-at-some-point changing administrative environment in which you police, Lyons evokes one county Local that pays $10,000 in LPP membership fees per year. And that Local uses nearly $40,000 of LPP fees per year because the department is always looking to fire its people, suspend them and/or fine them days off.
Some departments are like that, Lyons adds, and some departments have formed such meaningful relationships with LPP attorneys over the years that they won’t go there. But with the public calling for more accountability and departments needing to create more transparency with everything on camera and everything questioned, you won’t make it to the finish line without the LPP.
“The plan has a great breadth of coverage,” Fagella emphasizes, “not only in the amounts but in scope. And we just expanded it again.”
Part of that expansion is providing psychologists and other professionals to conduct fitness-for-duty evaluations. Like several members facing such an evaluation, Messinger was sent by his department to an evaluator whose reports have been known to be called into question. The support of the Plan enabled him to see his own psychologist, who provided a refuting report and was a big part of helping to win his case.
Less than 1 percent of all claims actually go to the max, and administrative charges lead to the lion’s share of the claims. But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security when the LPP offers the fluffiest blue style of all security blankets.
“Every police officer is under so much scrutiny because of the audio and video technology, and because the internal affairs process has become so onerous, every incident must be viewed as a serious development,” Alterman warns. “I’ve seen the most benign event blow up into members fighting for their careers simply because they went into an interview and said the wrong thing. So we get those calls in the middle of the night because somebody is involved in an incident and making the call is the only thing to get you to stop shaking.”
The LPP proudly offers experts in the legal field. From Fagella and his partners Paul Kleinbaum and Colin Lynch at Zazzali Fagella Nowak Kleinbaum & Friedman, which has been representing the NJ State PBA for more than 50 years; to Alterman, who is a former corrections and law enforcement officer and former member of Vineland Local 266; to the Union County-based Mets Schiro McGovern & Paris; to one of the original LPP-member firms, Galantucci, Paluto, DeVencentes, Potter & Doyle; to Iacullo Martino in Essex County, there are many different lawyers for many different needs who have each built up rapports and relationships with Locals and the towns they serve.
The Plan has grown to more than 100 firms and more than 500 attorneys virtually one lawyer at a time. Locals can suggest adding an attorney through their County Conferences, which sends the recommendation to the LPP Committee. A review vets the attorney to make sure there are no political ties to the upper echelon or other potential conflicts, and then the committee brings the name to the floor of a State Board of Delegates meeting for vote to add. Each attorney gets two readings on the floor, and, if there are no objections, welcome to the LPP family.
Likewise, any Local can suggest the removal of an attorney from the plan. If the committee concurs, the decision can still be appealed on the floor of a state meeting.
“Variety is the spice of life,” says Middlesex County Corrections Officers Local 152 State Delegate Mike Kaniuk, a longtime LPP Committee member. “Everybody gravitates toward the attorneys they have relationships with, but we want to give them a choice from a bunch that have done good business. We want them to make individual decisions.”
Procedurally, opening a claim is fairly simple. When members are targeted, they must first go to their State Delegate. Customized software that GreenPoint Solutions has written includes a database tracking all Plan attorneys, which expedites entering and processing claims. In many cases, the attorney responds while the claim is being processed, because in many cases time is of the essence and getting an attorney on site might save a job. (Lyons reminds never undergoing any type of questioning relating to an incident or an IA inquiry without having an attorney present.)
Administering a claim shows the personal attention from Lyons and the committee that makes the program so vital. When you call to request Plan protection, you get a human voice on the phone, not a “touch 2” and wait. When the claim is filed, the committee reviews and approves, and then Lyons sets the terms and limits of coverage for that claim.
“Every decision is made by somebody in law enforcement or a law enforcement officer,” Lyons states. “Believe me, I want to cover every single claim to the max and then everybody would love me. Our philosophy is, ‘How do we cover this?’ not ‘Do we cover this?’”
Appeals can be made to the State PBA Judiciary Committee and ultimately to the State Board of Delegates. Bills come directly from the attorney to the PBA, and every member attorney will unequivocally confirm that the bills get paid on time.
The win-win in this attorney-client relationship is that the lawyers get the guaranteed work, and PBA members get a lower rate for an attorney who has long-standing experience and expertise. “There’s nothing in discipline that they haven’t seen,” Lyons shares.
The LPP case files are filled with examples of disciplinary actions that have been avoided and criminal charges that have been dismissed. It might be a necessary evil with the current climate of internal affairs investigations increasing, but if that’s the truth, then don’t you want somebody in your corner who will stand by you and stand by you and see it through?
Messinger relates how his attorney, Charlie Sciarra, stood by him for three years to get vindication and the unfit-for-duty charge dismissed. In the end, the court wound up awarding Sciarra $65,000 in legal fees that were covered by the plan until the award. Do the math: That’s about 500 hours in coverage, and Messinger believes that Sciarra provided another 250 hours or so on top of that to ensure another officer would make it to the finish line.
“The odds are in your favor that you are going to use the Plan,” Messinger concludes. “And with the attorneys we have on the Plan, you can rest-assured that you will have top-notch representation.”
The unseasonably warm weather and sunshine that peaked through on Plunge Saturday did not just come out of the blue. Not if you ask the members of Western Bergen County Local 79 and North Haledon Local 292.
