When Audubon and Magnolia decided to share services to save money, Audubon fired Nancy Doman, its longtime borough clerk, replacing her and her $70,000 compensation with a part-time clerk at less than $20,000.
That violated state tenure rules protecting municipal clerks, a judge ruled when Doman sued.
With the borough and Doman in negotiations now, State Sen. Donald Norcross is pushing a bill that in the future would make it easier for municipalities to combine services without worrying about tenure restrictions.
The measure would threaten the tenure potentially of hundreds of high-level municipal employees throughout the state, and critics say it is too broad because it does not specify how towns could choose which of the two employees stays.
However, the "Common Sense Shared Services Act," introduced Nov. 21, has been embraced by many mayors who say they need the legal tools to get creative in crafting their budgets.
The bill would allow the dismissal of a tenured municipal clerk, chief financial officer, tax collector, or tax assessor if two townships agree on a shared-services agreement for that position.
"The whole idea is to allow government to save money, be more efficient," Norcross, a Camden County Democrat, said. "It's up to the individual town to decide if it makes sense."
Some question whether the savings would be worth the loss of experience and public trust.
Since 1985, municipal clerks - whose roles include chief administrators of local elections, custodians of all records, and secretary to the governing body - have received statutory tenure in New Jersey after five years of service.
"The argument is that tenure buffers them from politics, so that they are not under pressure to respond to the party in power, making it easier to maintain the neutrality we expect in elections," said David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers-New Brunswick. "The other side of the coin is that they are no longer accountable to anyone."
The municipal clerk position is the only one that is appointed by the city council, not mayor. County clerks, who essentially have the same duties as municipal clerks but at the county level, are elected officials with their own political base.
"If there's an employee that's not good for the township, then it gives the governing body another option to act," said Stratford Mayor John Gentless.
Not all states offer tenure to the positions mentioned in the bill, Redlawsk said. In Pennsylvania, municipal secretaries are appointed but do not have tenure, according to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
However, the secretaries do not oversee local elections.
"There is a fear that this may not be as easy as this bill makes it seem," said Joanne Kwasniewski, president of the Municipal Clerks Association of New Jersey, who expressed concerns about "serving two masters," and questioned whether the savings selling point is real.
Some of the groups representing the affected position have been trying to meet with Norcross to discuss amendments to the bill.
"We know shared services is coming, but we don't like the current language," said Mary L. Testori, president of the New Jersey Tax Collectors and Treasurers Association.
Since introducing the measure, Norcross has agreed to add a clause that would give fired tenured employees a two-year window to be hired back if the township reverses course.
However, grandfathering the employees in place now would defeat the purpose of getting towns the financial relief they are seeking, he said.
When Audubon decided to let go of Doman and engage John Keenan Jr. - who makes almost $100,000 as full-time clerk in Stratford and is also part-time clerk in Magnolia - Doman sued. She said she was protected under tenure rules since she had been clerk for more than 20 years.
Camden County Superior Court Judge Francis Orlando ruled in Doman's favor, saying the shared-services agreement does not trump or preempt the statutory protections afforded by the municipal clerk tenure statute.
"From our standpoint, we were able to handle the workload" by going part time, said Audubon Mayor John Ward. "It just makes sense for us to have shared services."
He said Keenan would work two nights a week, about three hours each night, for Audubon.
Camden City spokesman Robert Corrales said "the mayor supports any concept that can potentially save taxpayers dollars."
Michael Drewniak, the spokesman for Gov. Christie, said the administration was reviewing various bills concerning shared services and "will look closely at Sen. Norcross' bill as well."
Norcross is hoping the bill will pass the Senate by the end of the current lame-duck session but admits that it might have to wait until the next session so he could hear all the various concerns.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities also wants the bill beefed up with specifics.
"If we're going to get into this," said league executive director Bill Dressel, "then we need to set up a process that is fair to employees."
Some of the larger municipalities, such as Camden, are already short-staffed in their clerk offices.
In Camden, a resolution to replace the retired deputy clerk was taken off the agenda after some council members questioned a candidate's qualifications. Secretaries from the City Council office have been filling in to help with records requests and filing.
"The legislation in its present form is unfair and open to the potential for political abuse," said Luis Pastoriza, Camden city clerk since 1997. "It sounds conceptually like a good idea, but where are the studies, the financial analyses, policy studies to support the savings from shared municipal clerk services?"