ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Alturrick Kenney is 37 days into a five-year term as the Essex County surrogate, and has hit the ground running at the Essex County Hall of Records. Winning the elected position with 80 percent of the vote in November, Kenney heads the county court division that probates wills, adoption papers, trust funds, guardians and conservators.
Kenney campaigned for the post after former county Surrogate Theodore Stephens II left the position in September to serve as acting Essex County prosecutor. Stephens was elected as surrogate in 2011 and re-elected in 2016. Although Stephens was only approximately two years into his second term when he left, Kenney will serve a full five-year term.
In a phone interview on Jan. 31, Kenney discussed road that took him to the county seat in Newark and the job of surrogate.
“For me it became personal when I became a parent in 2014,” Kenney, who has a daughter and a son, said. “Family is important not only for me but for everyone. It’s important to plan for your family and I realized that whatever I earn should be passed down to them and what they earn should be passed to their kids.”
Kenney said he came from a family in which wills were not always properly assessed, so family members would argue about inheritances and assets. To avoid that, he went into public service.
Born and raised in Newark, Kenney only left the area for a short time to go to college at Howard University after a year at Bloomfield College. One misconception that many people have about being a surrogate, Kenney said, is that a law degree is required. That’s not the case.
“You do have to have experience managing people and be able to work with unions,” Kenney said. “You have to have an understanding about how to manage a staff and are able to give them the resources and assistance they need. Being exposed to the community and a record of public service helps.”
Kenney checks off each box on that list. He worked as a public employee in youth development under former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and was a project manager for low income housing developments in the city. He served as a political director in Trenton for several years before returning to Newark to work in court operations. None of those jobs required him to have a law degree.
Many people don’t realize the surrogate position requires campaigning, just like the posts of mayor and city council member. But it’s there on the ballot every five years in November, giving county residents the opportunity to elect who they want. This is rooted in 309 years of New Jersey history. According to the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey, the surrogate takes the place of the governor. In 1710 the governor was given the authority to probate wills and issue marriage licenses by the Archbishop of London. That system remained in place for 134 years until 1844, when the surrogate was recognized as a separate office in the New Jersey Constitution.
“Another misconception is how it’s set up,” Kenney said. “I don’t work for the county executive — I work with him. We actually work with the county judiciary and work together with the administration.”
Though the position is different from most other elected positions, Kenney said running a campaign for surrogate is similar to running any other campaign. He has experience at this, having served on the Newark Board of Education and unsuccessfully running for Newark City Council in 2014.
“You have to have a vision of what you want to do and accomplish,” Kenney said. “You have to talk to folks who have a vested interest in it and you have to have the public trust. People will hold you accountable for what you say. There’s a lot of people in different corners of the county you need to reach.”
Now that Kenney has reached those corners, he’s focusing on the vision he wants to implement. Updating the department’s technology is a priority, and making the office accessible to a larger community is taking center stage at the moment. He and his staff visit towns throughout the county for outreach meetings.
“We had one in Newark that had about 200 or 300 people there, and we’re going to be going to East Orange and Orange,” Kenney said. “We’ve also reached out to the mayor of Bloomfield. We’ll also be going to housing complexes, especially the ones where a lot of senior citizens live, to talk about estate planning. We want to make sure that we can be attentive to everyone.”
There are approximately 15 people working under Kenney in the Surrogate’s Office in Newark. Recently a bilingual staff member was hired to fill the need for reaching people who might not speak English, and the surrogate is looking into hiring an attorney who specializes in wills. Kenney said he expects the office to grow to about 16 or 17 people.
“We have amazing people working here,” he said. “There are people who are here at seven in the morning and there are people who are here until nine at night. We’re able to do more than what people are aware of. I inherited a great staff. We want to make sure that your family is taken care of whether you’re a new parent or a senior citizen. People need to have access to that information.”
To contact the Essex County Surrogate’s Office, visit www.essexsurrogate.com, call 973-621-4900 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.