In an emotional three-minute speech Tuesday afternoon to an audience of more than 100, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. apologized that the issue of his pension — which he's collecting while continuing to work as the county executive — has become a controversy, which he says is detracting from his work at the county.
"I put in 29 years, I deserve my pension," he told Patch Tuesday night.
"This weekend was some weekend," said DiVincenzo, in reference to a Star-Ledger story that revealed that the 58-year-old began collecting his $5,738 monthly pension last August, in addition to his $153,207 salary. DiVincenzo is one of a handful of politicians in the state eligible to collect a pension for a job he is still working at, because of a loophole in the pension rules.
"I love this county more than anything else and my name is the most important because that's my reputation … and it was taken to a new low," he said at a news conference, announcing a new boathouse restaurant for the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange.
State law allows elected officials in the public employee and police pension systems to "retire" but keep working. According to the Star-Ledger, DiVincenzo "retired" just three months before winning an unprecedented third term as county executive.
DiVincenzo has come under fire since the Star-Ledger story Friday because he has argued for pension reform, a position he's taken and allied himself with controversial Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He's also pressured county union employees to accept salary cuts, health benefit cuts and changes to pensions. Some unions called for his resignation over the weekend after news of DiVincenzo collecting his pension and salary surfaced.
DiVincenzo said that any action the county takes, "the buck stops" with him. He said the choice was a family decision, but did not elaborate. He did not say he would stop collecting the pension.
"To Essex County residents and to all the employees here, I want to apologize for what happened this weekend," he said as he paused to collect his thoughts. "I'm sorry that I put us in this position, but … I had to make a family decision."
DiVincenzo said the county will move forward to "make sure we do good things in Essex County."
"The things we have done over the last eight years are memorable. I give my heart … my soul 24/7 to make this county what it is today. And nothing is going to take that away," he said to a roaring, roughly 25-second applause.
DiVincenzo said he spoke with Gov. Chris Christie and that the governor continues to be his friend, although Christie and other legislators have called for legislation to close the loophole.
"Some people don't like that (he's my friend) — Democrats or Republicans — the governor has been here for 16 months … he's taken on some very serious issues," he said.
DiVincenzo said his relationship with Christie will not get "weaker" because of this, but "stronger."
"When you have someone like me who stands up and is vocal … sometimes it hurts, but Gov. Chris Christie is a friend."