The man upstairs apparently had a little help this year from Local 79 member and Midland Park Police Officer Chris Birch, who was killed in an off-duty ATV accident in 2015 at the age of 31. Chris was looking over a group of his brothers, sisters, friends, family – and his mother Donna – who came to plunge this year in his memory.
Chris Birch had been plunging since 2007. He would come with his brother, his nephew and his godson. Fellow officers remember him as somebody who wanted to do everything he could to support Special Olympics, and that’s why they came.
“Considering last weekend it was 20-below, I believe today being so bright and sunny has something to do with Chris,” declared Donna Birch, who joined 25 Team Birch members to make her first plunge. “He knew his mother would never survive the cold. He’s making it a happy day.”
Birch served the Midland Park Police Department since 2007, and for a year prior to that he worked for North Haledon. To honor his best friend of 29 years, Local 292 member Mike Cedar gathered a group to plunge that even included Midland Park Chief Mike Powderley.
“This being the first year of Chris not being here, we all felt it was necessary to be here for him,” Cedar explained. “That’s the way Chris was. I don’t think many people were better than Chris. All you had to do was call. He was a guy who was there before you needed him.”
Cedar led the call, and members from Local 79 and 292 responded, as well as othering neighboring towns such as Glen Rock Local 110. In addition to the 25 who plunged, many other donated in memory of Chris. Team Birch raised more than $11,000 from its plunge to donate to Special Olympics, and that was on top of $16,000 they had combined to raise previously in memory of Chris.
“Chris dedicated so much of his time to Special Olympics, so it’s great to see how many people are here to show appreciation for all Chris gave to Special Olympics,” Chief Powderley noted. “This is just something we are doing to send a message to Chris to let him know we are here for him.”
Hunterdon: Local 188 plunges in memory of Special Olympics coach
Tony Tierno, a Delaware Township resident, had been involved with Special Olympics New Jersey since 1986, eventually becoming the State Director and Head Coach of the New Jersey Team USA, where he trained power lifters who brought home four World Games championships. Tierno passed on May 18, 2015, leaving a deep loss felt by everyone in the Special Olympics New Jersey community, especially by Hunterdon County Local 188.
“It’s a huge loss for the Special Olympics,” recognized Local 188 member Frank Emanuele. “We’re plunging this year in tribute to his memory and his services to the Special Olympics.”
Tierno’s passion for the organization and this event in particular was transcendent in inspiring Local 188 members to get involved in the Polar Bear Plunge.
“We can remember and honor Tierno’s legacy just by participating and trying to raise as much money as possible in his honor,” emphasized Emanuele.
For the third consecutive year, the Local gathered 15 members to plunge. With Tierno’s spirit at the forefront of their minds, members stepped up their efforts to raise $2,500 for the athletes he passionately worked to help.
“Some of us started fundraising as early as Thanksgiving and some guys jumped on board two weeks ago,” acknowledged Local 188 Vice-President Brian McNally, who has been partaking in the action since 2006. “It brings us together as a group, but first and foremost the Plunge benefits a great cause. That’s why we’re here.”
Woodbridge Local 38: Bravecops
Standing on the beach, kilt-clad, adorned with blue Braveheart war paint and riding a stick horse named Joe, about 20 brave plungers prepared to face an enemy of vast proportions and frigid temperatures. And just as the ragtag Scottish freedom fighters stood up against the English inspired by William Wallace’s legendary speech, the courage to face the winter Atlantic Ocean had these PBA members psyching themselves up…
Sons of the PBA, we are Woodbridge Local 38.
But Local 38 members feel no cold!
Yes, I’ve heard. They arrest criminals by the hundreds, and if they were here, they’d consume the Atlantic with fireballs from their eyes and warming pads from their… utility bags. We ARE Local 38. And we see a whole army of my PBA members here in support of Special Olympics New Jersey. You have come to plunge as dedicated members, and dedicated members you are. What would you do without dedication? Will you plunge?
Plunge? Against that ocean? No, we will go home; and we will stay warm.
Aye, plunge and you may get cold. Go home and you’ll stay warm – at least a while. And sitting in your roll call room many shifts from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance… just one chance to come back to Seaside Heights and tell these Special Olympians that the ocean may take our warmth, but it’ll never take our dedication…
Local 38 has become renowned at the plunge for displaying a theme that brings a little fun and a lot of camaraderie to the event. Member Neal Auericchio came up with the Braveheart idea; the kilts and war paint came directly from Party City.
“We like to get everybody out here and make it a good time,” said Local 38 Board Member Dean Janowski. “We try to show camaraderie between us and also that we’re not just cops. We are people and we do good things outside of work. We like to goof a little bit and at the same time raise some money for charity. We’re here every year and we will continue to do this.”
Essex County Sheriff’s Office Local 183: Heroes for hire
It’s a bird…
It’s a plane…
It’s Superman… and an Expendable… and Simpsons characters Radioactive Man and Duffman…
For the third consecutive year, Essex County Sheriff’s Office Local 183 members, otherwise known as “Heroes for Hire,” came out caped and ready to play superheroes for the day in honor of Special Olympics New Jersey.
“From day one we said let’s dress up, and we’ve tried to stick to superheroes,” commented Jason Orphan, who spearheaded the Local’s initial involvement, but this year left his cape and cowl at home due to the chaos of retiring this month while preparing for a move.
The Local raised $400 in its first year, followed by $600 in the second year and almost double that this year, raising $1,175 between just four members.
