Pettiford and Makle Assert Council Violated Public Meeting Law By Sequestering Them During Overtime Hearings
Thursday, August 9, 2012 • 4:11pm
PATERSON, NJ – Charles Pettiford and Lanisha Makle are contending that the City Council violated New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act by excluding them from last year’s hearings on the flood overtime.
In separate but similar lawsuits, the two appointees of Mayor Jeffrey Jones assert that the council should not have required them and other witnesses in the hearings on the overtime scandal from leaving the meeting room while other people were being questioned. To require them to leave the room, Pettiford and Makle assert, violated the law.
Council members at teh time said they wanted to sequester the witnesses so their testimony would not be affected by what other people said during the inquiry.
Both lawsuits also argue that the City Council violated the targeted employees’ due process rights by not giving them sufficient notice on the proceedings and violated the “separation of powers” stipulated under state law by dealing directly with the officials instead of through the mayor.
Pettiford, Jones’ confidential aide, was terminated from his $90,000 job by the council, while Makle, the Community Development director, was given a 90-day suspension for her $78,000 position.
Makle’s case includes one assertion that Pettiford does not make. Her lawsuit says Councilman Kenneth Morris should have recused himself from her hearing and not voted on her discipline because it says there’s an “irreconcilable conflict” between the two of them. The lawsuit says the conflict stems from the fact that Makle has responsibility for redevelopment work involving Morris’ employer, which is St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center. The complaint says that without Morris’ participation the council would have lacked the six votes needed to suspend her.
The two lawsuits, both filed by attorney Philip George of Warren, call the council’s inquiry a “witch hunt” that had no concern for the employees’ rights.
The legal papers filed by Pettiford and Makle say, “In an effort to attribute blame to someone for the inadvertent payment of overtime to some officials who were not entitled to that payment for work performed for the City during the emergency, the Municipal Council resorted to proceedings which, while ostensibly professing to be concerned with procedure, in fact violated fundamental guarantees which are even embodied in Paterson’s own ordinances.”
Meanwhile, time is running out on Jones’ opportunity to appeal a Superior Court judge’s ruling that found the City Council had the authority to punish the workers. Jones has said he is waiting for approval from the state to expend the extra money needed to pay lawyers to appeal the decision. In the meantime, the initial 45-deadline for filing an appeal has passed and a possible 30-day extension of that deadline would expire at the end of this month, according to lawyers in the case.
The state Department of Community Affairs declined to comment on when and if it would approve Jones’ request. That same agency has issued a report calling the overtime paid to Pettiford, Makle, Jones and other administrators inappropriate.
Council members have expressed outrage at the lawsuits filed by Pettiford and Makle, saying the officials were wasting taxpayers' money.
During the overtime proceedings, the mayor and lawyers for some of his Cabinet members had charged that the city council was not giving officials sufficient notice of the proceedings. As a result, the council seemed to take extra pains to ensure the accused received notice before the punishments were meted out.
In fact, an employee in the City Clerk’s office testified in June that she twice attempted to deliver by hand notices to Pettiford at his City Hall office. But, she had testified, he would not take them.
Now Pettiford is citing the lack of notice as one of the grounds for his lawsuit.