Despite having a work force of only 21, the Little Egg Harbor Township Municipal Utilities Authority has three sets of fathers and sons, according to payroll records obtained by The Press of Atlantic City through an Open Public Records Act request.

MUA Director Dave Johnson said he doesn’t believe it’s a problem because none of the family members reports directly to one another.

Johnson’s own son, Vincent Johnson, works for the government authority as operations chief.

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“Just because someone is a family member doesn’t mean they are not qualified to do the job. No one is hired here just to give them a job. Everyone works very hard here,” said Johnson, whose agency does not have a policy against nepotism.

The MUA director’s philosophy, however, doesn’t match that of the Township Committee, which does have a nepotism policy and whose members appoint MUA commissioners.

Management of the MUA drew the attention of the Township Committee after The Press of Atlantic City reported in October that Johnson’s $201,220-a-year salary in 2011 was among the highest in the state. In October, the committee began a feasibility study to determine whether to take over operation of the MUA.

“A nepotism policy that does not allow supervising family members is important to have,” Township Administrator Garrett Loesch said.

Most municipal agencies and all state agencies have nepotism policies, said Emil Moschella, an attorney and executive director on the advisory board of the Rutgers Center for Government Compliance and Ethics.

“If it is a government-run organization, nepotism policies are there to avoid conflicts of interest and to ensure that when decisions are made that the personal, financial interests of the members or close family don’t play a role in the hiring of people,” Moschella said.

Moschella said it is strongly recommended that an organization such as Little Egg’s MUA, with the number of family members employed, have a code of conduct in place, including a nepotism policy.

“One of the things we are talking about is the public’s trust in government organizations, and typically government entities do have nepotism policies to guide ethical behavior,” he said.

Johnson, who has been on the board since 1992, said he can’t recall a discussion about the need for such a policy.

Joseph Mezzina, chairman of the MUA board of commissioners, said he sees nothing wrong with how the MUA operates.

“I’ve never thought of discussing a nepotism policy, and I don’t think it’s necessary to have one. If you look over at the township, they have a policy and have a lot of that going on,” Mezzina said. Loesch said he doesn’t believe there is any gray area within the township when it comes to the nepotism policy.

“I can’t think of anyone who is in charge of anyone who is related. Certainly, if there is any kind of relation between two people, they were not involved in hiring or overseeing,” Loesch said.

Mezzina said potential employees must go through a rigorous screening process before being hired at the MUA. Because the township is small and the MUA prefers hiring locals, hiring family is inevitable, he said.

“We prefer to hire locals, and if there is a policy that we have, well, that’s it,” he said.

The township’s nepotism policy states that “immediate relatives shall not be hired, promoted or transferred to a regular full-time or regular part-time position where one relative would have the authority to appoint, remove, discipline or evaluate the performance of another.”

Hiring would not be permitted when one relative would be “responsible for auditing the work of the other or where other circumstances exist that place relatives in a situation of actual or reasonably foreseeable conflict of interest,” the policy also states.

The father-son employees at the MUA are:

f-9n Johnson and his son, Vincent, who is the operations chief at the MUA and has been employed there since July 1998. Vincent Johnson was paid gross wages of $82,643, according to 2011 payroll documents. The wages include payment for regular hours worked, holiday pay, overtime, unused sick, vacation and personal time and longevity.

f-9n Bart DiFrancia and Michael DiFrancia. According to payroll documents, Bart DiFrancia works as the plant’s assistant maintenance chief and in 2011 was paid gross wages of $89,658. He has worked at the MUA since July 2001. His son, Michael, has been employed by the MUA since August 1995 and was paid gross wages of $115,285 as the plant’s superintendent.

f-9n Mark E. Heinrichs and Mark E. Heinrichs Jr. The father has been employed at the MUA as a plant employee since August 2009 and his son has worked there since February 2002, according to payroll documents. Mark E. Heinrichs was paid $14,868 in gross wages, and his son was paid $71,059. Mark E. Heinrichs’ position is part time at the MUA, and the pair has no supervisory power over one another, Mezzina said.

When it comes to family members working together, Dave Johnson said, he can understand why it would be questioned, but he believes the perception is worse than the act itself.

“We’re not doing anything illegal or inappropriate here. Our employees are doing their jobs the best that they can,” he said.

Johnson has his backers, including the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

“Anyone can go out and make any kind of accusation. But what is wrong about it, more than just the fact that they’re related? What is the real issue here? There is nothing illegal about it,” league staff attorney Bill Kearns said.

It’s not unusual to have fathers and sons working in the same department in small communities, and many times it is because of a family tradition, Kearns said.

But it has been decades since the township could be considered a small community.

In 2000, the township’s population was 15,945, an increase of about 13,000 people over 1970. In 2004, the population was 19,334, and as of the 2010 U.S. Census, it was 20,065.

Township resident Art Mooney has been vocal at Township Committee meetings about issues concerning the MUA, including Dave Johnson’s $201,220 salary.

Mooney said he isn’t surprised multiple families’ members are employed at the MUA.

“Sounds like a little bit of nepotism. I don’t know if we can prove it or not. Were these the most qualified people for the job at the time they were hired? I don’t know,” Mooney said.

Mooney said he was directed by the Township Committee to lodge his complaints regarding the MUA with the agency. He said his grievance most likely would not be addressed, so he hasn’t done that.

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