“You have to give back every once in a while,” stated Orphan. “Look around, it’s a happy place and everyone is having a good time to benefit this one cause.”
Added Local 183 member Jason Rodriguez: “When do you get the opportunity to plunge in the water in the middle of winter? It’s amazing. We’re hoping to get more and more guys so we can give a little more each year. Hopefully in a few years, we’ll have a whole gang of superheroes here.”
A Justice League… perhaps?
West Windsor Township Local 271: Words of wisdom for a first-timer
For her first plunge, West Windsor Township Local 271 member Megan Erkoboni had a lot of experience from which to refer. And as Local 271 State Delegate Francesco LaTorre – who has been plunging since 1999 – imparted, it’s all about footwear.
“I’ve learned the hard way that you have to wear shoes to go in the water,” LaTorre elaborated. “The weather’s nice today but we’ve had some (plunges) over the years when you’ve have do walk over ice to get to the water. People think (wearing foot protection) is cheating but I don’t care.”
The other lesson learned?
“Always have an appointed towel person,” LaTorre added. “The first few years, we lost our stuff when we came out of the water. You’re going in with too many people and you get turned around and you don’t know where your things are when we come out. Now we have someone waiting for us.”
About 20 plungers arrived early to the Local 271 RV members parked by the beach the night before and began “psych up opps” – making food and getting ready for the most unlikely of parties.
“Our chief came out, our PBA president is here, (State PBA Executive Vice-President) Marc Kovar stopped by. We have a grill and we make food for people walking past so everyone feels comfortable and that they keep coming back and raise as much money as they possibly can,” LaTorre said, noting that the team raised $3,730 for this year’s plunge. “It’s been bigger before and we want to get back to five figures next year like we’ve been done in the past.”
As for Erkoboni, participating in her first Polar Bear Plunge is all the more special following her recent experience watching where the money raised goes: From Feb. 2-4, Erkoboni volunteered at the Special Olympic Winter Games in Mountain Creek, awarding medals at the closing ceremony.
“There’s nothing that a photo can communicate to you over being there and putting that medal on that Olympian’s neck and giving them a high five,” she exclaimed. “It’s pure joy and a big sense of accomplishment for them, and it was really an honor to do that.”
When it comes to building a successful legislative agenda, there are a number of critical factors to take into consideration. But of all the things that could influence a vote on a bill, three things stand out that truly make the difference between success and irrelevance in lobbying.
Any measure of success in lobbying begins and ends with an organization’s or a person’s relationships, credibility and the information they are bringing to the table. PBA members who attended PBA Day in Trenton on March 3 got to witness the State PBA’s relationships, credibility and information on display and what can be accomplished in Trenton when they all come together.
It would be easy to summarize all these things and suggest that they begin and end with the State PBA. Leadership. The strong relationships and the credibility of State PBA President Colligan and Executive Vice-President Kovar are solid and getting stronger every day. When they show up at the State House, people take notice and everyone wants to have their ear.
Personally, I was lobbying an important bill with a senator and a senior staff person recently when the senator wanted to know how he could be sure the information I told him really happened. The staffer supported everything I said by reminding the senator that my information was always reliable and factual. In short, I am fortunate to have earned a level of trust as a lobbyist that takes years to develop. Those relationships, coupled with bringing excellent information to the discussion, builds a credibility that opens doors and keeps them open in government.
But it isn’t entirely accurate to say one, two or three people can deliver success any time they want. The State PBA quite honestly doesn’t, and shouldn’t, work that way politically. If PBA Day, and the PBA’s aggressive Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) activity in the last election, proved anything, it is that the State PBA as an organization has a reputation, a level of trustworthiness and an integrity of ideals that makes it possible for us to build on our own relationships and make a difference in Trenton.
PBA Day was the embodiment of that in one busy Thursday. While the numbers themselves were overwhelming, the biggest impression PBA members left that day was the focus Trenton regulars could sense from the masses in attendance. Legislators who had no idea the PBA was invading the State House that day went out of their way to see the crowds for themselves. Committee chair’s stopped meetings to acknowledge and recognize the mass of PBA members. Many legislators engaged with PBA members on meaningful issues like pensions and the possible state takeover of Atlantic City.
But through it all, there was a sense of purpose emanating from the members in attendance that acted as if it were a blue wall built high around the State PBA leaders when they testified on several issues before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. It was a feeling as if the members were an extension of the relationships, the credibility and the information President Colligan and I presented to the committee. Committee members were looking at us, but they were really seeing the entire State PBA membership standing behind us in the faces that filled every section of that massive meeting room.
That in itself is the takeaway from PBA Day and goal of what the State PBA is becoming again. The bills that moved in committee that day, and the many bills we support and oppose along the way, are all very important to the future of law enforcement in New Jersey. Certainly, our efforts on PBA Day to move bills to prohibit discipline for failing to write enough tickets, to restore the Sick Leave Injury Program or to keep employers from firing a disabled officer awaiting his retirement hearing are among the more critical bills we will promote this session.
But what the State PBA has been building isn’t about one bill on one day of the year. What we are developing is the belief in Trenton that when Pat Colligan, Marc Kovar or I are lobbying an issue, what those legislators see inside our relationships with them is the impenetrable wall of PBA members that surrounds us. We want them to visualize the entirety of the 30,000 plus officers that make up the organization. We want them to sense that focus that was all around the State House during PBA Day every time they see us coming.
