ELIZABETH, NJ – The Union County Freeholders this week disputed allegations that the county manager’s work with a political consulting firm promoting local candidates presents a conflict of interest with his government duties.
The freeholders had named Edward Oatman to the position of county manager in January of last year. Oatman earned a $150,800 salary from the county in 2018, according to public records.
Oatman, however, continues in his partnership role with the political consulting firm Parktowne Associates, Joshua Bochner, a resident of Berkeley Heights, told the freeholders on Thursday. Campaign finance reports show that firm was paid about $150,000 in 2018 for promoting candidates in Union County municipalities, Bochner said.
“Some of these payments were for mailers that implied promises that upon election, these candidates would secure extra grants and shared services agreements with Union County for their respective municipalities,” said Bochner, who provided TAPinto copies of the reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. “Financial relationships between Parktowne Associates and these now, some, elected mayors and members of [municipal] councils, appear to be a conflict of interest for the county manager.”
Candidates for political office in at least six Union County municipalities worked with Parktowne Associates in 2018, Bochner said, citing the campaign finance reports. Those municipalities are Berkeley Heights, Kenilworth, Linden, New Providence, Plainfield and Scotch Plains, he said.
“How can the public trust that the county manager will fairly award grants and shared services agreements if he has this financial incentive to benefit the towns where he was paid to promote candidates?” Bochner asked.
Oatman did not respond directly to the allegations at Thursday’s meeting and declined to comment for this story. However, the freeholders defended Oatman and a spokesman for the county said that since the freeholders themselves award the shared services contracts with local governments and approve the grant distributions, there should be no conflict, at least not under the law.
“He doesn’t vote on anything,” the spokesman, Sebastian D’Elia said. “The law is the vote is where you have the conflict. If he doesn’t vote on anything, he wouldn’t have a conflict.”
D’Elia said municipalities apply for contracts with the county, which the county government chooses through committees of the freeholder board. No regulation prohibits county employees from holding outside employment as long as that employment does not interfere with the county job, he said.
Freeholder Christopher Hudak said Oatman brings a new perspective, and the county manager has been transparent about his outside employment.
“What’s being conflated is conflict versus disclosure,” Hudak said. “As public officials, we’re required to let people know what financial interests we have, what property interests we have. That does not necessarily create a conflict.”
Freeholder Chairwoman Bette Jane Kowalski said simply: “We have full confidence in our county manager.”