Last-Minute Resolutions Almost Cost Taxpayers Over $40K

Thursday night’s Mayor & Council meeting had what some considered a play for power that almost cost taxpayers over $40,000 in the process.

It started with Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey saying, “I have an additional resolution I would like to add. I would like to make a resolution to assign to the borough clerk the additional duties of Chief Administrative Officer per borough ordinance with a salary increase of $25,000 per year per the salary ordinance effective January 1st, 2016.”

“Who?”, asked 3rd Ward Councilman Ryan Kelly in sincere confusion, “What is this? The Chief Administrative Officer?”

4th Ward Councilman Mohamed ‘Gino’ Elmarassy seconded the motion after, in plain sight, having been directed by Councilwoman Storey to do so.

“Wait a minute. Hold on here. One second,” Mayor Carl Hokanson interjected, clearly unaware that the resolution for the municipal officer was going to be introduced. He had a sidebar with Richard Huxford, the Borough Attorney, while Councilman Kelly continued.

“Is this something that we could discuss perhaps?”

“Well, it would be nice if it were discussed,” added the mayor with 5th Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley agreeing.

Councilwoman Storey shrugged her shoulders and stated, “I don’t know. It’s been moved and seconded. Where are we at Mr. Huxford?”

When the Borough Attorney asked the Borough Clerk – the person being recommended for the salary increase – if the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was appointed by the mayor, Councilwoman-At-Large Storey responded, “I can answer that.”

She went on to cite Borough Code 2-8.3(l), the Duties of the Municipal Clerk, where the clerk shall perform such other duties as are enjoined upon the Municipal Clerk by law and other such services as the Mayor and Council may require by resolution or otherwise. Mr. Huxford stated he believed that the CAO was an appointment by the mayor.

Something like this should have been discussed next week at a budget meeting instead of just throwing out $25,000.” – Carl Hokanson

The clearly frustrated mayor reiterated, “Something like this should have been discussed next week at a budget meeting instead of just throwing out $25,000.”

“I agree,” Councilman Shipley – who is the finance chair and was also unaware of the resolution – said, “I don’t see how you can make that decision at this point.”

“I don’t know,” replied the councilwoman, “It’s out there, and it’s been seconded. The question is what’s the legal movement?”

For almost a minute, after the attorney and the borough clerk reviewed the borough code book, Mr. Huxford stated, “Mayor, the language says Mayor and Council. I take that to mean it’s the mayor’s appointment with the council’s consent.”

After asking the borough attorney if any member of council can introduce a resolution and being told yes, Councilwoman Storey said, “It’s been introduced. It’s been seconded.”

Councilman Kelly asked the attorney what was his interpretation on moving forward and was told that a motion had been made and seconded but that the legal advice was that the position is to be appointed by the mayor. He remarked, “It’s up to council as to whether they can vote on it and if it’s deemed to be an illegal action because it’s a mayor appointment then the action by council would be void. If it’s deemed that the action by council is appropriate, then the action would stand.”

“So, we can call for a vote?”, asked the councilwoman.

“Can we wait until the next meeting… to get your advice?”, asked 2nd Ward Councilman Joseph Petrosky.

“You certainly can do that. You can table it. Sure,” answered Mr. Huxford.

“But we can also vote now and then, depending on what the result is, that will be the result,” stated the councilwoman, “I call for a vote.”

Mr. Huxford commented, “It’s up to the chair as to the next steps.”

“I say no,” replied the mayor. He then asked what is the legal standing and Mr. Huxford replied that the mayor does not vote unless there is a tie in the voting. With that, Mayor Hokanson said, “All right, take the vote.”

Councilwoman Storey voted ‘yes.’ Councilman Kelly, called, stated, “I can’t possibly justify the salary increase. I don’t even have anything in front of me. It’s the first time being discussed. No.”

Councilman Elmarassy voted ‘no.’ Councilman Eugene Meola and Councilman Joseph Petrosky both voted in approval with Councilman Shipley voting in the negative.