This is possible provided everyone stays engaged. So continue to get to know your legislators and make sure they know you. When the PBA puts out info on legislation, call their offices and let them know what the PBA thinks of the bill. When elections come around, support PBA candidates and volunteer to help them win.
The legislators in Trenton know and respect Pat, Marc and me. What we need is for them to sense that you’re all standing there next to us whenever we show up to see them again.
Great moments are borne from great opportunity, as a former New York Rangers coach once said. You know how I am about my Rangers. Of course, that coach sent up those famous words to his 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team right before the historic victory against the Soviet Union.
But Herb Brooks’ motivational declaration could have applied to members of the NJ State PBA when we came to Trenton on March 3 for PBA Day at the state legislature. And I felt a bit like the guy behind the bench when we faced off at the state house.
Like every coach going into a big game, you don’t know who is going to show up and bring their “A” game. Suffice to say, all of our members did and then some. I left my house early, stopped by the office to do a little update, and by the time I made it to Trenton, 40-45 guys were already there.
Then about 9 a.m. a bus load showed up with more members. And another. And another. And it made me feel really proud to see that we had doubled our turnout from the first PBA Day. We were rolling line after line, making legislators understand we are here to hold them accountable and make them realize the puck stops with them.
We sent a strong message that our girls and guys are willing to do the work, whatever it takes. It would have been easy for them to go back to bed rather than get up on a day off or a couple hours of sleep after working a night shift. It made me really proud to see it.
You see, that’s what you had here on this day. That’s what you earned here on this day. We played our game, and it’s catching on. We’re taking baby steps, and we all have to be happy with the process. From talking to all of you who showed up, I can tell you are all in for the good of the organization and you all realize that the name on the front of the jersey is a lot more important than the name on the back of the jersey.
(Sorry, for going Herb Brooks on you there, but I think we can feel that good about what happened on PBA Day.)
Another victory came when we were walking the halls of the state house on PBA Day. Almost every single legislator we saw knew us by first name. It was like, “Hi Marc, how are you doing?” That’s how far we have come in less than two years, and that’s only because we have the membership behind us.
Like this is the playoffs, truly, our members are playing their best when it matters most. We had another one of those holy spit moments at the Mini Convention in Atlantic City a few days after PBA Day. I cannot believe how you packed the room all three days of the convention. It was so crowded, there were people sitting on the floor. And when I stepped out to go to the men’s room, I saw another 150 outside.
At 8 a.m. each morning, all seats were mostly reserved. That’s unheard of. Now, typically you see people coming for the start of the Mini Convention meetings each day and then they leave. But nobody was leaving. They wanted to hear what everybody had to say.
Let me take a time out to personally thank retired Teaneck member Gary Spath for coming down to share his story about that renowned shooting incident back in 1990, and how he overcame two Grand Juries, a trial and public and media outcry that seems to never end. That was truly a miracle, and he was as inspiring as any Herb Brooks speech. More so. Much more so.
I think the post-game analysis will show this has been a total team effort. I think everybody knows we’re back again for real. But without the boots on the ground, we wouldn’t be getting the respect. Our members are really starting to show up, and that’s going to get us the attention to be even more relevant in 2017 when they will need to know we’re all out there voting and having a say in who is getting elected. They are starting to turn to us, and that doesn’t happen if they don’t see you down there.
We outdid ourselves, and now we need to keep going until we can’t go anymore. I don’t see that happening after what you all accomplished with PBA Day. Clearly your efforts showed this is your time. Now go out there and take it.
Cheers for a member and his lifetime of achievement
By Mitchell Krugel
The lasting image from the 2015 Valor Awards has to be the picture of Rich Fiocco standing on a chair with his Ocean County Conference brothers in the background. Not that Fiocco has ever needed a chair to stand out or stand tall.
If this had been an Italian wedding, the Ocean County Conference boys would have carried Fiocco around the room in that chair as everybody danced the Tarantella, as they all will likely do when each of his four daughters – Gianna, Christina, Nina and Maria – tie the knot. With his infectious smile and even more infectious enthusiasm, Fiocco can turn any event into a festive occasion.
Honoring Fiocco, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office State Delegate the past 15 years, as the 2015 NJ State PBA Member of the Year was undoubtedly the feel-good moment and a night of feeling good for law enforcement.
Now, Rich would be the first to pass the credit and the spotlight on to all other honorees. But the fact of the matter is that he could have been accepting this award on behalf of the Ocean County Conference for its omnipresent impact throughout the NJ State PBA. Or the honor could be construed not as one of excellence for the year, but a lifetime achievement award for somebody who has given a lifetime of achievement to the PBA.
“When you retire, they give you a big party. I don’t think anybody could have a retirement party that could top the Valor Awards,” emoted Fiocco, who is retiring on Feb. 1. “Having all the people I care about plus more than 800 members was so awesome. One of the first things I asked (President) Pat (Colligan) was out of 33,000 members, why did he pick my Italian ass. He laughed and said it was well-deserved.”
Well-deserved for a PBA lifetime of accomplishments. Fiocco embarked on Union service when he was working for Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Local 232 from 1988-2000. He moved to Ocean County to buy a house on the water so he could pursue his passion for fishing, and when Fiocco joined Local 171 in 2000, he found a way to fulfill his calling to the PBA.
