This is a guest post by Mike Lilley, founder and president of the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on showcasing greater transparency and sound policy solutions throughout the state. It first appeared in Advance Media.
New Jersey Education Association Vice President Sean Spiller is running for mayor of Montclair. Spiller’s leadership position with the NJEA, the most powerful special interest in the state, which is purposefully training and running members like Spiller for political office, should raise alarms for Montclair citizens and stir up important questions for all New Jersey residents.
For Montclair, an NJEA Vice President/Mayor Spiller would present major conflicts of interest.
As an elected officer of the NJEA, Spiller has a fiduciary duty to protect and advance his members’ interests, including those of the Montclair Education Association (MEA). On top of that, NJEA and MEA members’ dues have made Spiller a very wealthy man, paying him an estimated $2.1 million during his years as an elected officer. But as mayor of Montclair, Spiller would owe the Montclair citizens a fiduciary duty to represent their interests.
Even worse, Spiller’s obvious conflict of interest was legally declared by a New Jersey Superior Court. As a town councilman, Spiller was removed from the Board of School Estimates (BoSE), which oversees Montclair’s school budget, due to his status as an NJEA elected officer.
As mayor, Spiller would have a much greater conflict of interest. He would appoint the entire school board, which is supposed to represent Montclair in bargaining with the MEA and provides two of the five BoSE members. Spiller would also chair the BoSE and appoint two council members to it. NJEA Vice President Spiller would thus be in a position to control the entire membership of both the school board and the BoSE.
Acknowledging these conflicts, Spiller has offered personal assurances that he would pick independent members for the school board. But Spiller’s personal assurances were clearly insufficient as a defense against the ruling by the Superior Court and they are insufficient here.
Likewise, Spiller has proposed appointing a designee to chair the BoSE but this, too, would fail to erase the conflict. Even if this is permitted by law, Spiller would still select the designee and would still have appointed the school board members who would serve on the BoSE. NJEA Vice President Spiller would still have the ability to control the BoSE.
Finally, Spiller seems to have no regard for how even the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines public trust in the institutions of democratic governance. Why would Spiller run for mayor and create a much larger conflict?
Perhaps he is counting on the fact that he will (again) be provided with top-notch NJEA lawyers for free, while private Montclair citizens would (again) have to mount an expensive lawsuit to vindicate their concerns. Or perhaps Spiller sees Montclair as a stepping stone to an even brighter political future.
But NJEA Vice President Spiller’s political future should be of great concern to New Jersey citizens.
The NJEA that Spiller leads is not your average civic association: it is by far the biggest political spender in the state and has been for decades. It can field armies of campaign “volunteers” when and where it chooses. The result is unmatched political power and influence – for decades.
But electing NJEA-friendly candidates is apparently not enough. As detailed in Sunlight Policy Center’s new report, “Councilman Spiller, Mayor Spiller, Governor Spiller?” the NJEA created its own Political Leadership Academy to train members to run for political office, and over the past five years, 1,310 NJEA members have run. The NJEA’s political aspirations run all the way to the top. As Director of Government Relations Ginger Schnitzer affirmed: “We need NJEA members running for office at all levels of leadership. And who knows? An NJEA member sitting on a school board today, may one day become our governor.”
Now, with the NJEA Political Leadership Academy’s most famous graduate moving up the ranks of New Jersey politics, Schnitzer’s vision doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The NJEA can and does outspend and out-organize any other political force in the state. It is certainly possible that the NJEA and its network of allies could get a Mayor Spiller elected governor, but would it be right for New Jersey?