With the vote at a tie, Mayor Hokanson said before even being called on, “To break the tie, the answer is no.”

With that, the councilwoman looked over to Councilman Elmarassy in disbelief right before Councilman Meola continued with a second verbal resolution, saying, “Mayor I’d like to make a motion to appoint Russell J. Hegel as the Borough Municipal Court Prosecutor with an Assistant. Steven Merman, Esq. for the year 2016.”

“Second,” stated Councilwoman Storey.

[A]re we allowed to appoint Mr. Huegel based on the last bid that came in over the specified amount?”- Ryan Kelly

Councilman Kelly asked, “Borough Attorney, are we allowed to appoint Mr. Huegel based on the last bid that came in over the specified amount?”

It should be noted that Mr. Huxford also submitted a bid for the position of Municipal Prosecutor stating that he would include these duties as part of his fee as Borough Attorney, basically doing it for free. Mr. Huxford, stated that it was not a legal bid because it was above the threshold of $15,000 written into the Request For Proposal (RFP). When asked, the Borough Clerk stated that she would have had to look it up, claiming not to have known what was written into the RFP. The statement by the Borough Attorney regarding the $15,000 limit being in the RFP specifications was echoed by the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Ken Blum.

This prompted the First Ward Councilman to say, “That being as it may, at this time then I will withdraw this proposal.”

In review of the eight-minute incident, several issues arise. One is regarding the apparent lack of transparency to the public. The other is the reason for the last-minute verbal resolutions and the apparent urgency to vote on them without waiting to have them placed on any agenda for discussion. The third is whether actions taken by the councilwoman and others were even legal.

Councilwoman Storey was contacted on the incident and asked why the appointment of a CAO was brought up as a verbal resolution without notifying the mayor or other members of council.

“Well, there are a couple of reasons,” answered the councilwoman. Without really answering the question, she stated that the idea of a CAO has been discussed for some time and added that an ordinance allows for a council appointment. She said, “If a mayor dos not act on an appointment within 30 days, it falls then to council has the right to act on the appointment.”

It is important to note that Code 2-3 (Powers and Duties of the Mayor), the code that was cited by the councilwoman, contradicts her assertion since council only has that right when filling a vacancy of an unexpired term. The State of New Jersey defines a vacancy as when a person shall remove or be removed from office because his nomination or election thereto has been declared null and void (NJSA 19:3-25). The issue is that no one was ever appointed the Chief Administrative Officer nor does it have an expired term. The position was created a decade ago in 2006 and Doreen Cali, the Borough Clerk, was temporarily appointed to the position for six months while an official CAO was appointed. That appointment was never made and, thus, no vacancy ever occurred. The following relevant section of 2-3 is listed below:

Vacancies in appointive offices shall be filled by appointment in the same manner for the unexpired term only. The Mayor shall make such nomination to fill a vacancy within thirty (30) days after the appointive office becomes vacant. If the Mayor fails to nominate within thirty (30) days or the Council fails to confirm any nomination made by the Mayor, then, after the expiration of thirty (30) days, the Council shall appoint the officer.

When told during the interview that the code actually reads that council only has the right to appoint in order to fill a vacancy, she responded, “No, I don’t think so, but in any case, council can actually sets the agenda and council can add to it.”

The councilwoman stated that there has been talk of the need for a CAO for some time and that it is important that the governing body has somebody that can carry out policies set by council on a real-time basis. She added that as the municipality is getting closer to development on Westfield Avenue, she thought a CAO was needed. She added that council was not making an appointment, simply assigning the duties of the CAO to the Borough Clerk.

Councilwoman Storey then claimed, “The evening before the meeting, Mr. Shipley, Mr. Ryan [sic], and Mr. DeIorio approached another councilman and asked him about supporting Ken Blum for the [position] so it seemed to me that this was a time for us to move because it was obvious the other people were making their determinations . . . Nothing was happening and there obviously were different opinions on who should have this position and therefore it needed be gotten out in the open.”