At that time, Ocean County Prosecutors did not even have the PBA as its collective bargaining agent. There was no interaction with the Legal Protection Plan. He watched incredulously as department leaders repeatedly violated the labor contract and nobody said anything.
“We really were in the dark ages,” Fiocco recalled. “We worked very hard to bring in the PBA as the collective bargaining agent, and I think we had a unanimous vote to go with the PBA.”
Fiocco’s service to the Local has included a lifetime of ultimate challenges. When he was State Delegate, a young detective named Tina Rambo used to come to him to ask for advice and ideas about how to do her job. Rambo and her family became close friends with Rich and his wife, Kathy. And then on Aug. 1, 2011 Detective Rambo was lost in the line of duty when a car crossed over the center line of Route 70 and hit her head-on.
Fiocco had also formed a friendship with Local 171 Detective Scott Stevens. His son, Scotty, was the same age as Fiocco’s youngest daughter, Maria. The families spent holidays together. On Jan. 31, a little less than a year ago, Stevens died from injuries sustained while driving on duty in Lacey Township. Fiocco spent most of those two weeks at the hospital then took on planning Stevens’ funeral.
“I think anybody that looks back on life recalls good times, bad times, happy times and sad times,” Fiocco reflected. “When cops look back, it’s the extremes. The good times were very good and the bad times were very bad. It’s a ton of emotion. I have a great deal of satisfaction over the work we have done with Local 171. But there’s a lot of frustration looking at the politics and the people that are in charge, high-ranking officers who couldn’t polish a road guy’s shoes.”
You have just heard one of Fiocco’s keys to longtime service to his members and the PBA. He is not a disgruntled cop, but rather one who never hesitates to say what he feels. He has always believed that saying what you think and doing the right thing are the ways to keep from getting questioned about why you did something, not getting second-guessed and sleeping like a baby at night.
Such qualities certainly have endeared Fiocco to the Ocean County Conference, and he confided that he will treasure the picture of him standing on the chair as much as any of his accomplishments with the PBA. Quite simply, he was the guy who never hesitated when he was called on. When the state was attempting to combine all the county prosecutor’s office cops into one agency, Fiocco chaired the PBA Prosecutor’s Office Committee that essentially put down that threat.
But he is just as happy serving as one of the guys who works the PBA trailer. For Fiocco, the reward has always been about being one of the guys and being part of the team, which is why he insisted on having the picture taken.
“All of those people, they are my family,” he reminds. “My cases are my cases, but the members at the Local, the guys at the County Conference, everybody at the state office, that’s what I’m going to miss most.”
Come February, Fiocco will retire to his boat from which he likes to go after all kinds of big game, especially shark. Oh, he might be gone fishing. But don’t be surprised to see that smile pop up in a picture.
Looking at the 2015 General Election, most pundits expected a dull race, ignored by voters with just a few pockets of action in isolated spots across the state. However, when the votes were counted, this year proved that there is no such thing as dull elections in New Jersey.
With the Assembly at the top of the ticket for the first time since 1999 and turnout predicted to be low, voters shocked the political establishment across New Jersey by knocking off at least three incumbent legislators and sending one district into a potential recount. This not only increased the Democratic majority in the General Assembly to 51, but it appears to have weakened the Republican opposition going into Gov. Christie’s final two years in office.
Early analysis will likely show a few factors led to Democrat wins. First, as the majority party in the state, the Democrats had the benefit of having more substantial resources than their opponents both in fundraising and organization. Money is not the only measure of success in campaigns, but it is a significant one and the GOP was simply outgunned financially in several key areas.
Second, the map of the legislative districts designed in 2012 has severely hampered competitiveness. The map essentially locks the GOP into regions (Northwest NJ, the Shore and Central Jersey) and leaves the remainder of the state in all but Democratic control. With few real races at hand, Democrats had the freedom to play offense in places the GOP needed to defend.
Finally, there will be much debate in the coming weeks about whether the GOP losses were a result of “Christie fatigue.” The governor’s approval numbers, even amongst Republicans, has fallen since his re-election and his Presidential aspirations have potentially left New Jersey residents feeling underserved. In fact, the governor was not an active participant in the GOP Assembly strategy, and it is possible with statewide political attention focused on his activity nationally, the State GOP could not build its own message focused on the Assembly.
Whatever the reasons, the results tell the story. The Democrats will enter 2016 with their largest majority in the Assembly since 1979, the governor will enter his last two years in office with fewer Republican legislators than when he came into office in 2010, and the State Legislature that sworn into office in January 2016 will come loaded to bear with priorities to challenge the governor head-to-head like never before.
Further analysis reveals:
PBA Get Out The Vote Success
The NJ State PBA was a major winner on Election Day 2015.
The PBA leadership made a commitment that 2015 would be a first step in reestablishing itself as a political force, and the results of the election demonstrated just that.
Every PBA-endorsed candidate won, including in tightly-contested Districts 1, 2 and 38. That success was built on a foundation of grass-roots activism that saw hundreds of PBA members volunteering in phone banks and in the streets from Cape May to Bergen County.
The impact of those volunteers can’t be understated. Members making calls and knocking on doors was witnessed first-hand by legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Prieto, and candidates from both parties. That effort will go a long way in building relationships that can impact the issues that matter most to PBA members.
Second, and most importantly, the results of the races where the PBA invested its time prove that every vote does matter. Districts like 1, 2 and 38 that saw Republican- and Democratic-PBA-endorsed candidates lose, or barely win, in 2013 were elected in 2015, some handily. When all is said and done, the numbers will reveal that the thousands of phone calls from PBA volunteers made the difference in these hot races.
