Friday, May 20, 2016

On Patronage

PMUA critic Bill Kruse noted yesterday that the authority once had 173 employees:

For a number of years "someone" from "The Hall" would call then Director Eric Watson and say, "My brother-in-law needs a job, I am sending him over." This is how the number employed grew to 173. The fact that it is now 131 and the PMUA provides the same services evidences how out of control matters were.

Watson used to say the PMUA was the city's fifth largest employer. I don't know the exact rankings, but Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, the Plainfield School District and municipal government were probably the top three. Because the cry in Plainfield was and continues to be for jobs, providing so many made the authority appear to be downright benevolent.

Patronage is defined in The Free Dictionary as a "spoils" system.

This is the essence of the patronage system, also known as the spoils system ("To the victor go the spoils"): appointing persons to government positions on the basis of political support and work rather than on merit, as measured by objective criteria.

I know I have been surprised to see some names crop up on the PMUA job roster, such as a police officer or two who have fallen from grace. Questions have also been raised about the creation of a security post not long ago that was filled by a former Union County official with a long history of prior public service and the pensions to prove it.

In the annals of City Hall patronage, there was the case of a low-level employee who, several years ago, felt so entitled.that he took a car from the city's fleet for his own use. As I recall, that person was relieved of duty.

I used to annotate city committee lists with the job titles or appointments received by the politically loyal, though I am sure some involved merit or talent and not just fealty to those in power.

The trouble with patronage is that it ultimately creates tension, if not outright ill will, among staff members when a feeling of entitlement leads one person to slack off while another is doing an honest day's work. But there may also be a price on favoritism. I was in a city office a few years ago when a woman with a big purse came in. She was there to collect for the party. A staffer complained after the bag woman left that she had given a large chunk of her pay out in donations to various officials.

Concluding his comment, Kruse had kind words for PMUA Executive Director Daniel Mejias and also a bit of sympathy:

He is articulate, experienced in the Trade, and appears enthusiastic about doing his job. We can hope that he is not restrained in his efforts by political inertia.

We can hope, but patronage still seems to be the way of the world.




  1. It is nice to see some progress being made after years of patronage. I also remember three people who worked in City Hall complaining to me that they were required to make big political donations when people with a "big purse" would show up in City Hall and the Annex. The implied threat from the administration at the time was loss of employment for not contributing. I'm glad that has stopped, or at least I have not heard any complaints, so I hope we keep moving forward.

  2. Don't imagine that when it comes to doling out jobs, appointments, or public contracts that this administration is any better than the last. Money and an excess of loyalty still make the system tick.

  3. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."