Mayor Dan Rodrick, a Democrat-turned-Republican who swept last November’s mayoral election in Toms River, has hired two longtime political operatives from his former party, as well as the owner of a sometimes-controversial local news website, to jobs at town hall without the openings ever having been posted publicly or conducting open interviews.
Shorebeat confirmed two of the three hirings with Rodrick, who said his restructuring of personnel would save taxpayer dollars, and the third via a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act. All of the salary and benefits information on the three job-holders were confirmed by Shorebeat using official documents requested under the open records law.
While the hiring of the two Democratic political luminaries, Jon Salonis and Mitch Seim, as well as conservative website owner Phil Stilton, are legal under the mayor’s ability to make appointments to certain positions, their appointments have raised eyebrows due to the lack of public job announcements or interviews having been conducted for significant positions within municipal government. It became known that members of the public sought to address the issues at a remotely-held township council meeting Wednesday, however the meeting closed after descending into chaos.
Salonis and Seim have both owned and operated political consulting firms, though Salonis has been less active in partisan politics in recent years since having taken a job in Carteret after a stint working for Brick Township under Democrat administrations in both of those towns. Seim’s firm, Clear Edge Political Consulting, was active as recently as the November 2023 election cycle, when he helped manage the successful campaign of a slate of Democratic mayoral and council candidates in Brick.
Rodrick first came to office in Toms River having been elected as part of a slate of three Democrats on the township council, but later changed his party affiliation and became a Republican. His frequent sparring with establishment Republicans led to a split in the party, ultimately leading to a battle between the factions that pit Rodrick against incumbent GOP mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill in last year’s primary election. Rodrick won the primary, and went on to win the general election against former school board president Ben Giovine, who stepped in to represent the Democrats late in the campaign.
“It’s recognized that a new administration brings in his own team, just like a new president or governor brings in his own team,” Rodrick said when asked about the hirings. “Those positions, by statute, are non-bargaining positions that end with the term of the mayor.”
According to township records, Salonis was hired as Director of Recreation for a salary of $105,000 annually. He waived a township benefits package in favor of a $5,000 opt-out payment.
On Wednesday, the council tabled an ordinance that would bring the Parks and Building and Grounds divisions under the Recreation Department and, ultimate Salonis’ purview.
“While at one time Mr. Salonis was political, he has not been – he was serving as a deputy clerk for Middlesex County and before that he served with the Carteret mayor,” said Rodrick. “He has a lot of government experience.”
Salonis, however, has also been the source of controversy. He once ran a website known as “Jersey Shore Insider” that mixed legitimate news stories with pro-Democrat content, and was sued by a fellow Democrat in Brick after reporting what she said at the time was an inaccurate story about her appointment to a board there. It is unknown how that case was disposed of. Salonis has also been accused by Republicans of designing “push polls,” which are political advertisement that masquerade as legitimate polling calls. These calls normally present a candidate in a negative light, and ask if the person would support that candidate.
Salonis, at one point, served a stint working in the Recreation Department there in the early days of Mayor John Ducey’s tenure.
Seim, an ally of Rodrick when he was a Democrat, has run Clear Edge Political Consulting since 2010. Prior to starting the company, he worked for Kleinhendler for Congress, the Atlantic County Democratic Committee and was a field organizer for the late Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler. It is not clear if he is still running Clear Edge while working for the township.
Seim was hired within the Department of Finance on Jan. 10, 2024, the documents showed, at a salary of $92,500 and a benefits package worth $38,397, of which taxpayers will fund $28,717.
At the time of Shorebeat’s interview with Rodrick, it was not yet known that Seim was hired at a position at town hall. But asked why a candidate who campaigned as a conservative Republican would hire a well-known Democratic operative, Rodrick said he based his decisions on merit.
“Jon Salonis was not running my campaign, he was not chosen for his politics – he was chosen for his ability, he is a brilliant guy,” Rodrick said. “He was specifically chosen for his ability and his intelligence. I need people in town hall I can trust to help me get the agenda that the people want. At the end of the day, that’s what the people want.”
Rodrick said Salonis has already been doing a good job for the township, planning new kayak racks in Ortley Beach and arranging jet-ski ports to be installed at Huddy Park.
“He’s a smart guy, and I need to surround myself with smart people,” the mayor said.
To members of the public, the most visible hire was that of Phil Stilton, the publisher of the Shore News Network website that has been the source of its own rounds of controversy over the years. He has been accused of targeting political enemies in his stories, and allowing political advertising to guide content, though he has always denied such allegations while acknowledging in an interview with Patch.com that his website is a forum for “community activism” as well as general news.
Stilton, unlike Salonis and Seim, is known as being politically conservative, though his site has drawn controversy for mixing editorial-style content with more routine news items. In recent years, his site has covered fewer local news stories, instead focusing its content on national issues that are popular with conservative readers. Stilton has also been sued over content on his website, including former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rik Mehta, though Mehta later dropped the suit.
Rodrick said he believed Stilton had divested himself of Shore News Network, but was unsure. According to state tax records, Stilton remains the owner of the limited liability company that controls the site. In 2023, the address of the website was moved to a location in East Rutherford, however the address is linked to a mail forwarding company that offers commercial enterprises physical addresses for a fee.
Stilton was hired as an assistant within the Administration Department, where he will serve as public information officer for both the township and police department. The police department’s spokeswoman, Jillian Messina, was laid off last week. Stilton’s salary was set at $89,999 with a benefits package worth $38,397, of which taxpayers will fund $27,961.
The public information officer position in Toms River had, ironically, been the focus of criticism by Rodrick himself previously. Former Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill hired his campaign manager – Art Gallagher, another political website operator – to the same position without public announcements or open interviews. Rodrick criticized the appointment at the time.
Rodrick said he needed a public information officer starting on “day one,” and could not continue to employ his former opponent’s campaign manager as his spokesperson.
“He’s a smart guy, and I need to surround myself with smart people,” Rodrick said of Stilton. “Phil Stilton built himself from the ground up. He built it completely by himself. He’s a brilliant guy who understands the media, and I needed a press secretary.”
Rodrick said he reached out to several reporters and editors who have covered Toms River news – including this reporter – about the position. This reporter did, indeed, receive a call from Rodrick in December, however professional and family obligations out-of-state prevented the two from speaking until after the new year.
“I wanted somebody who was actually from the media to be my press person, and I think people will be very happy with him,” said Rodrick, adding that we “basically got Phil for free” since the township shed the salary of a dedicated police spokesperson and will end a controversial contract with a Monmouth County public relations firm that had been established by Hill. Rodrick said the cost of publishing a town newsletter will be dramatically reduced as well.
“By cutting expenses, I’ve already paid for Phil in advance,” Rodrick said.
While those selected may be controversial to some, Rodrick said his hires are talented and were all brought into town hall meritoriously. He said his interim business administrator, Scott Tirella, was someone he met recently, and that he promoted an existing employee to the position of township engineer instead of choosing a political patron or party-connected engineering firm.
“Most of the people that I brought in are not people I know, they are people I met along the way who are talented,” Rodrick said. “I have to have a team of people who are not only capable, but people I can trust.”