General Assembly district analysis
In one of only two districts split between a Republican and a Democrat going into the election, the Democrats running under the “Van Drew Team” banner retook the Assembly seat lost in 2013. Unlike two years ago, the margin of victory was larger for the Dems this time as Incumbent Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak and his running mate, former Corrections Officer, Bruce Land defeated Incumbent GOP Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi and Cumberland County Freeholder Jim Sauro by more than 2,000 votes. The 1st District started the election season as one of three “targeted districts” by both parties, but the strong win here gives the Democrats a comfort level for the future in a region of the state that is reliably Republican in federal and state-wide elections.
Despite the ugly campaign ads, the assaults on which candidate had betrayed Atlantic City Casinos and intense PAC spending, voters in the Atlantic County-based 2nd District returned the incumbent Assemblymen, Republican Chris Brown and Democrat Vince Mazzeo. In 2013, the margin between the winning and losing candidates amounted to roughly a three-vote- per- town swing with a few dozen votes separating the winners and losers. This year’s margin was close, just under 1,000 votes from top to bottom, but it will remain a district split between one GOP and one Dem Assembly member. And it also ensures it will be a hot race again in 2017.
In perhaps the biggest upset of the election, the Republicans lost two seats in the normally reliable GOP 11th District centered in Monmouth County. While the Democrats had talked up the notion they could flip the district since the summer, the extremely close result shocked most observers and ensures the 11th will be Target No. 1 in 2017.
Incumbent Republican Assemblywomen Caroline Casagrade and Mary Pat Angelini lost their seats to Democratic challengers Eric Haughtaling and Joann Downey in a tight battle. To some degree, the race became a referendum on Casagrande and Angelini’s closeness to the governor on several issues but other, more tangible factors likely played a role in the upset. With the 38th District losing its “targeted” label (as noted below), the Democrats had enough resources to move around and the motivation to make the 11th a competitive district. As with several other key districts, outside independent Democratic PAC spending also played a critical role as the challengers were able to get a financial jump on the GOP early, thereby allowing it TV ad time that forced the GOP incumbents to play defense.
History shows that these Democratic incursions into the traditionally GOP Monmouth County happen once every decade or so, the last time when Democrats swept the old 12th District, which is mostly the current 11th District. The Democrats at that time lost their seats after two terms. With a win of just less than 400 votes, the GOP will be looking for history to repeat in 2017. However, the Democrats aren’t likely to accept this as a fluke and will be reinforcing their new incumbents and the County Dem organization well in advance of 2017. The GOP must retake 11 if it is be competitive into the end of the decade.
In another nail-biter, Republican Incumbents Assemblyman Jack Ciatterelli and Assemblywoman Donna Simon could be headed toward a recount following a shocking surge from Democratic challengers Andrew Zwicker and Maureen Vella. Simon had been a late Dem target in 2013 but survived an onslaught of independent PAC spending at the time. Few statewide Democrats and analysts had the 16th on the target list for 2015. But in a district where the incumbent Republicans were profoundly impacted by the redistricting of their base in 2012, there appears to be little doubt the Democrats will focus more attention on the 16th now that they appear to have solidified themselves in other districts.
Simon and Zwicker were separated by only a few dozen votes when the sun came up after Election Day and a recount will likely be considered in either direction. The loss of Simon to the GOP would be another stunning one on an already rough night.
District 38 was predicted to be the top priority for Republicans and Democrats after Democrats Tim Eustace and Joe Lagana won in 2013 by a margin of approximately 25 votes. All eyes were fixed on the Bergen County District as it not only would indicate a key GOP pickup but it would have meant the county Republicans were likely to mount a comeback on the Freeholder Board.
But when GOP candidate Anthony Coppola was discovered to have written a book laced with racist and sexist commentary, he dropped out of the race only to re-enter when it became cost prohibitive for the GOP to pay to reprint the ballots with a new name. His running mate, Mark DiPisa, immediately distanced himself from Cappola and the two essentially spent the last month of the campaign explaining the impact of the controversy amongst themselves and not challenging the Dem incumbents.
The incumbents were also assisted by a focused “Get Out the Vote” operation and a Democratic leadership that knew Lagana and Eustace had a target on their backs. Once the GOP campaign fell apart, the incumbents took a 25-vote win and turned it into a nearly 4,500-vote rout.
Impact of independent expenditures and PACs
On top of the significant Democratic win at the polls, the other major story of this election is the role independent expenditures and PACs played for many victorious candidates. More than $8.5 million was spent by these organizations, a record for New Jersey legislative races. These special PAC’s serve almost as a shadow campaign. Prohibited by law from coordinating officially with a campaign, they are permitted to raise and spend money outside of the State’s ELEC restrictions.
The fact that several of them that spent the most are aligned with Democratic leadership (George Norcross) and unions (NJEA) is not lost to observers of New Jersey politics, and the ability of these groups to raise and spend more freely than formal campaigns has changed the landscape of state politics for the foreseeable future.
County races wins for both parties
Most County Freeholder incumbents were re-elected, despite the wildness of the Assembly results. Two races of note stand out:
The Democrats took the three seats up for grabs in Bergen County. This is important because as the state’s most populous county, Bergen serves as a critical point for success for any statewide candidate. A solid Democratic majority that can safely return its incumbents gives Democrats an edge in turning out votes in the 2016 Presidential election and 2017 governor’s race.
