The Democratic-controlled Gloucester County freeholder board yesterday created the job of superintendent of elections, reducing the responsibilities of the four-member bipartisan board that has overseen county elections.
Supporters say the move will save money, while critics, including local Republican leaders, fear that giving powers to a single political appointee could increase the possibility of unfair elections.
Officials who gathered at the county office building in Woodbury yesterday said the matter was especially important this year, when the presidential race could prompt a large turnout in November.
"Our country was founded on a system of checks and balances to make sure no one has too much power," said Larry Wallace, a Republican candidate for freeholder. "This takes away checks and balances. At the very least, this takes away the perception of a fair and just election."
In past years, a board of elections comprising two Democrats and two Republicans oversaw the election process. Ten other counties use this system.
The freeholders are recommending that Gov. Corzine appoint Stephanie Salvatore, a Democrat and the daughter of Steve Salvatore, a former freeholder and county surrogate, in the next few days.
As superintendent, she would enforce election laws, investigate voter complaints, maintain a voter-registration list, and control the distribution and custody of voting machines. She would also be in charge of the election staff, and would be appointed to a five-year term.
The board of elections will continue to exist, as required by state law, but will have fewer responsibilities. Under the reconfiguration, it will be in charge of poll workers, absentee and provisional ballots, and ballot checking.
Freeholder Director Stephen M. Sweeney said the primary purpose of the change was to save taxpayers money. "It will eliminate duplication of services," he said.
Currently, the elections board has two administrators - one from each party - as well as deputies and clerks from each party. The salaries add up, said Sweeney, who is also the state Senate majority leader.
The action should save at least $100,000 a year, he said, explaining that the superintendent would take the place of the two administrators, saving about $80,000 in salary. Another full-time employee and two or more part-time clerical workers might also be laid off, he said.
County administrator Chad Bruner said Salvatore, as one of the administrators to the elections board, earned about $70,000 and was expected to be paid about $80,000 in her new role. He said the elections office had 11 employees, and that it would be up to Salvatore to fire and hire staff.
"We feel strongly there should still be Democrats and Republicans in that building," Sweeney said, referring to the elections office. "I can't require that, but we're requesting it."
To help ensure impartiality, the superintendent would be independent from the freeholders and be prohibited, under a code of ethics, from engaging in political activity, state Assistant Attorney General Donna Kelly said.
Salvatore started with the board of elections as a clerk in 1996 and four years ago became the Democratic administrator to the board. Patricia Tucci, the GOP administrator, plans to retire in a few weeks, Sweeney said.
Steve Kush, spokesman for the GOP freeholder candidates, called the new position a patronage job.
"They're appointing one of their people to head this up," he said.
Bea Cerkez, one of the GOP commissioners on the elections board, said they have been kept in the dark about the changes.
"We've been asking for meetings and still haven't gotten any. This was all done without letting any of us know," she said.
The freeholder meeting yesterday was held at noon, as an emergency session, and the only order of business was to create the position. Sweeney's response to the criticism that the meeting had been hastily assembled was: "The sooner we have the meeting, the sooner we can start saving."
Bruner said the last emergency session had been about two years ago, to seal a farmland-preservation deal.
Candidate Wallace accused the freeholders of holding the meeting in the middle of the day, when most people are at work, because they didn't want the public to attend and question the move. Most meetings are in the evenings.
The meeting time was set last Thursday, the day a state Superior Court judge ruled that the freeholders had improperly created the position in January without discussing it in public.
Judge Francis Orlando held that the matter had been discussed in closed session, contrary to the Open Public Meetings Act, and that it must be done over. County Republicans had sued the freeholders, alleging more than 60 other Sunshine Law violations, but the judge dismissed those, mostly because the lawsuit was filed too late.
"As soon as we heard about the ruling, I said let's redo this," Sweeney said. "We just wanted to clean it up. It's not a big deal to have a special meeting."