The City Council was left Wednesday night in the uncomfortable position of trying to figure out what to do about 45 employees who have been ordered by a Hudson County Superior Court Judge to return $355,228 in “improper” bonuses they received last August.
To appeal or not to appeal was the question, and after more than two hours of bickering, finger-pointing, and motives-questioning, the council chose to ignore the advice of its legal team and allow the judge’s ruling to stand. The vote was 4-2.
City Council people Nellie Moyeno and Richard Del Boccio did not vote on the measure since they were two of the 45 people in question. Councilman Michael Cricco was absent.
As a result of the vote, the employees will have to return the one-time bonuses unless they choose to hire private attorneys to press their case in the state’s appeals court.
City Councilman David Roberts introduced measures deciding not to appeal the judge’s ruling. Ever since the payments were originally authorized by the council on August 16, Roberts has argued that they were an unwarranted raid on the city’s treasury.
Several high-ranking city officials received the longevity amounts. Mayor Anthony Russo will have to return $42,831; Moyeno, $3,350; Del Boccio, $8,548; and City Clerk James Farina, $26,406. Zoning Officer Joel Mestre and Health Officer Frank Sasso will have to give back $7,294 and $9,711 respectively.
The bonuses were paid out after the City Council underwent months of oft-heated debate about how to compensate employees who worked in other public sector jobs prior to joining the city’s workforce.
Since the 1970s, the city has been adding “longevity” bonuses to some workers base pay to reward them for time served with other government agencies like the county.
But exactly who was eligible for these payments was never explicitly spelled out. While the issue has simmered under the surface of public life for years, it burst into the headlines last February when City Councilman Tony Soares discovered that Business Administrator George Crimmins received a $21,000 bonus in one pay period due to a longevity miscalculation.
Soares, long a foe of Crimmins and Mayor Anthony Russo, immediately asked the council to develop a standardized way to dispense the funds and to find out if other employees were due them. In the following six months, 86 city employees who felt their longevity might also have been miscalculated came forward.
An ex-judge, Herman Michels, was hired by the city to review the city ordinance and develop a standard whereby payments could be made. Then an attorney, Thomas Portelli, was hired to review the 86 employees’ claims by number, not name, to figure out who met the criteria established by Michels. Finally, those names were forwarded to the council on August 16.
But despite the efforts of the council to be fair and open, questions lingered about whether any longevity payments should be made at all and whether or not every city employee was aware that there was an opportunity to apply for a recalculation.
Roberts urged the council not to approve the list. But in a strange twist, he was told by City Council Attorney Bob Murray that he should not vote on the measure since he had been a fireman prior to joining the council and therefore was entitled to $3,462 in longevity pay he had never collected. At the time, Roberts shook his head in disbelief that Murray, who was a beneficiary of a recalculated longevity bonus before the issue came up last year, would advise him that way. By the time it came time to vote, only three members of the council who were present were able to vote, and two of them abstained. That left Councilwoman Teresa Castellano, the mayor’s cousin, as the lone vote. The measure passed 1-0.
But the victory was short-lived. Helen Hirsch, a resident and taxpayer so intent on keeping on top of city business that she often attends the one-hour caucus meetings that precede regular council meetings, filed suit to overturn the payments.
On Friday, Feb. 6, Judge Arthur D’Italia ruled in favor of Hirsch and against the city in a summary judgement. The judge said that his decision was based, in part, on his interpretation of the original longevity ordinance, which he claimed never should have been used to approve longevity payments to employees who worked outside the city.
From the moment the caucus began Wednesday, Roberts began to build his case against an appeal of the judge’s ruling. He presented the council with a four-part resolution that sought to silence Murray from participating in the debate over what to do about the payments, among other things.
“We all feel you have less-than-clear objectivity,” Roberts said to Murray in one of many highly-charged back-and-forths about the subject. Murray, like Crimmins, had received a recalculation of his longevity before the issue was brought up publicly. That payment was not among those that the judge asked the city to recoup. And it appears that the statute of limitations on challenging it may have already passed.
Still, Roberts clearly felt that the fact that Murray has received a longevity payment for his work as an engineering professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology may influence his judgement on the matter. “Part of the conflict is that you are making a judgement based on your own feelings,” he said. “Your constantly including yourself in this is inappropriate.”
Murray, a white-haired lawyer who talks in the soothing tones of one who has had to explain very complicated legal arrangements to laymen for years, objected strenuously to Roberts’ characterization of him.
“This has nothing to do with anyone other than the 45 employees,” he said. “If it did, we would have recused ourselves.”
The attorney pointed out that he was the one who had suggested bringing in Michels and Portelli to review the cases to ensure that the choices about whom to pay and whom not to were made independently.
