The politics of payouts
Sacco says demand for investigation is partisan
by Vanessa Cruz
Reporter Staff Writer
May 20, 2012 | 3329 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
BEMUSED – Mayor Nicholas Sacco kept his composure as his reputation and character were questioned.
BEMUSED – Mayor Nicholas Sacco kept his composure as his reputation and character were questioned.
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Mayor Nicholas Sacco has called requests for an investigation into his contract with the Board of Education nothing more than an attempt by his opponents in North Bergen Township to score political points. An attorney representing the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group demanded at the Board of Commissioner’s meeting on May 9 that an investigation be made into the terms of Sacco’s contract, which apparently allow him a payout on an accumulated 445

sick day benefits that may total as much as $331,970.

In addition to serving at the township’s mayor, Sacco is a state Senator and assistant superintendent of schools, paying him an annual salary of $298,725, according to published reports. But it is his public employee contract with the school district that is the focus of the controversy.

In 2007 the state legislature passed a law capping payouts of unused sick days for school administrators at $15,000, allowing them to keep whatever time they had amassed but preventing them from accumulating more. This allowed Sacco to keep his 445 sick days, accumulated over a 43-year career as an educator.

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“Are you kidding?” – Mayor Nicholas Sacco

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But attorney Mario Blanch has called for a state and federal investigation claiming Sacco publicly supported that 2007 law, yet privately accepted a contract from the school district that could have afforded him a sick time payout much higher. Blanch has claimed Sacco knew his contract paid him too much but still agreed to it.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education has acknowledged it inserted language into contracts that Sacco and two other North Bergen administrators signed last year that made it seem as though they could be paid a large sick time payout, but decided afterward the payouts were not warranted.

“In 2011, the State Department of Education forced Sacco and other North Bergen school administrators to amend their contracts to a more generous sick day payout formula that would give beneficiaries a year’s salary for every 260 accrued sick days,” said township spokesman Philip Swibinski in a statement after the meeting. “Mayor Sacco didn’t ask for this and didn’t want it, but was compelled by the state to sign this new contract or else his employment would be terminated. After initially denying this, the state has now finally acknowledged the truth.”

The Department of Education claims that the new contract that Sacco was forced to sign, otherwise his employment would be terminated, was later nullified by them. Sacco claims that after asking the Board of Education to change it, he relinquished the $188,410 in unused sick days that the new contract stipulated he was entitled to.

“They ignored their own contract,” the mayor said. “They created the contract, I didn’t.”

Swibinski pointed out that Sacco has a legally binding employment contract for the higher amount and, if he wanted to, could force a protracted legal battle to receive it. But he said the mayor won’t do that, because he never asked for the higher amount, is happy to receive the same amount he has always believed he would and he would never do anything to harm North Bergen taxpayers.

“Mayor Sacco has been employed as an educator for over 40 years,” said Swibinski. “Like every other school administrator in New Jersey, his contract was within the bounds of state law and it entitled him to a full year’s salary for every 600 accrued unused sick days. Nick Sacco has had exemplary attendance in his job as an Assistant Superintendent of Schools, as well as his elected positions. He works 24/7 for the best interests of North Bergen residents.”

Attorney on the attack

“You lied to the press and you’re the one that executed the contract,” said Blanch at the meeting. “When the Department of Education turned around and nullified that contract and gave [you a new one] back, you acted like you were doing the township a favor.”

The furor was instigated by a Star Ledger report on April 29 accusing New Jersey politicians of preserving their own retirement packages while limiting benefits available to new workers. Sacco’s potential sick day payout was the centerpiece of the article, which also focused on potential sick day payouts to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Hudson Assemblyman Charles Mainor.

Sacco responded to Blanch’s comments at the meeting by saying, “You somehow have all the facts mixed up. You listened to some reporter, which was inaccurate. Most reporters eventually did apologize.”

Blanch said he found it hard to believe the Star Ledger story about Sacco was false, otherwise the mayor would have filed a slander or libel lawsuit placed against them. His implication was that North Bergen’s administration may have something to hide.

“Are you kidding?” Sacco said. “I mean, come on.”

North Bergen school board attorney Jack Gillman has supported Sacco’s response to the allegations against him. He has also asked for a public apology from both the media that has tried to tarnish Sacco’s reputation and the New Jersey Department of Education, which he said has essentially let the mayor fend for himself.

“The New Jersey Department of Education has made serious errors that are the direct cause of an irresponsible and inaccurate media attack that unfairly damaged the reputation of State Senator Nicholas J. Sacco,” said Gillman. “By using words like ‘greedy’ and ‘dishonest’ in an editorial, the Star Ledger implied that Senator Sacco deliberately doubled the pay-out value of sick days he has accumulated during a 43 year career as an educator. That was an outrageous and completely false charge. It’s also clear that the newspaper was misled by the state DOE officials who had no problem with seeing Senator Sacco’s reputation tarnished.”

Blanch dismissed Gillman’s defense of Sacco.

“The attorney for the school board was paid for by this township.”

At the May 9 meeting, Herb Shaw, a resident of North Bergen and frequent candidate for public office, told Sacco, “You set a very good example for the students of North Bergen because you’re never sick, but you take their money.”

“He [Shaw] doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” the mayor said. “That’s normal to me.”

Vanessa Cruz can be reached at vcruz@hudsonreporter.com

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