The Case of the Absentee Councilman
Ocean Acres resident Joe Mazzola raised a stirring question at September’s second regular council meeting on Sept. 27: Why is the town paying Councilman Steve Jeffries if he’s rarely at the meetings?
The short answer: The democratic process is what it is; the voters elected Jeffries into office, and his absences have been well within the provisions of state law.
Without the state statute in front of him, Township Attorney Christopher J. Connors said he thinks the number is something like eight consecutive unexcused absences before a vacancy exists.
If that’s the case, resident Richie Gilchrist pointed out, a councilman could get away with making only three meetings a year. “I wouldn’t recognize the guy,” he said. “I make more (meetings) than he does, and I’m crippled.”
Jeffries was not present at the meeting where the discussion took place, but he addressed the matter afterward via phone interview. He explained a professional obligation has him in South Dakota much of the time, though he maintains his Manahawkin residency. He didn’t have the obligation when he ran for the council seat.
Shortly before last year’s election, in which he ran on the “Common Sense Conservatives” ticket in opposition to Mayor John Spodofora’s team, Jeffries was offered a job opportunity he believed would be a short-term project that has turned into a permanent position. “I try to get back at least for every third meeting or so,” he said. In the meantime, he said, he receives and reads the emails and meeting minutes and generally keeps in touch and stays up to date on township business.
Jeffries said he plans to attend the next council meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 11.
“This isn’t fair to anybody,” Mazzola said. “He’s not benefiting the citizens of Stafford; he’s not benefiting the people who are making the meetings and trying to get a job done; so, somebody’s got to be punished here.”
The only recourse, according to officials, is to let Jeffries know they’re displeased with his attendance and, when the time comes, don’t vote to reelect him.
When the statute was written, Connors explained, a lot of consideration was given to the number of allowable absences given the various circumstances and needs of municipalities throughout the state. The political process for a remedy, according to Connors, would involve proposing legislation to reduce the number of meetings, but it would need to propose a reasonable solution for all towns to agree on.
Connors, who also is the state senator for the 9th District, which includes Stafford Township, said he has no plans to submit a bill to change the law at this time.
“I’ll consider it, but I’m loath to do it,” he said, “and I’ll tell you the reason why. This individual was elected by the people of Stafford. … When you start dabbling with the number of consecutive meetings, whether it’s two, whether it’s three, whether it’s eight, there is a process by which people are elected and un-elected when their term comes up. To disenfranchise the voters by perhaps shortening a period of time simply because an individual missed five or six, and then I’m going to change it to three in the middle of his term – I have a concern about that.”
Other potential snags in the process come up, he continued. When is an absence excused or not? And who decides? Do they like or dislike the guy? What constitutes an absence, hospitalization? A family member’s illness? Work? Deployment?
Connors publicly admitted, as an elected official, “It bothers me. When a person holds an office and does not discharge their duties to the benefit of the people they serve is an affront to me. So I would like to change it tomorrow if I could. But it doesn’t have a substantial likelihood of success due to other reasons.”
“The public has every right to challenge (Jeffries) when he comes to the meetings,” Councilman Steve Fessler said.
Spodofora spoke up to draw attention to the council’s hard work and dedication on the whole.
— Victoria Ford