News Update: Mayor Jones Considering Lawsuit Over City Council Action on Overtime Repayment
Wednesday, October 24, 2012 • 7:21am
PATERSON, NJ – In the latest salvo in Paterson’s overtime battles, Mayor Jeffrey Jones on Wednesday said he was weighing taking the City Council to court over its decision to try to force repayment by municipal managers.
Jones criticized the council for approving the overtime reimbursement resolution on Tuesday night despite the city law department’s advice that the measure may not be legal.
“It could be cheaper for us all to go to court, spend a few hundred dollars and let a judge tell us they can’t do it or they can do it,’’ said Jones.
The mayor argued that the council’s vote violated the state law establishing the powers of various branches of municipal government and put the city in jeopardy of being sued by the officials from whom the council is trying to recoup the overtime money.
“This could have us all looking like a laughing stock,’’ Jones said of the council’s action. “Somebody has got to preserve the sanctity of the city.’’
Councilman Kenneth Morris, who spearheaded the effort to force the repayment, said he expected Jones to take the issue to court. “It makes it real easy to litigate when the money isn’t coming out of your pocket,’’ Morris said. “It’s real easy when the taxpayers are picking up the bill.’’
Morris added: “We could end up spending more money on the litigation than what the payments would cost.’’
At stake is more than $28,000 in overtime that top-ranking city officials received over the past two years, which has been deemed improper by both the state and the city council.
The resolution directs Business Administrator Charles Thomas, who is among the officials who must make repayment, to provide the council with a report of all overtime paid to city managers since July 1, 2010. It then says the city will begin deducting money from the managers’ next paychecks based on payment schedules established on a case-by-case basis.
But a lot could happen between now and when those deductions begin.
Dawn Blakely-Harper, an assistant counsel in the city’s law department, told the council Tuesday night that Paterson’s staff attorneys had “questions regarding the authority of the council” to make such action.
“Because we have these concerns, it is the Corporation Counsel’s position not to sign this resolution,’’ said Blakely-Harper. Normally, a member of the city’s legal department signs all resolutions and ordinances attesting to their legality.
Blakely-Harper did not say exactly what the legal concerns were. But in recent public discussions, some officials questioned whether the council had the power to garnish pay without obtaining a court order.
Council members Anthony Davis, Kenneth Morris, Rigo Rodriguez and Andre Sayegh voted in favor of the resolution. Ruby Cotton voted against it, while Kenneth McDaniel recused himself because of questions over its legality. Julio Tavzrez left the meeting prior to the vote, while William McKoy was sick and could not attend, officials said.
“Law by its very nature is interpretative,’’ said Morris, discounting the legal questions about the resolution. Morris has spearheaded the efforts to recoup the overtime. “What this says is that payments were made to certain individuals that should not have been made.’’
“This is public money you’re dealing with, ’’ said Rodriguez. “It’s not yours, so give it back.’’
Tuesday night’s vote represented the latest skirmish in an overtime battle between the council and Mayor Jeffrey Jones’ administration that has stretched on for more than a year. Jones and his Cabinet members already have repaid the overtime they received stemming from last year’s historic floods.
But the state and city council also have called for Jones’ staff to repay non-flood-related overtime that they received. In fact, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs said it would reduce Paterson’s Transition Aid allotment, which was $21 million last year, by the amount of unpaid overtime. Despite the possibility of losing the state funding, Jones has refused to require his managers to make repayment, saying that it wasn’t fair because officials in previous administrations had gotten overtime.
City records show only public works directors in the past had gotten overtime. Other managers received comp time, or extra off-days.
Exactly how much overtime is at stake is unclear. A state report issued last December identified about $28,000 in non-flood overtime that city managers had gotten between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011: $7,440 to Thomas, $11,549 to then-personnel director Betty Taylor, $7,786 to Public Works Director Christopher Coke, and $1,572 to Health and Human Services Director Donna Nelson-Ivy.
The report also identified more than $55,000 in improper overtime – most of it involving the flood - paid to city managers between July 1, 2011 and December 15, 2011. That figure included several thousand dollars in non-flood overtime paid to Thomas, Taylor and perhaps others.
Moreover, the state report also said Budget Director Russell Forenza had been getting improper overtime for two decades, but it did not quantify the amount or mandate its repayment. Morris has said Forenza could be among those the council seeks to recoup payment from, but that the reimbursement would only cover the time period back to July 2010.
Under the resolution, city managers would be allowed to establish payment plans. But the reimbursements would have to be completed within two years. In recent weeks, Thomas has begun making repayment, officials said. None of the other managers have.
Several council members said they should never have had to adopt a resolution mandating repayment, they asserted that the managers should have done so on their own and that Jones should have mandated that.
“It saddens me that we continue to have this black cloud over us,’’ said Davis.
Sayegh said there had been too much stalling by the administration, especially because much-needed transition aid was at stake. “This is a sad chapter,’’ in Paterson’s history, Sayegh said. “Let’s get it behind us.’’
Cotton indicated she thought it would have been reasonable to discontinue the future overtime payments without requiring repayment of the money the managers already received. “I feel the administration downstairs, he should do what he needs to do with this,’’ said Cotton.
McDaniel said he consulted with several attorneys about the council’s authority to recoup the money. “No one seems to be clear on this,’’ he said. “I’m a little concerned with taking such action.’’