WOODBRIDGE, NJ—For over a month, political insiders here have had access to the new district lines that will be used in local elections, but the very same maps are still being kept secret from the general public.
It’s all thanks to some questionable advice given to election officials by an engineering firm known for making for big political donations: Remington & Vernick Engineers (RVE).
Following each census, the district lines that govern elections must be re-drawn to ensure that each district has an approximately equal number of residents, a process that is often fraught with politics and accusations of “gerrymandering,” a term for manipulating the boundaries to benefit one party or class.
While significant attention is paid to the re-drawing of the lines affecting US Congress and New Jersey legislature elections, the process also plays out at the local level, where it is sometimes even uglier.
Records obtained by New Brunswick Today reveal that at least one member of the commission in charge of re-drawing Woodbridge Township’s boundary lines shared copies of maps being considered with the chairs of both major political parties, who are not members of the official “Re-Warding Commission.”
In each town, the once-in-a-decade commissions consist of the six members of the Board of Elections, and the Municipal Clerk.
Middlesex County has hired RVE to assist the commissions in calculating which wards and districts need to be adjusted, and to propose various alternatives for equalizing the population.
RVE has fallen far behind schedule on submitting the final maps to the state government, leaving each of the five towns needing re-warding in violation the Municipal Ward Law, which states: “Within 2 weeks immediately following the filing of the certified report by the ward commissioners, the municipal clerk shall cause to be published at least once in at least one newspaper generally circulating in the municipality a notice of the ward boundaries as fixed and determined in the report.”
But the Clerks can’t publish the required notices because RVE has failed to keep up with their workload, as they’re apparently performing the same services for many different counties across the state.
According to records from the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), RVE and its employees have donated more than $6.8 million to various political campaigns in the state since 1984. and government business has been their bread and butter for decades, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars each year.
The donations have paid for themselves in a manner of speaking, as the firm typically receives tens of millions in government business each year, according to ELEC records.
Among the recipients of RVE’s corporate funds have been the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, which received $115,200 between 2001 and 2004. Since 2009, RVE and its employees spent $232,500 keeping incumbent county officials in power here through direct donations to their campaigns.
But that didn’t stop one Clerk from sharing all of the map alternatives RVE proposed with politically-connected individuals well before a final decision was made.
“I have…shared the maps and charts electronically as well as my recommendation with the local chairs,” John Mitch, the Municipal Clerk and a former Councilman in Woodbridge, wrote in a January 7 email to Thomas Lynch, the county’s Election Administrator, who also serves as the commission’s secretary.
However, on February 1, Mitch declined to provide the same maps considered by the commission—even the one they adopted in a unanimous vote at the only business meeting of Woodbridge Re-Warding Commission, which was held over the course of just nineteen minutes on January 12.
“In accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, the definition of a Government Record shall not include inter-agency or intra-agency advisory, consultative, or deliberative material, therefore [the request for all maps submitted] is denied,” wrote Mitch, in response to New Brunswick Today’s public records request.
Meanwhile, other New Jersey communities, including those where RVE was retained like Paterson, did not hesitate to release each of the maps produced by the politically-connected engineering firm.
Union County, another RVE client, published final re-warding information in January, but the five Middlesex County towns that underwent re-warding are still keeping that information close, waiting on RVE to finish the process of turning their maps into plain English so it can be published in a newspaper.
As of February 8, most Middlesex County maps are still only available to a select few who are in the know.
Among those who have had access to the Woodbridge maps since early January are Letitia Coughlin, the Chairwoman of the Woodbridge Democratic Organization, and wife of New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.
Speaker Coughlin’s campaigns for elected office have received $10,900 from RVE since 2015. Coughlin is also an attorney for the Woodbridge Township government.
Among the other recipients of RVE’s largesse were Democrat State Senator Patrick Diegnan, the former boss of Election Administrator Thomas Lynch, the man who has resisted releasing the maps to the public in his role as secretary to the Re-Warding Commissions.
It’s an obvious problem for democracy, not just in Woodbridge, where an election is set for the First Ward Council seat this year, but also in four other Middlesex County towns that hold ward-based elections: Piscataway, Monroe, Old Bridge, and South Amboy.