I have no idea what Charlene Storey is talking about just as I had no idea what she was talking about when she tried to force feed a $25,000 salary increase down the throats of tax payers in Roselle Park,” responded Councilman Kelly when asked to comment on the councilwoman’s statement.”

The 3rd Ward Councilman went on to state that if the proposal had been on the agenda, communicated to the public, and properly evaluated prior to a vote, there would not be an issue.

“The issue is a lack of respect for procedure, transparency, and spending tax dollars,” he explained, “It’s disappointing that Charlene reduces herself to desperate accusations now that she is backed into a corner again. If she has an issue with colleagues on council speaking to each other prior to a meeting, she doesn’t understand government. It’s common for me to speak with fellow council persons, department heads, and borough officials before meetings.”

Councilman Meola stated, “Nobody has asked me to support Ken Blum.”

And the thought that Charlene is not in collusion with Doreen? She absolutely is…”- Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley

And Councilman Shipley “To use the word collusion in our case is completely and absolutely false. There is no excuse to do something as irresponsible and reprehensible as to bring up such a resolution without a new budget being done. It’s just one of the most insane things I’ve ever heard. And the thought that Charlene is not in collusion with Doreen? She absolutely is because how in the world give somebody a change of title and $25,000 pay raise as a surprise? Are you kidding me? What is it, like an early Christmas gift? That’s ludicrous.”

Asking the councilwoman to address the initial question as to why she did not notify the mayor of other members of council about the resolution as required in Section 6 of the municipal bylaws that reads ‘Resolutions offered shall be in writing, a copy of which shall be given to the Mayor and each Councilmember prior to its introduction’, she stated, “Well as you know that doesn’t always happen but, in future going forward, that is something that we will do.”

Stating that she preferred Doreen Cali over Ken Blum as the CAO, she added, “I think he’s an excellent CFO but I think that for the position of Chief Administrative Officer Ms. Cali is clearly the superior person. I think that she is clearly the best of the people who have been mentioned and she has my support.”

The appearance of collusion or a predetermined act regarding the resolutions was brought up when, after the councilwoman moved the CAO resolution, she could be seen looking at Councilman Elmarassy and directing him to second the motion while Councilman Kelly was asking questions. Councilwoman Storey said, “Clearly nothing was predetermined or it would have gone through. He seconds everything and apparently he’d forgotten. He’s the seconder, so to speak, informally.”

The mayor was not moving and there was obviously movement from other parties to gather support for somebody else so I felt that it was simply time to move” – Charlene Storey

She again alluded to Councilmen Kelly and Shipley by saying, “I don’t see where that’s collusion any more than inviting somebody to a meeting to somebody’s house and having other people show up and asking for support for Mr. Blum… The mayor was not moving and there was obviously movement from other parties to gather support for somebody else so I felt that it was simply time to move and if nothing else this has gotten the subject on the table.”

The councilwoman gave a comment that she felt it disingenuous and ridiculous when members of the governing body criticized the $25,000 salary but had to be told that the argument was not the salary but that taxpayer money was going to be allotted retroactively before a budget meeting or without any formal discussion. Her response to that was, “We could have approached this in a different way.”

The question was raised of how important the CAO appointment was that it had to be voted on that evening and not wait until a subsequent meeting as Councilman Petrosky had asked. The councilwoman remarked, “If anyone wanted to discuss it, they had an absolute right.”

She had to be reminded that she prohibited that by going against protocol and skipping over a motion to discuss and proceeding directly to call for a vote. Her response to that was, “Well, they made their decision and I really wanted to see this moving.”

When asked about her visible reaction to Councilman Elmarassy voting ‘no’ for the CAO, Councilwoman Storey commented, “I was very surprised and very annoyed to see this last-minute change so I was really taken aback.”

She added that no discussion had occurred before the meeting and she was simply referring to moments in the past when the 4th Ward Councilman, according to her, offered his unsolicited opinion that he supported Ms. Cali. The councilman was called on his council phone but the voicemail was full. A message was left on his personal cellphone but no call was returned.

