Turnpike chief severance deal assailed

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Staff Writers

Critics are raising eyebrows over a $70,000 severance package that former Union County Manager Michael Lapolla received before he left to
become the new head of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

Lapolla, who started his $140,400-a-year turnpike job Monday, cashed in more than 100 unused vacation and sick days from Union County.

He went to work for the county as first assistant prosecutor in 1991 and became county manager in 1997.

"They shouldn't be able to broker these deals," said state Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon.

Lapolla said Wednesday that the settlement was a condition of his hiring when he took the $139,123-a-year county manager's job.

"You have agreements when you're hired and these were the terms of my agreement," Lapolla said. "It was voted on last week and everything
was done out in the open and on the record. Every government employee who leaves gets paid for vacation days, so that's not really an issue.
I made a very good salary with the county and these days reflect that salary. I earned these days."

Union County officials said there was nothing improper about the deal.

County Administrative Services Director Joseph Salemme said regular unionized employees can receive a maximum of $18,000 when they leave or retire from their jobs.

"County managers have been handled differently," he said. "The board sets the policy for non-contractual employees."

Lapolla received money for 62 sick days accrued since he took over as county manager and for 68.5 vacation days. The payment for each day
was $535, a rate based on his annual salary as county manager. He said he could have asked to be paid for an additional 80 earned sick days, but didn't.

"This is disgusting," Gail Masson-Massey, former president of Communications Workers of America Local 1080, said in a published report. "They're asking everyone else to tighten their belts and then $70,000 goes walking out the door? Amazing."

Lapolla, who defended the settlement, said it wasn't always easy finding time to take a vacation.

"If you're running an organization with 2,800 employees, you can't take five weeks' vacation," he said. "You took it when you could. We
closed our jail among other things, and lots of things make it not possible."

Lance said he will propose legislation that would limit such payments to $15,000.