The engineering firm’s failures to complete their work on time have caused the most strife in Piscataway, where each of the Township’s four wards have elections scheduled this year, and some candidates don’t yet know what elections they’ll be running in, or who will be eligible to vote for them, with an April 4 deadline to file petitions to get on the ballot fast approaching.
“As someone who has announced that I was planning to run for a ward seat, to not be able to know which voters are in or out of our district… it makes it very difficult for me to even go get petitions signed, or to start talking to voters,” said Staci Berger, a declared candidate for Piscataway Township Council.
A prominent official in that community, Democrat State Senator Bob Smith, received $29,000 in campaign cash from RVE since 2002. Smith’s Chief of Staff was in the meeting where the final map was displayed.
But Berger and her allies in the Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization (PPDO) still have not been able to obtain a proper copy of the final map, which was approved unanimously on January 14.
“It’s really very, very, very undemocratic that you all would put up a map in a public meeting, and vote on it, and then try to tell us that it’s not a public document,” Berger told the Board of Elections during a contentious public meeting on February 3.
Election officials insist the final maps will eventually be released, but they’ve already missed deadlines set by the state and reneged on promises made in writing by the commissions’ own secretary.
One member of the board, Republican Don Katz, pushed back, asking if Lynch could give them the map “as presented, with the understanding that that’s not yet approved by the state.”
“I would defer to the ward commissioners on that,” said Lynch, who never responded to New Brunswick Today’s January 11 request for all the maps being considered in each of the five towns.
At the January 14 meeting of the Old Bridge Re-Warding Commission, the final in a series of ten virtual meetings around the county, Lynch declined to give a timeline for when the maps might be released.
“They will be made public when the Commissioners have affixed their signatures, they’ve been submitted to the state, and with regard to the public notice that will be made to the municipalities,” Lynch stated.
“I wouldn’t want to put a date on it, because this is my first time doing this process. I’d have to consult with Remington.”
But, after receiving multiple concerned emails from this reporter that copied Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck, Lynch finally did make a time commitment on January 20, one he was unable to keep, allegedly due to RVE’s delays.
“In working with the vendor, the maps and especially the reports will be completed and certified by the State early next week,” Lynch promised on January 20. “You will be provided with those resources at that period of time.”
When questioned by the Clerk of Monroe Township, concerned about the possibility of missing the date to share the description of the final map in the newspaper, Lynch authored a lengthy reply.
“I was just reviewing the attached rewarding booklet and realized we need to advertise the new ward boundaries by next week… Could you please advise when we will receive this information,” Clerk Patricia Reid wrote to Lynch on January 21.
Later that day, Lynch acknowledged “The State is aware that… the filing by Middlesex and other counties will lag behind through no fault of our own.”
Lynch said that RVE was “working on multiple counties’ submissions” and cited County Counsel Thomas Kelso’s opinion that their delay was not the county’s problem, even if it means the public won’t have access to the ward boundaries when they were supposed to by law.
“County Counsel review is the statute about public notice applies to when ‘the filing of the certified report by the ward commissioners’ is made… and that you cannot notice information you currently do not have. Therefore, when Remington & Vernick submits to the State is when your two week timeframe begins.”
Lynch and the Re-warding Commissions would go on to renege on their pledge to release the maps the week of January 24. They also resisted releasing the maps that were considered but not selected, or revealing who was behind each of the proposals, relying on advice of an engineer instead of an attorney.
“I would keep [all the data] at the Ward Commission/Clerk level,” RVE Senior Associate Kevin Zelinsky interjected, speaking out of turn at the December 16 joint “formation” meeting for all five of the Middlesex County commissions.
“I would not share it with the public until it’s formally adopted by the Ward Commissioners and signed, so, under statutory submission where all parties, Secretary of State, the Board [of Elections], the Clerks all would get their official copies.”
It appeared that Zelinsky was anticipating in-person meetings to take public comment, based on his subsequent advice that they not let the public “take [the maps] home with them.”
