Does  the Monmouth Board of Freeholders  really need—in these dire economic times—another costly  public relations office in county government,  this  one to promote exclusively the library commissioners and the excellent widespread  library  system they manage?

The answers are varied, depending on whom in county government you talk to.   But there  was general  agreement that the county’s  current  four –person central   public information department, headed by William Heine, is  doing a good, even-handed job within  its yearly budget of $368,933. The  parks system  and sheriff’s office have their own public relations operations.  So are more PR people needed? Besides, the library system always has received  more than its share of publicity.

In what now has become a simmering controversy with the freeholders reportedly being  cautioned to weigh their words carefully if they  are called upon to discuss the situation, the Library Commission in March  quietly  hired  its own  public relations practitioner at an annual salary of $51,000. Freeholder Lilliam G. Burry, a Republican,  is the freeholder board’s  liaison to the commission.

The only thing is:  Apparently Burry never told all the freeholders about what normally would be considered a high-profile hire. Several complained they were unaware of it. And the public relations work title was disguised to make it more politically  palatable if any questions arose:  The PR person suddenly became a  “public participation specialist .” .Burry did not respond to e mails asking for comment  sent to her administrative assistant.

“No one ever told me about it,” said Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Curley, a Republican. “I was unaware of this hire,’’ said Freeholder Amy A. Mallet, a Democrat. “:I was unaware of the hiring.”  said former Freeholder John D’Amico, a Democrat who was on the board at that time. All  said they would not support such a move.  Freeholder Director Robert D. Clifton, a Republican, did not answer   e mails  and phone calls for him  to his administrative assistant. Newly-elected Freeholder Thomas A.  Arnone, a Republican, said he  was not up-to-date on the issue.

The Library Commission is a semi-autonomous agency  which governs the library system. Its seven  members are appointed by the freeholders.  The commission receives its funding through a separate library  tax levy imposed on member municipaliuties that must be approved by the freeholders.

The commision’s spending and budget—not just the PR hire-- have come under attack, mainly from Mallet, as being  “excessive and bloated and outrageous,” especially when “sacrifices and belt tightening are being made countywide.”

But Renee B. Swartz, commission chairperson, defended  the  new public relations choice “as part of a planning process for programming and publicity.” And she stressed  that “the Monmouth County Library is the busiest large public  library in New Jersey.” with its 11 branches and 27 member towns.

Hired for the library  public relations post was Coleen Dee Berry, a former Asbury Park Press reporter and editor who became a freelance writer soon  after she left the newspaper.

Answering reports that she did writing for Burry as a freelancer   before taking her new county  PR post,  Berry said she did write   three letters to the editor/oped pieces  —one on the  West Long Branch library, one on the MOM line and the other related to Burry’s  work on the Fort Monmouth committee. Berry said she was paid in the “range of $600” for her efforts, ”adding: “I was not paid by the county, but by  Freeholder Burry.”

Berry’s new library PR office already is in an expansion mode with the addition of a videographer, a 10-year county employee  earning $72,000 who divides his time now between the library and the parks system of which Burry also is freeholder liaison. Kenneth Sheinbaum, the library  system’s executive director, has remained silent on the issue referring  all questions to Heine.

If there is a fiscal bright spot to this report, it is that the careful scrutiny of the library budget by the freeholders and county Finance Director Craig R. Marshall  will result in  a decrease in the dedicated library tax paid by the member municipalities, And that came after Marshall reportedly discovered the Library Commission was carrying on its books a surplus of about 85 percent of its operating budget.

“It’s easy to bring down a budget when you have an excessive  fund balance,” Mallet said. “This year, they propose taking $7 million from that balance.” That  means the dedicated tax to support the budget is projected to be $12,103,944, down $46,000.

The Library Commission may be a semi-independent agency—but the freeholders have a great responsibility to review its budget, make recommendations and insure that those line items  are what they should be without being puffed up. That’s a story the newspapers will find by themselves . No public relations people needed.

 

Arthur Z. Kamin, Fair Haven, is an independent journalist.