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Newark, NJ Star-Ledger, Jan. 6, 2006
by Josh Margolin and Susan K. Livio, Star-Ledger Staff
One week after federal authorities took over management of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, an effort to reform the scandal-plagued school has been derailed by a political standoff in Trenton that has dismayed the governor and angered the U.S. attorney.
State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) is blocking acting Gov. Richard Codey's appointment of two reformers to the UMDNJ board of trustees until the governor uses his power as Senate president to revive an unrelated proposal to provide clean needles to drug addicts.
Gill acknowledged she is using the long-standing tradition of "senatorial courtesy" to block dozens of appointments, including law professor Paula Franzese's nomination to the UMDNJ board. She said she will relent only if Codey forces the stalled needle exchange bill before the full Senate for a vote.
"We have a public health epidemic," Gill said. "Senatorial courtesy is not being used to advance a (real estate) development or please a party boss, but for women and children who may even not be in a position to vote for me."
Senatorial courtesy is an unwritten and long-controversial tradition that allows senators to block nominees from their home counties without stating a reason. Gill is blocking votes on more than 60 Essex County residents nominated to serve as judges and members of college boards and public authorities.
The unusual collision of two high-profile issues -- needle exchange and UMDNJ reform -- has left Codey and Gill in a standoff and stymied the U.S. attorney's fledgling efforts to overhaul the health care university's management.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie was adamant that a political fight in Trenton should not be allowed to stand in the way of turning around the state's only medical and dental university.
"We are moving as fast as we can every day to bring real reform to UMDNJ," Christie said. "We need board members like Paula Franzese to ensure that that reform is instituted as quickly as possible."
Last week, the U.S. Attorney's Office appointed a federal monitor to oversee UMDNJ's finances and administration in a deal that will help the Newark-based health care university avoid a criminal trial related to $4.9 million in Medicaid overbilling.
UMDNJ's 11-member board of trustees is down to six members due to vacancies and three recent resignations. Franzese, of Cedar Grove, has extensive experience working on ethics issues and was scheduled to be the first of several new trustees on the board.
Codey scratched plans this week to announce a second nominee to join the UMDNJ board, according to three administration officials. That nominee, who was not identified, is also from Essex County and would be subject to Gill's block.
The reappointment of Newark City Council President Donald Bradley, a current UMDNJ trustee nominated to serve another term on the university board, also has been delayed by Gill's actions.
Gill said she has nothing against reforming UMDNJ. She just wants to force a vote on needle exchange legislation that she believes is critical to the health of many of the state's most vulnerable residents.
Codey failed to convince Gill to drop her objections during a private meeting Wednesday. He said he had nothing but respect for Gill "as a lady and as a state senator," but declined to comment further.
The governor pointed out the irony of the standoff: Not only is he a long-time ally of Gill, but he supports needle exchange.
"I voted for needle exchange, so I'm not necessarily disagreeing with her. That's life," Codey said.
Still, the governor has refused to use his power as Senate president to give special consideration to the needle exchange bill, even if it means delaying plans to reform UMDNJ.
The needle exchange measure passed the Assembly but is stalled in the Senate Health Committee due to lack of support.
Gill and other needle exchange proponents argue that the programs are needed in New Jersey, which has the highest AIDS and HIV rate among women in the nation and the third-highest pediatric AIDS and HIV rate.
Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), a leading opponent of the legislation, said he respects Gill. But he thinks she is making a mistake using senatorial courtesy to advance the bill.
"If you want to leverage legislation, you should use other legislation, not appointments that are needed and necessary," Rice said.
Staff writer Kelly Heyboer contributed to this report.