Bryant faces tough reception in hometown

Acting as solicitor, he gave a bonus to a Lawnside employee who held three jobs. The angry audience did not hold back.

Posted: April 06, 2007

In one of his last acts before he was indicted last week, New Jersey State Sen. Wayne Bryant attended a Borough Council meeting in his hometown of Lawnside and helped steer a $10,000 "incentive" bonus to a woman who holds three borough jobs.

It was a classic Bryant show of generosity with public money, rewarding a loyalist, Jessie Harris, who earns a total of $93,000 for the jobs of borough administrator, tax collector and chief financial officer.

It may have been his last act.

The 59-year-old state senator has been slapped with corruption charges that have already ended his political career and could earn him a long prison term if he is convicted. He has resigned from the law firm he helped found and has been removed from no-show jobs at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and at Rutgers University-Camden.

Even in Lawnside, where the senator's family has played key roles in the 1.5-square-mile borough for two centuries, Bryant's influence appears over.

At the recent Borough Council meeting, Bryant - filling the role of borough solicitor - faced angry questions about giving the bonus to Harris, who retires in June.

Some people thought the confused wording of the resolution might entitle Harris to a $270,000 bonus - $10,000 for each of her 27 years working for Lawnside - which unsettled the packed audience. Some called the bonus a payoff to silence Harris for the secrets she must know.

Bryant rewrote the resolution and explained that it was never intended to give Harris more than a single $10,000 payment. Still, some people in the audience questioned why Bryant was speaking for the borough, since he holds no official title.

Though he resigned March 1 from his law firm, which collects $64,000 a year representing the borough, Bryant said, "sometimes I come out of retirement status" to fill in for his former law partner as solicitor at borough meetings.

Residents were unmoved.

Some later launched a petition drive asking Borough Council to forbid Bryant and his relatives from doling out any more public money to their favorites.

"We have the right to ask for what we want in the borough," said Willa Coletrane, a Republican candidate for Borough Council who is part of a new anti-Bryant Republican upsurge. "Part of the problem is we sat back and said nothing for so long."

Words like that have rarely been uttered in Lawnside, a historic town noted as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Lawnside, population 2,700, is where Bryant's ancestors settled two centuries ago - a small town in the shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295, where the Bryant name and taxpayer money are deeply linked.

There's the Wayne R. Bryant Community Center, recently named for the senator after he secured a $1 million state grant for its expansion. There's the mayor, Mark Bryant (the senator's brother), who also is president of the nonprofit health-care provider CAMcare, which receives millions in state funding. Near the mansion that Sen. Bryant recently built is I. Rutledge Bryant Way, named after his father, who used to head the school board. Nearby is Spicer Place, paying respect to Sen. Bryant's wife, Cheryl Spicer, who also is the PATCO High-Speed Line assistant general manager.

Sen. Bryant's older brother, Isaac, who also lives in town, works at the state Department of Education. His son, Wayne Jr., was on the borough planning board and was a producer at state-owned NJN television network until his death last year. His grandfather, Horace Bryant, was the first black calendar clerk in the state Assembly; uncle Horace Bryant Jr. was the state commissioner of banking and insurance in the 1960s - the first black cabinet member.

Harris, for her part, denied that she was a Bryant family proxy.

"I'm nobody's puppet," she said. "Nobody tells me what to do."

She earned her bonus, she said, by doing three jobs. For a time, she said, she held a fourth Lawnside job: interim public safety director.

"What happens," said Harris, "is that whenever they need a manager over a department, they just appoint me. Someone has to be in charge. I got paid zero."

Harris said she knew some people in town resented her multiple jobs. Some critics call her "old iron britches."

"They call me iron britches because I stand by what I say. I don't make the laws. I just make sure they're carried out," said Harris.

She said the bonus - her fourth in the last few years - is supposed to encourage her to stay in her job until the town finds a replacement - or replacements - for her jobs.

Mayor Mark Bryant also defended her, saying that after Harris retires, each of her three jobs will have to be filled with new employees who each earn $60,000 to $90,000.

"The woman's been busting her butt," he said.

Lawnside has been both the beneficiary of Bryant's financial rainmaking and victim of his controlling influence. Many residents still speak glowingly of things he has done to help the town - money for schools, fire trucks, the community center, for example.

Clarence Still, 77, a historian and longtime Lawnside resident, said Bryant's brother may be mayor, but the senator ruled the town - until last week.

"It's no longer business as usual in the borough," said Still. "It will be the new people taking over. The senator's power is on the wane - no pun intended."


Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3844 or dott@phillynews.com.

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