Second, in Burlington County, the Republicans defeated the last two Democratic Freeholders to take a 5-0 control of county government. The win not only gives the GOP room to work during the 2016 Presidential election when Democratic voters tend to drive out their vote in the county, but it also ends the career for the time being of Democratic Freeholder Aimee Belgard, who had previously lost the 2014 Congressional race to Tom MacArthur. The loss may make MacArthur a more comfortable incumbent looking into 2016.
The results and Chris Christie
While his name wasn’t on the ballot and the Republican candidates hardly even mentioned him, Gov. Christie may be feeling the sting of the GOP Assembly losses. He is likely to suggest he had nothing to do with it, and he may be right. He will blame the District Map as helpful to the Democrats (which it is). He will blame unions and PACs for giving heavily to support the Democrats (which they did). But this is now the third Assembly election since his initial victory in 2009 in which the GOP didn’t win a seat.
Some may place the blame, albeit quietly, for the Assembly’s fall near the governor. There will be accusations that while he has access to donors and a network of national supporters and PACs, his own GOP members were outspent by state Democrats. It is also possible that some will grumble that the time he has spent working on national issues has made it hard for the GOP in New Jersey to develop a unified message that the governor is firmly at the head of his army using that unity to drive a drive out votes.
Elections are decided by many factors and, while it may not be fair to make a direct connection to the governor, the GOP losses in the Assembly have the potential to stick to the governor’s legacy. Whatever the reason, the future presents a few options for the governor and his allies in Trenton. A weaker GOP caucus may dig in during the next two years and remain a solid block of votes for the governor. Or that smaller Assembly GOP could look toward 2017 and see mountains of Democratic PAC spending and nasty campaigns as a reason to go their own way to preserve their seats rather than give the governor pyrrhic legislative victories.
The 2015 elections are not an end. They are a beginning to a new legislative session and a new political reality in New Jersey. Where that beginning takes the state will ultimately be decided on Election Night 2017.
The night before the election, when I didn’t sleep, I was thinking, “What if nobody shows up?”
I kept hearing from members that they were going to be at The Forge in Woodbridge to work our Election Day phone bank. Or that they would be at the Bergen County “Boots On The Ground” Rally. Or that they would be at the phone bank in Atlantic County.
But you actually don’t know.
Then, I arrived at the State PBA office that morning, and at 9:30, I heard that 50 members were already at The Forge. And Local 600 members had already filled the conference room at the office to make calls to get out the votes.
I was overwhelmed with excitement. Our members were finally believing. All the months of talking and writing and preaching finally came to fruition. We had a room full of people volunteering on their day off. We had members who came in having just worked the midnight, telling me they had not slept but that wasn’t going to stop them from being here.
Our efforts made the difference. See Rob Nixon’s analysis on pages 13-14 to get all the details of how the State PBA membership’s political action changed the game for several candidates in the key legislative districts we targeted.
But seeing the roomful of women and men also showed that the members truly understand what’s at stake, and that they believe they can make a difference. If they didn’t, they would have been there. And they weren’t playing around. They had their game faces on, and they were really serious. And they should all know that if they didn’t make those calls and knock on those doors, we would not have had the overwhelming success we created.
Not only is this an indication that members are starting to believe what we are telling them about the power of taking action, it’s a confirmation that they realize the time of sitting in the muster room, stomping their feet and crying about what the PBA is going to do has passed.
We’re telling you what to do, and members are finally listening. Not only are they listening, but they are doing something about it. At the primary, it was 200 members. On Election Day is was 500 members. Next year on Election Day it will be 1,000 members. And so on and so on. Yes, not only are members listening; they are doing something.
Election Day also confirmed that members understand that we’re not the PBA – Pat Colligan and me. You are the PBA, from the member who just got hired today to the one has 44 years in on the job. You will see how much of a difference that will ultimately make.
Please note that none of this would have happened without you forming the team needed to get out the vote and create the presence in the PBA’s political action. I am proud to have been your navigator and blessed that Pat Colligan believed in the vision. I am grateful to all of you who made sure it worked.
There are a few people I wish to recognize and thank for their tireless effort:
Bruce Chester, longtime Executive Board member and State Delegate for Woodbridge Local 38. Bruce led more than 100 of his members to come to the phone bank on their day off. And he stayed there for more than eight hours just one day after having surgery.
Joe Krech, President of Union County Corrections Officers Local 199, pledged to find as many of his members as possible to get to the phone bank in Woodbridge. Seeing the row of 199 officers smiling and dialing inspired us all.
I want to thank the Bergen County Political Action Committee under the direction of Saddle River Local 348 State Delegate Charlie Schwartz and Bergen County Conference Chairman Joe Biamonte for leading more than 200 members out into the streets to get out the vote on Election Day. And two days before that, they led another 200 walking with candidates to show PBA support.
And we are grateful to Paul Nunziato, President of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association whose ideas contributed so much to our success.
And the success we had in Districts 1 and 2 in the southern part of the state was built on the leadership of Atlantic City Local 24 State Delegate Keith Bennett and Longport Local 363 State Delegate Chris Ricciotti. They organized a phone bank at our offices in Atlantic County that added so much to our political action.