But, a surge in cases of the COVID-19 virus led to each of the county’s Re-warding Commissions meeting using Microsoft Teams videoconferencing software, in brief and sometimes bizarre gatherings that were hard to follow. In some cases, the final decisions were made before any public input was provided.
In the aftermath, Zelinsky has dodged questions about the re-warding process: “Any question concerning the Ward Commission should be directed to the attention of Mr. Tom Lynch, Administrator to the Middlesex County Board of Elections and he will address with the Commissioners to provide a response as this falls outside of the purview of RVE.”
On February 2, this reporter wrote a letter to Acting Attorney General Bruck asking for him to intervene and order the commissions to release all of the maps submitted, and to identify who submitted each map. The letter also raised issues about the lack of transparency in the process.
In some cases, the coveted maps were displayed on the screen during the virtual meetings. Attempts to obtain videos of the meetings were stymied when the county responded with audio-only recordings.
New Brunswick Today asked Governor Phil Murphy if he thought the public should have access to all the maps submitted for consideration before final decisions are made.
“I am a fan of transparency, so as a general matter… the more light you can shed on things, the better,” Murphy said in response on February 2.
The following day, another transparency advocate grilled the Board of Elections about the source of the map that was ultimately adopted by the Piscataway Re-Warding Commission.
Herb Tarbous, a former candidate for County Clerk and member of PPDO, questioned Democrat Dan Frankel, the longest-serving member of the Election Board, asking him which person or organization submitted the map that RVE’s Nicholas Phelan had conspicuously referred to as “a great suggestion.”
“The map was submitted to Mr. Lynch,” responded Frankel, continuing to obscure the source of the proposal, which may have shifted thousands of voters to new wards.
“By whom?” asked Tarbous.
“Obviously, by one of the commissioners.”
“Well, it’s not obvious.”
Frankel laughed, but Tarbous persisted, asking: “Why is that obvious?”
“The map was submitted to Mr. Lynch,” Frankel repeated.
“By whom?” Tarbous asked for a second time.
“By one of the commissioners,” repeated Frankel.
“That’s not transparency. That is opaqueness,” stated Tarbous.
“That’s your opinion,” responded Frankel, causing Tarbous to laugh out loud.
New Brunswick Today followed up by asking who was at fault for the commissions being behind schedule.
Frankel responded: “They are in process. The state knows they are in process… Are we behind? There are other counties that are behind also.”
When this reporter suggested the law was being violated, both Frankel and Lynch interrupted, claiming that the commissions had followed the law, despite the delay in being transparent.
A final question was met with an awkward silence, and an admission.
“What would be the harm in releasing every map that was submitted for consideration? Would there be any potential harm in doing that?” asked this reporter. “I’m not hearing a good reason why these maps are being kept secret.”
“Charlie, we have no answers, on that,” admitted Chairwoman Sylvia Engel.
“Your time is up right now,” Frankel declared, just as this reporter was silenced, and shortly before the meeting was adjourned.
Less than two hours later, RVE was hired to re-draw the individual election precincts in all 25 municipalities in the county, by a unanimous vote of the Middlesex County Commissioners, sending another $129,833 in taxpayer dollars to the politically-connected firm, over this reporter’s objection.
Each of the seven Commissioners who approved that contract had received at least $5,200 in campaign contributions from RVE and its employees:
- Commissioner Director Ronald Rios: $27,300
- Commissioner Charles Tomaro: $20,800
- Commissioner Charles Kenny: $18,200
- Commissioner Deputy Director Shanti Narra: $15,600
- Commissioner Leslie Koppel: $7,800
- Commissioner Claribel Azcona-Barber: $5,200
- Commissioner Channelle Scott-McCullum: $5,200
UPDATE (2/9/22): Just over seven hours after this article was published, Woodbridge Township released all three of the maps, and corresponding charts, for each of the “scenarios” that were considered by the Re-warding Commission. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Lynch released the final ward maps adopted by each of the five Re-warding Commissions in Middlesex County, as well as the ward descriptions.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a friend and supporter of Staci Berger and Herb Tarbous, an advocate for ward-based elections, and a member of the PPDO.
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.