Sunday, December 16, 2007

Weddings - Bergen Record - Fee and Salary Ordinances required

Published in the Bergen Record, Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mayors adjust to new wedding rules

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


North Bergen Mayor Nicolas Sacco marrying township residents Johnny Restrepo and Maritza Carvajal during his lunch break last week.

Mayors around the state are adapting to changes in the longtime tradition of performing weddings at town hall.

Legislation now requires any mayor or official who performs weddings to also solemnize civil unions. Municipalities must now also account for the money that mayors earn from conducting nuptials.

So far, the honeymoon hasn't ended for the new regulations, adopted in February. A survey of North Jersey mayors by The Record showed only a handful have decided to stop performing weddings because of the changes.

The fees for having one's union blessed by a municipal official were largely unregulated by the state. For decades, when a couple chose a town hall wedding, whether for simplicity, convenience or economic reasons, the fee, if any, could vary widely by town. In some cases, weddings had become a lucrative side business for mayors who weren't always declaring the extra income.

"It's a cottage industry in some of the Shore towns," said Susan Jacobucci, director of the state Division of Local Government Services. "Shore town mayors were making 30, 40, 50 thousand dollars a year. They had schedules they had booked well into the future."

Jacobucci's office received a complaint about the practice, which prompted the new regulations. Now municipalities are required to pass an ordinance setting the fee for performing weddings and requiring the depositing of the money into a town's general fund. If a mayor or town official is then paid for the services, a separate salary ordinance is required. The regulation does not place any cap on the fees.

Jacobucci said some mayors had complained that they were paid so little to hold public office that marriages had become an important source of income.

"The reason you have the ability to marry people is because you're mayor," Jacobucci said she told them. "It's not really your money; do you charge a per-diem for signing ordinances or performing other functions?"

Most North Jersey towns where mayors perform ceremonies do not charge a fee, or suggest a donation be made to a local charity -- a practice that does not require an ordinance. In towns that do charge, fees range from $50 to $200, with some tacking on additional costs if a ceremony requires a mayor to travel or rent a tuxedo. Most of the North Jersey municipalities that charge fees have either passed the required ordinances or said they are in the process.

Meanwhile, fears that the new civil union rule would cause mayors to opt out of performing ceremonies altogether have been largely unfounded, according to the Civil Union Review Commission, a panel created by the Legislature to monitor the effectiveness of the new law.

"One of the most overstated, non-problems of the year has been the notion of mayors refusing to perform civil unions," said Steven Goldstein, vice chairman of the commission.

Goldstein, who is also the chairman of Garden State Equality, a statewide gay advocacy group, said the main focus of complaints received by the commission have been from same-sex couples and mayors arguing the legislation doesn't go far enough, and that everyone in the state should be granted full marriage rights, regardless of sexual orientation.

"Out of the 556 municipalities in New Jersey that have mayors, maybe 20 have either refused to perform civil unions, or de-facto refused to perform them through scheduling issues," Goldstein said. "It exists out there -- we get complaints -- but there's nowhere near a widespread pattern."

In North Jersey, only a handful of mayors have expressed opposition to the civil union law or the new ordinance requirements.

Steve Lonegan, the outgoing mayor of Bogota who spoke out against civil unions before the measure took effect, said he had continued performing weddings since it was enacted. He said he had not received any requests to perform a civil union, but would refuse to perform one if asked during his remaining weeks in office, despite a requirement that any mayor who conducts weddings must also do civil unions.

"I object to being compelled by the government to perform something that the voters of New Jersey should place on the ballot and decide on," Lonegan said. "I don't think the government should be deciding for people."

Mayor James Anzaldi of Clifton, who estimated he had performed hundreds of weddings during his tenure, opted out of them altogether to avoid having to solemnize same-sex unions.

"I don't want to do anything to hurt anybody's feelings, but I don't want to hurt my own religious background at the same time," said Anzaldi, who is Catholic.

Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio, the president of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said he felt the attorney general had made a mistake in allowing mayors the chance to opt out because they refuse to perform civil unions.

He spoke at a panel on the topic at the league's annual conference in Atlantic City last month. "You provide services to your residents," DelVecchio said. "Think about the idea of denying a service to an African-American, or an Arab, or someone who is Jewish; it wouldn't enter your mind."

North Haledon Mayor Randy George, who opted out of performing weddings and civil unions since the new rules took effect, said it was because he was angry about the ordinance requirements.

"To be honest, I don't like when the state of New Jersey tells me what to do," George said. He said he used to charge $200 per wedding, but only to raise money for a scholarship fund created in honor of a deceased town resident. George said the fund was now drying up because of the new regulations that any fees from ceremonies must now be deposited into a town's general budget.

"The thing that annoys me the most is, the state never solves problems, they just create them," George said. "They said other mayors were collecting money off weddings, so go after them! I can no longer use fees for the scholarship fund, but I can enact an ordinance that says I can get paid -- I don't want to get paid!"

George added he was exploring the possibility of becoming an ordained minister over the Internet in order to keep performing weddings to raise funds for the scholarship program.

Mayors who have continued performing weddings and civil unions say it is one of the most pleasurable aspects of their job.

"I really enjoy doing them," North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco said shortly before he presided over the nuptials of residents Johnny Restrepo and Maritza Carvajal on a recent weekday. North Bergen recently passed the required ordinances making the town's $50 wedding fees payable to the mayor as a salary supplement.

As Sacco officiated at the Restrepo-Carvajal union, asking the couple if they wished to join in holy matrimony, Restrepo's young daughter, Veronica, held out the ring box and whispered: "Say 'I do.'"

Some key provisions of the new regulations on fees for weddings and civil unions:
• Any fee collected by a mayor for the performance of a marriage or civil union ceremony must be authorized by ordinance, payable to the municipality and deposited into the general fund.

• Disbursements may be made by the town to the mayor for wedding services only after an appropriate ordinance is adopted.

• No ordinance is needed for a mayor to suggest that the couple may make a direct, voluntary contribution to a charitable organization of their choice.
Source: New Jersey Division of Local Government Services
Online story here. Archived here.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.