And kudos to Past State PBA President Tony Wieners and Executive Vice-President Keith Dunn. Without their foresight to start the voter registration drive in 2013 that led to every one of our members being registered to vote, none of this would have happened.
Remember Election Day 2015 as a groundbreaking event. We set down a cornerstone for a wall we need to build that will take a lot more work. If we do this next year, and just 50 members show up, it will all have been for nothing.
But if we keep it up, come 2017 when it’s time to elect a new governor, we can have a powerful and effective machine in place to hit the streets and support the candidate that is going to need us. This is history in the making. We have started with a few hundred members, but if we keep up the work, it won’t be long before they recognize us as the most powerful group in the state.
By Mitchell Krugel
When State President Pat Colligan gathered the PBA leadership to discuss candidates for 2015 Local of the Year Award, he quickly realized there were so many worthy recipients.
“So many Locals do great things that we could have 10 of those awards each year,” Colligan continued. “That would be a great way to do it, like we give out gold, silver a bronze medals of valor. It’s so hard to pick one.”
Ultimately, there were several reasons that Union County Corrections Local 199 emerged as the 2015 Local of the Year.
The all-in bravery to stand up to Union County Freeholders trying to regionalize corrections operations and close the jail distinguished Local 199 as the type of cohesive unit needed to survive in today’s governmental landscape.
And the process Local 199 generated to convince the county that closing the jail would be more costly than keeping it open and less effective for law enforcement created a blueprint for ending such threats.
Union County Corrections longtime activism in PBA-driven actions and charitable endeavors also could have been additional evidence to distinguish the Local this year.
But at the end of the Valor Awards, State Delegate Joe Krech confirmed the asset that set Local 199 apart.
“Past State Delegate Kenneth Burkert,” Krech pledged. “It’s all Kenny’s work. We’re all just following in Kenny’s footsteps.”
Perhaps the only regret during the 2015 Valor Awards celebration was that Burkert, who retired this past June, could not be there to be honored with the Local and reap an applause so richly deserved. At the time, he was two days removed from hip replacement surgery, a residual of giving his body. Along with his heart, to corrections, Local 199 and the PBA for 21 years, the past 12 as State Delegate.
“Kenny’s work ethic and humanitarian personality set the bar above any other Local,” Krech added.
Said Local 199 President Dave Oppmann: “Kenny taught me what a true sense of loyalty and being a union member is all about.”
Burkert and Krech were actually attending the State PBA Convention in September 2014 in Orlando when they got word of the Freeholders’ plan to regionalize. They tabbed Oppmann, then a Local 199 trustee, to address the Freeholder Board at a public meeting about why there wasn’t the value they thought in such action. When they returned to Union County, they quickly worked to prove their points.
Burkert followed up by retaining State PBA Attorney Robert Fagella to create the documentation to show the freeholders that their idea didn’t make sense. He then led a tour of face-to-face meetings with elected officials, starting with State Senator Ray Lesniak at his home, to further educate the political masses. Finally, Burkert, Krech and other executive board members attended line-ups for every unit in the jail to see every member and keep all officers informed of the effort to thwart the regionalization.
“At one point, the odds were so against us that I decided to reach out to every person I had formed a relationship with during my 12 years as Delegate,” Burkert revealed. ‘I was able to get some high-ranking political figures to listen to our grief, and then we went to the troops because there were a lot of rumors flying and we wanted to make sure they had the truth that we were doing everything we can as a union. That way, whatever the outcome, they would always respect what we were doing.”
When Burkert took over as State Delegate, he recalled respect and communication being the Local’s two biggest gaps. He recruited his longtime friend Krech to be his running mate, and they set about building the bridges to get all Local members on the same page.
“We’re PBA strong because we have learned from our predecessors,” Krech explained. “We always knew that if the lines of communication had broken down, it would have hurt everyone. Communication and relationships – that’s what has kept us going.”
Oppmann observed that Burkert setting the tone to speak from the heart made a huge impact on getting the message to county government about how closing the jail would not only cost more money but potentially put residents at greater risk. The final piece to the plan was binging in Colligan and Executive Vice-President Marc Kovar to make a final impassioned statement about what would happened if freeholders tried to see through their plan.
In early spring of 2015, the regionalization coup was finally put down. Shortly thereafter, Burkert decided it was time to hang up his badge due to shoulders and hips so painful only outdone by a will that wouldn’t even entertain disability retirement.
“I didn’t want to retire with that threat still active,” Burkert confided. “It was very emotional. It was a lot of work to put forth the strategic plan. The truth of the matter is that I always wanted to take the approach that I wasn’t going to be the guy ranting and raving. Until we were able to sit and speak to anyone who mattered and get them to listen to the facts, we weren’t going to beat this thing. When you have the facts, you have to do whatever it takes to get people on your side.”
President Colligan called the Local 199 strategic plan a model for how to deal with regionalization threats.
“When they were threatening to turn the jail into a Holiday Inn Express, they engaged their membership and did everything right,” he continued. “That was a real win.”
Victory has spawned enthusiasm. At the PBA Election Day Phone Bank in Woodbridge Local 199 sent a team of members to make calls; not just E-Board members but the grass roots officers who have plugged into the call to perpetuate Local 199’s stature and impact.
“Our members have been called upon and they are taking action,” Krech confirmed. “We feel very strongly that when you join the PBA, you take an oath. And once you take that oath, you need to live up to it.”
At Union County Corrections Local 199, they call that, “PBA Strong.”