Like a lawyer in a John Grisham courtroom drama, Murray argued passionately for an appeal. Later, when some members of the council said they did not want to spend more taxpayer money to appeal the case, Murray said that he would try the case pro bono. He even went so far as to say that he would represent the employees pro bono in a private suit if they wished to pursue it.
Fair to workers?
“There is something unfair for this group of employees,” Murray said, after pointing out that many of the employees who had filed for the recalculation were everyday workers who were not very high up the pay scale. “What is unfair is that they will never have their day in court… This is a question of fairness. That’s what motivates me as an attorney. Its time that the little guy and the little woman got their fair day in court.”
Murray’s passion and eloquence was met head on by Michael Lenz, a former school board president and an advisor to David Roberts in Roberts’ upcoming mayoral campaign. Standing at the front of the room during the public comment portion of the meeting that preceded the vote, Lenz wondered why Murray was allowed to serve as the principal counterpoint to Roberts during the debate.
“One of the things that Mr. Murray has been dissertating about is whether or not he has a right to dissertate at all,” Lenz said in his booming voice. “We have the appearance of a conflict here. All night he has been interrupting council people – asking for two more minutes, getting his words in.”
“To me the reason the appeal is wrong is this,” Lenz continued. “The city would not be pursuing the city’s interests. The city has no obligation to pay anyone. If someone wants [the payments] they should hire Mr. Murray.”
Once Lenz was finished, Murray relented.
“Clearly we are being placed as an issue here,” he said. “In fairness to those employees we will recuse ourselves.”
With that, Murray stepped down from the dais where the council sits.
When it came time to vote, the room was nearly dead silent as City Councilwoman Roseanne Andreula weighed her choices. Andreula frequently sides with the administration on contentious matters but she has developed a reputation as something of a maverick. And Wednesday night, she appeared to be swayed by the arguments of Roberts and his allies. Finally, she said that though her sympathies were with those workers who could really use the money, “the taxpayers have suffered enough.” She voted against an appeal.
Councilman Steve Hudock said that he supported the appeal because he did not support the idea “of taking someone’s right to appeal away.” But he noted that he hoped that the money will ultimately be returned to the taxpayers.
After the vote, the meeting moved along to a number of less contentious issues, but the controversy and the emotions that swirl around it were still present – as was the specter of the upcoming election.
Just before everyone left for the evening, Robert Crespo, a school board member and aide to the mayor, went to the microphone. He told the council that he thought it was “ironic” that Lenz, who had had some ugly back and forth exchanges with a then-superintendent of schools when Lenz was school board president, would question Murray’s credibility on an issue. Crespo brought up accusations that had been made against Lenz by the superintendent when Lenz was school board president. Those accusations, made in 1993, were not concerned with potential conflicts of interest. The superintendent had charged that Lenz had tried to threaten him into making certain personnel decisions.
Just as he finished speaking, Councilman Richard Del Boccio closed the meeting, which had already stretched almost an hour longer than most of them do.
But as the council people were leaving, Lenz rushed up to the microphone. “Mr. Del Boccio, I’d like the opportunity to respond to that personal attack,” he said three times, while Del Boccio looked at him with a look that said, “What can I do about it?”
In a booming voice that could probably have been heard by Marine View Plaza residents if they were on their terraces, Lenz said, “I was investigated for two years and exonerated fully. If all you have, Mr. Crespo, is false charges, then you should repeat them loudly and clearly so that I can sue you for libel!”
$54.8M budget passes easily; opposition mum
There is very little that seems unworthy of comment these days at a City Council meeting. Last Wednesday night, for example, the council spent 15 minutes talking with a resident about what could be done about restaurants that insist on dropping their menus in front of residents’ doors even if signs posted next to those doors explicitly tell them not to.
That’s why it seemed odd that the city’s $54.8 million budget was passed with nary a peep from anyone. The budget, which sets spending projections for city services and allocates monies to pay municipal workers, sailed straight through as if it were the most ordinary piece of legislation in the city.
Councilmen Dave Roberts, Tony Soares and Ruben Ramos voted against its adoption. In the last year they have argued passionately against what they see as some of the current administration’s excesses. But they offered the public no explanation for their votes Wednesday, nor did they have any suggestions for what to cut or how the spending plan could be improved.
After the meeting, Mayor Anthony Russo said that he thought the lack of debate showed the broadbased support for the budget his team had put together. Each city budget since 1995 has either stabilized or decreased taxes. “I don’t see why my budget would not pass,” he said. “We have decreased or stabilized taxes in every one of those years.”
The $17,000 city mailer
When he opened his mailbox at home last weekend, it was d