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MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ—The Middlesex County government is made up of numerous and sometimes nebulous agencies that manage the various sectors of the county government responsibilities.
Of them, the Board of Chosen Freeholders, or “Freeholders,” for short, is only board that is directly elected by the people of the county.
The seven-member board host three or four public meetings each month, making for a total of 45 such gatherings in 2015. All but one of the meetings are held in downtown New Brunswick.
Despite boasting a population of more than 800,000, the second-highest in New Jersey, Middlesex County’s residents are not very politically active, at least based on the Freeholder meetings, which are usually over with in less than an hour.
Few, if any, comments are made by members of the public during a typical meeting.
Any person is allowed to ask comments or raise questions about the laws the Freeholders are considering, or any other issue concerning the county government. Comments at Freeholder meetings are limited to three minutes each.
On two occasions in 2014, large crowds from New Brunswick showed up to Freeholder meetings to ask for changes to a dangerous county-owned road, Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick.
On May 8, dozens of residents were kept outside the public meeting by law enforcement, due to the number of attendees exceeding the room’s allowable occupancy.
But typically, the crowd is sparse, mostly made up of government officials, and the meetings include little more than brief, often scripted presentations from each elected official, and a few quick votes on new resolutions and ordinances that are rarely, if ever, debated.
The all-Democrat board almost never has disagreements in public and almost all legislation passes unanimously.
Regular meetings are usually held on Thursday nights and are televised, while Monday night “Conference” meetings provide the public their first opportunity to see what items the Freeholders plan to vote on later in the week.
Only the twenty “regular” meetings are televised to cable customers in many municipalities.
Videos from 2014 and 2015 are also available on the meeting schedule page of the county’s new website, while videos from prior years are available in a different section.
The meetings are held in the Freeholder Meeting Room of the Middlesex County Administration Building at 75 Bayard Street, and chaired by Freeholder Director Ronald Rios of Cateret.
Here is a list of remaining meetings of the Freeholder Board in 2015, according to the county website:
- January 12 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- January 15 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- February 2 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- February 5 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- February 17 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- February 19 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- March 2 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- March 5 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- March 16 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- March 19 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- April 6 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- April 9 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- April 20 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- April 23 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- May 4 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- May 7 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- May 18 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- May 21 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- June 1 @6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- June 4 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- June 15 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- June 18 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- July 8 @ 6:00 PM (Invoices Only)
- July 20 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- July 23 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- August 5 @ 6:00 PM (Invoices Only)
- August 17 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- August 20 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- August 31 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- September 3 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- September 21 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- September 24 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- October 5 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- October 8 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- October 19 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- October 22 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- November 5 @ 6:00 PM (Invoices Only)
- November 16 @ 5:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- November 16 @ 6:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- November 30 @6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- December 3 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- December 14 @ 6:00 PM (Conference Meeting)
- December 17 @ 7:00 PM (Regular Meeting)
- December 29 @ 6:00 PM (Wrap Up Meeting & Sine Die)
The Freeholders held a grandiose ceremony at the Performing Arts Center at Middlesex County Community College to begin the year, and selected Carteret’s Ronald Rios as their leader for 2015, and South Brunswick’s Carol Barrett Belante as second-in-command.
Together with the Sheriff, County Clerk, and Surrogate, the Freeholders make for ten total elected officials.
Unlike some New Jersey counties, Middlesex elects all of their Freeholders in countywide elections, and does not have a chief executive.
Each of the Freeholders happen to hail from different towns, including New Brunswick’s Blanquita Valenti and Edison’s Charles Tomaro.
But each of the Freeholders run for office in countywide elections, where money and connections can have great influence.
The other current Freeholders include Woodbridge’s Charles Kenny, Piscataway’s Kenneth Armwood, and Highland Park’s H. James Polos. Most of the board members got their start in politics as Council members in their respective hometowns.
Polos is the only Freeholder with experience as a Mayor, having led the Highland Park government for eight years, though Barrett served as a “Deputy Mayor” in South Brunswick for just as long, according to the Freeholders’ official biographies.
Freeholders are paid $23,436 annually, regardless of their attendance at meetings. The Freeholder Director, selected from among the board’s members, runs the meetings and earns an additional $1,000 in salary.
Former Freeholder Mildred Scott, of Piscataway, now serves as County Sheriff, having won a second term in the 2013 election. Kevin Hoagland, of New Brunswick, continues to serve as the County Surrogate, an official who deals with the wills of people who passed away.
Each Freeholder serves a three-year term and often must decide early in their third year whether they wish to seek another term.
Rios, Polos, and County Clerk Elaine Flynn, an Old Bridge resident whose duties include running the elections themselves, are up for re-election this fall.
Republicans and occasionally some Independents seek county offices, but none have achieved success in countywide elections since the 1990’s.
The deadline to file petitions to run for Freeholder or County Clerk as a Democrat or Republican is March 30 at 4pm, and the primary election will be held on June 2.
The winners of both primaries, perhaps along with other Independent candidates, will face off in the November 3 general election.
The deadline to to run for the same offices as an Independent is 4pm on June 2, the day of the primary elections.
The ultimate victors in the election will likely have to pull down tens of thousands of votes from across the county’s 25 municipalities.