The conversation then moved to the resolution to appointment of the prosecutor. The councilwoman remarked that there were a number of legal questions that arose including the fact that Mr. Huxford did not recuse himself when he was the other person seeking the position of municipal prosecutor and that, according to the councilwoman he made two bids by stating that he would charge a fee of $15000 or perform those duties at no charge and include them in his fee of $50,000 as the Borough Attorney. She explained, “I think that Mr. Huxford generally does a very good job in town ad the borough council but I think that extending it to the prosecutor is just not viable but that’s just my opinion.”

The borough still has no municipal prosecutor even though Mr. Huegel is still the acting prosecutor due to the fact that council voted to hold over any appointments until new ones were made. As far as resolving the issue permanently, the councilwoman stated, “Maybe we need to go back and do it one more time.”

The appearance of collusion was again proposed due to the fact that both verbal resolutions occurred one after another and that the Borough Clerk approached the 1st Ward Councilman before the meeting and gave him a copy of the unnumbered resolution to appoint the Municipal Prosecutor and Alternate. She then provided step-by-step instructions on how to move a resolution and all procedures associated with that.

Councilman Meola stated that he was under the impression that the matter had been settled.

The councilwoman, at first, speculated that the councilman had asked the clerk about how to move a resolution but was told that he did not initiate the conversation. Councilwoman Storey then said, “I was not in on that conversation and to the best of my knowledge there was no coordinated effort.”

[I]f no one directed her, why did the clerk present the resolution on her own without input from the governing body

A serious question was then asked about the Borough Clerk’s actions. If the Councilwoman-At-Large did not initiate the resolution nor did the mayor nor did any other council members, then how – and why – did the Borough Clerk take it upon herself to decide on an appointment, since there was a Request For Proposal (RFP) after the initial resolution was tabled and, presumably, no decision was made on which bid to accept. Furthermore, if no one directed her, why did the clerk present the resolution on her own without input from the governing body and then circumvented the mayor and directed an elected official on how to propose a resolution on an appointed office without consulting mayor or council.

Councilwoman’s answer to that question was, “I don’t know anything about [it] and I’m not going to speculate.”

Ms. Cali was reached for comment. When asked under whose direction on council did she present the resolution, her response was, “Who instructed me? It’s irrelevant. All I did was say [to Councilman Meola] ‘if you are going to move it, this is how you are going to do it.’

Stating that the Borough Clerk sets the agenda at the discretion of the governing body, Ms. Cali said that the resolution given to Councilman Meola was a sample and simply presented to him in case council chose to move it. She did not explain on the record why she only presented it to two councilmembers and not the mayor nor how she determined that the appointment would be given to Mr. Huegel nor why it was not included in the meeting’s agenda.

She reiterated that the Borough Clerk sets the agenda for the second time, but omitted that it is at the discretion of council, and commented, “Nobody has to direct me to put resolutions on an agenda. I don’t have to be directed.”

The only other comment on the record she gave was to say, “I’m not getting caught up in the middle of things.”

Trying to move the discussion back to the CAO, Councilwoman Storey revealed that she did not have a written resolution for the $25,000 appointment, having said that she typed it up for her own use and never formally put it into writing before it was introduced. This violated the first part of  Section 6 of the municipal bylaws that requires resolution be in writing prior to introduction. Councilwoman Storey replied that if that were the case regarding her resolution, “Then it could and should be dismissed.”

As the conversation drew to a close, the basic question of why the mayor was not notified of the resolution was again asked; in light of the fact that last year the mayor did speak with the councilwoman over his proposed name change from ‘Holiday Tree’ to ‘Christmas Tree’. That name change resulted in the Councilwoman-At-Large resigning, then rescinding her resignation.

“Well, looking back perhaps it could have been done a different way,” she answered, ” I mean, after all, certainly it’s true that nobody likes to feel sandbagged.”

The next meeting of Mayor & Council is a special meeting scheduled for Monday, February 8th at 6:30 p.m. in Borough Hall. Although it was called to discuss the Department of Public Works (DPW) Superintendent, residents will be able to speak on any matter during the public comment portion.