The Changing Part-Time Political Culture of Rockaway Twp.

Elected officials always have a tough time defending perks that most other people don’t get. The actual issue at hand often is irrelevant.

For the latest example of this, we turn to Rockaway Township, a mostly Republican enclave in Morris County, where the township is poised to take municipal health benefits away from part-time elected officials.

Two people now receive them, the mayor and a councilman.

Specifically, the ordinance up for passage Tuesday night would limit town health benefits to full-time employees. While elected officials may put in many hours, they’re considered part-timers.

Broadly speaking, this is a no-brainer. Many private companies, of course, do not give health benefits to part-timers. And even on the municipal level, no one suggests that a 20-hour a week recreation aide should get health care on the taxpayers’ tab.

Over the years, however, many municipal officials have given themselves these benefits. The issue surfaces periodically, but it’s often tough to get some elected officials to take away one of their own perks.

That’s where the courts come in. Years ago in Mount Olive, it took a resident’s lawsuit to stop part-time officials from getting town health benefits.

Decades ago when health costs were a tad more reasonable than they are now, these benefits may not have been that much of an issue.

But they are today. The cost of health insurance per person in Rockaway Township is estimated at $35,000 a year.

Former Gov. Chris Christie early in his first term signed legislation ending the practice of health benefits for part-time elected officials, but those who had them at the time were grandfathered.

Which brings us back to Rockaway Township. Like many municipalities, government in Rockaway Township over the years at times has been run more like a private club than a public entity with little dissent on the governing body.

That changed last year when voters put a number of new individuals on the nine-member council.

There are now at least five votes to take away health benefits from part-timers, according to Jeremy Jedynak, the council president.

One of those five is Councilman Tucker M. Kelley, who has unsuccessfully sought for years to strip part-timers of health benefits.

Nothing demonstrates how things in the township have changed more than Kelley’s presence on the council. Long an administrative critic – a gadfly if you will – Kelley has fought many battles with council members, some of which ended up in court.

Depending on your point of view, Kelley has been either a dedicated watchdog or an annoying irritant. But now he’s a councilman, to the delight of some and to the dismay of others.

Jedynak asks why should part-time elected officials get a benefit that no other part-timers in town government get.

“How can you ever cut taxes if you are unable to cut your own benefits?” he asks, adding that public service is supposed to be just that – serving the public, not getting lucrative perks.

This, quite frankly, is a tough position to argue with. And that is the problem for the men now getting town health benefits, Mayor Michael Dachisen and Councilman John J. Quinn.

The mayor attributes the move to politics, pure and simple.

“It’s just a political vendetta,” he said. “They’re trying to kill us.”

Dachisen notes that the issue has been brought up for years, most notably by Kelley.

“This guy keeps drumming it up, drumming it up,” the mayor said.

Dachisen argues that the council’s anticipated move would be illegal because of the grandfather provision.

Jedynak counters that the borough of Scotch Plains in Union County passed a similar ordinance and that it withstood legal scrutiny. So, as you can see, litigation is possible if the council majority follows through.

How the courts would rule on this issue can be debated.

But what should not be debated is that part-time elected officials getting municipal health benefits in New Jersey is not the type of thing most residents support.

Which is why the days for this over-the-top perk probably are numbered.

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