But the Freeholders are far from the only source of power in the county.
In fact, over the course of the county’s history, the Freeholders created several entities to do much of the county’s dirty work, like running elections, social services, tax appeals, and the county’s five vocational schools and three community college campuses.
Members of these boards and commissions are often selected by the Freeholders, though the terms of appointment and functions of the board vary widely.
The Middlesex County Utilities Authority (MCUA) manages the Edgeboro landfill in East Brunswick, and a sewer system that serves residents in three counties.
That agency recently made headlines when its longtime Treasurer was charged with stealing $57,000 from the government.
The MCUA board has public meetings at their headquarters, in the “Authority Boardroom” at 2571 Main Street in Sayreville. Only two have been announced for 2015 so far: January 22 at 3:30pm, and February 26 at 3:30pm.
The board of the Middlesex County Improvement Authority (MCIA) oversees the county’s golf courses and a recycling program in 14 Middlesex County towns. They also as perform “technical reviews and legal negotiations” for the county’s Open Space Trust Fund, finance infrastructure improvements and large purchases for participating towns.
“We also remediate and redevelop property, particularly older, abandoned industrial sites along the riverfront,” reads the agency’s website.
That agency came under fire from the state Comptroller for large bonuses being given to its leaders, including longtime MCIA Executive Director and Monroe Township Mayor Richard Pucci.
The MCIA board meets at 6pm on the second Wednesday of each month at the “administrative offices” of the authority, located at 101 Interchange Plaza in Cranbury.
However, the November meeting will be held on Thursday, November 12.
One of the most powerful board at the county level is the Middlesex County Planning Board, which sets regional planning goals, influencing where and how development happens.
Their approval is often required for new construction projects taking place along county-owned roads.
That board meets at 3:30pm on the second Tuesday during the afternoon in the New Brunswick Elks Lodge, which has rented offices in their building at 40 Livingston Avenue to the board for many years.
The Planning Board also supervises its own set of committees with separate monthly meetings, including:
- the Water Resources Association (second Monday, 1:30pm)
- the Development Review Committee (second Tuesday, 3pm)
- the County Agricultural Development Board (second Wednesday, 8pm)
- the Transportation Coordinating Committee, (fourth Tuesday, 7pm)
All but the Agricultural Development Board meet at the Elks Lodge. The CADB meets in the municipal building of Cranbury Township, at 23A North Main Street.
The county tax board meets on the third Thursday of the month, at 9am in one of of the new conference rooms in the basement of the Middlesex County Administration Building, at 75 Bayard Street.
Their first meeting of 2015 will be February 19, according to a person who answered the phone at their office.
The Mosquito Extermination Commission, which does what the name says, meets on February 19 as well, according to the person who answered there.
The mosquito commission’s meeting might be somewhat easier for some people to attend, as it will be held at 6pm, after most people get off of work.
However, like many of the county’s public meetings, including the MCIA, MCUA, and CDAB, their meetings are not conveniently located near a train station.
Instead, the Mosquito Extermination Commission meetings are held at the commission’s headquarters at 200 Parsonage Road in Edison.
The Middlesex County College Board of Trustees also meets in Edison, in the boardroom of Chambers Hall on the college’s main campus, which is accessible by NJTransit bus.
Their meetings take place on the fourth Wednesday of each month in 2015, with the exceptions of September 30 (fifth Wednesday) and the board’s “annual meeting” on Monday November 12. There does not appear to be a December meeting.
Like some government bodies, the county college’s board schedules its “agenda” meetings shortly before the actual meeting. Agenda meetings are held at 8:30am, followed by the regular meeting at 9am.
The county’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC) can have as many as 50 members, responsible for the county’s solid waste management plans, and meets regularly on the second Tuesday of “most months,” according to their website.
Their committee meetings are held at the Middlesex County Fire Training Academy at 1001 Fire Academy Drive, located off of Main Street Extension in Sayreville, and commence at 1:30 p.m.
The Middlesex Regional Education Services Commission runs a variety of special education programs and shared services arrangements between school systems.
Their board holds public meetings on Fridays at 8:30am on the following dates in 2015: January 16, February 20, March 27, April 24, and June 5.
The board meetings are held at Bright Beginnings Learning Center, on the second floor of 1660 Stelton Road in Piscataway.
The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority includes one Middlesex County Freeholder to represent the state’s second-largest county. A citizen’s representative position is currently vacant, according to their website.
Their next public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, January 13. But it’s not clear from the website where it will be held or what time it will begin.
New Brunswick Today is still attempting to figure out the upcoming schedules of some other county agencies, including the county Board of Elections, which held its first meeting of the year on January 8 at their offices at 777 Jersey Avenue, and county Board of Social Services.
Information is not as easily available about many of the boards and commissions.
For example, although they supervise five different schools across the county, the four-member Middlesex County Technical and Vocational School Board does not list any public meetings on its website.
Some other agencies that may or may not hold public meetings include the county’s Open Space and Recreation Advisory Committee, Mental Health Board, South Central Middlesex County Flood Control Commission, the County College Board of School Estimate, the Roosevelt Hospital Board of Trustees, and the Cultural and Heritage Commission.
This article will be updated as more accurate information is obtained by New Brunswick Today.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.