‘We’ll come back to you’ — Murphy looking into new questions on hiring practices
New questions are being raised about the hiring practices of the Murphy administration, and Gov. Phil Murphy himself said Tuesday he’s “trying to figure out” what is going on.
A NorthJersey.com story outlines how the new chief executive officer of the Schools Development Authority has hired 38 new people since August, some for higher salaries than the workers who were replaced even though there were inexperienced, while others filled jobs that did not previously exist.
The SDA was where Al Alvarez, the man accused of sexually assaulting a Murphy campaign worker, had been given a high-ranking position before he resigned last fall when the sex assault story was about to break.
The story said many of the new hires made by new CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco appear to have personal connections to her or to her family.
Delgado-Polanco was appointed by the governor.
During a news conference in Hamilton, Murphy was asked about the situation at the Schools Development Authority and he seemed to suggest he was already aware of a problem at the SDA.
“We had already been ahead of the story, trying to figure out what has gone on there, and when we have more to report on that we’ll come back to you," he said.
When Murphy was questioned about staffing decisions and practices at the SDA he seemed to suggest any changes that were made were handled fairly.
“We have called balls and strikes. If somebody was talented and we thought they were doing a good job for the most part, we were somewhere between accommodating and supportive.”
The governor was then asked whether it’s fair to hold him responsible for any of the questionable hiring practices that have been made at the SDA but he declined to address the question directly.
“I’ve got no color on that or no viewpoint other than that we’re trying to figure out for ourselves long before the story was written what’s gone on there, and when we have something to report, we’ll come back to you.”
Coincidently, the New Jersey Legislative Select Oversight Committee, the group investigating how Al Alvarez was hired and why he was never fired when rape allegations surfaced, was holding another hearing on Tuesday.
When the session was completed, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the co-chair of the Oversight Committee, said she was aware of the newest SDA twist.
“I think the report is troubling and I think we have to wait to hear from the administration on their reaction or action, as the case may be," she said.
State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, the vice-chair of the committee, and state Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, a committee member, issued a statement saying they were also troubled by what’s going on.
“There is a disturbing pattern of questionable hires by the Murphy Administration that has never been investigated in full or reasonably explained. The tone at the top sets the standard for all administrations," he said.
When the SDA was contacted for comment, director of communications Tony Bianchini issued the following statement:
Lizette Delgado Polanco became the CEO of the Schools Development Authority on August 8, 2018, following approval by the SDA Board of Directors during the August 2018 board meeting. Ms. Delgado Polanco is the first woman and first Hispanic to lead the SDA in the Authority’s history.
Upon starting as CEO, Ms. Delgado Polanco immediately began to assess how the Authority could most effectively fulfill its mission of planning and constructing high-quality schools on budget and on time. In doing so, Ms. Delgado Polanco identified essential departments within the SDA that were either understaffed or simply didn’t exist. Additionally, responsibilities among existing departments and positions were not evenly distributed and/or overlapped.
In an effort to foster collaboration with the communities in which the SDA is building schools and more efficiently deliver on the SDA’s core mission – and mindful of the fact that in 2019 the SDA is up for reauthorization of funding to build schools over the next decade – Ms. Delgado Polanco and members of the SDA’s management team began a strategic reorganization of the Authority. With the assistance and input of the Chief Operating Officer, Office of the SDA Chief of Staff, the Human Resources Department, Counsel’s Office and SDA Vice Presidents, all of whom were already in place, Ms. Delgado Polanco examined the work flow/job function and performance of all SDA staff, reorganized and created departments and in some cases, hired new staff and terminated some existing at-will staff.
For example, the SDA created an External Affairs Division, and departments focused on a Community Engagement as well as Legislative Affairs and Policy. Positions for an Equal Employment Opportunity Director and Chief Diversity Officer were created and filled. The SDA also increased the number of employees in the Small, Minority and Women-Owned Businesses, Business Compliance and Communications Departments. These changes were made in an effort to ensure a meaningful connection between the Authority and the New Jersey communities it serves and will drive economic development by encouraging local hiring for local projects, as well as increase public awareness about numerous unmet needs in the 31 Districts the SDA services.
Right now, the Authority has 18 fully funded projects in the pipeline. The SDA does not have any further funds to build additional capital school projects in the 31 SDA Districts nor are there grants for Regular Operating Districts (we pay 40%).
Since Lizette Delgado Polanco became CEO, the SDA has made a concerted effort to partner with our Districts. We have conducted tours in 22 of the 31 SDA Districts so far. We’ve seen schools that were 125-150 years old, including one school in Newark is 170 years old. We’ve visited schools where we found windows that didn’t open; schools classrooms are 80+ degrees; schools where subjects like art and music are taught beneath stairwells and bleachers due to lack of classroom space; schools that aren’t meeting STEM/Science requirements because they don’t have the necessary equipment or space; and schools that aren’t meeting PE requirements because they don’t have gyms, or the gym floors are bowed, bent and broken.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com