The city of Hoboken has been hit with at least five wrongful termination suits of employees who were terminated after Mayor Dawn Zimmer took office in 2009. One case involving a former city spokesman was recently settled, and in another case, an attorney for former City Hall construction code official Al Arezzo said that a judge recently sided in his client’s favor.
Zimmer declined to talk about the specific cases last week. But she said, “I don’t know that there [are] necessarily more lawsuits than previous administrations.”
Last month, the city settled a wrongful termination case with a former city spokesperson who was terminated in 2010. The city agreed to give Paul Drexel $23,500 and in return, the case was dismissed with prejudice.
Among other charges, Drexel complained that the day he was fired, someone posted his Social Security Number on the internet along with a “taunting message.”
According to the documents received after an OPRA request, Drexel’s suit alleged discrimination and made reference to the Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
The city’s other former spokesman, Bill Campbell, is still involved in a legal battle regarding his appeal of the city’s decision to lay him off. Mayor Dawn Zimmer has testified for hours in that case.
Campbell was hired during the previous mayoral administration and was let go by Zimmer’s administration during the fall of 2010.
“I think this is just an overt action by the administration to just get rid of anyone that disagrees with them.” – Councilman Michael Russo
After Zimmer was elected, she hired Juan Melli as the city’s public information officer.
When asked whether the city would investigate to find out if someone leaked an employee’s personal information on the internet, Melli said, “I don’t know. I really have no idea. You’re talking about a case that was settled, right?”
Arezzo’s attorney cites victory
Former official Al Arezzo has a long and sometimes controversial history with the city.
The state Attorney General’s Office and Department of Community Affairs in 2007 investigated Arezzo because he was apparently a partner in a company that owns a building on Newark Street, for which the police had been paying $3,000 per month to stable their horses.
The Attorney General’s office did not return a phone call for an update by press time.
Arezzo was also reportedly removed from oversight of the uptown Maxwell Place development in 2007 after it was learned that he had a contract to purchase a unit there, according to nj.com. At the time, Arezzo was heavily involved in a controversy in which he apparently thought a side entrance to an open lawn area at the development should be closed off.
None of these issues resulted in his termination, though.
In 2011, Arezzo was suspended and then later terminated for allegedly not completing required training courses for his job.
Arezzo maintained in the suit that all of the scheduled training sessions were during the times that the state mandated that Arezzo and other construction officials were required to be in their office to deal with permits.
Arezzo’s attorney, John Lacey of Connell Foley, LLP said last week that an administrative law judge recently found that the city’s decision was “overly severe” and instead reduced the penalty to a six-month suspension.
Lacey said the judge’s decision will now be reviewed by a Civil Service Commission, who will make the final decision.
The city has filed an exception to the decision to get it reversed, according to Lacey.
“We’re pretty confident that it will be upheld,” said Lacey.
Lacey said the decision to reinstate Arezzo is ultimately in the hands of the administration. He also said he believes the city tried to get rid of Arezzo for political reasons.
“We believe he should be reinstated,” said Lacey. “They have for political reasons tried to get rid of somebody who has been an employee for more than 30 years. He has no disciplinary history at all and yet they keep going after him.”
“We’re going to continue to fight because we believe that politics has no role in the building department,” said Lacey, “and they seem to want to play politics over and over.”
Zimmer declined to comment for this story.
Councilman Michael Russo, a vocal member of the minority typically opposed to the administration, said he feels there is a “pattern” of terminations due to political reasons.
“I think it’s a concerted effort by the administration to single out the individuals who do not support the mayor politically,” said Russo.
Russo cited examples such as Campbell.
“These are overt actions by this administration,” said Russo. “The directors who [allegedly] disagreed with the mayor were immediately let go. I think this is just an overt action by the administration to just get rid of anyone that disagrees with them.”
Another suit involves Former Public Safety Director Angel Alicea, who is represented by North Bergen-based attorney Louis Zayas. Zayas has represented numerous clients in cases against local cities and police departments.
According to the complaint, Alicea, a member of the Federal Task Force on Steroids, ordered a high ranking officer to conduct a steroid test of police officers as soon as possible. The complaint says that the police official claimed his staff was not trained in the software used for random drug tests.
The complaint states that from December 2010 to January 2011, Alicea complained to city officials about the lack of drug tests. Alicea then conducted his own investigation by obtaining records from Hoboken’s insurance company, and found that four police officers had been given prescriptions for human growth hormone (HGH), which is commonly used to balance the effects of steroids, according to the compliant. The HGH prescriptions cost the city $66,000, the complaint states.
The complaint alleges that Zimmer told Alicea in April to either resign or be terminated. Alicea did, in fact, resign.
However, while Alicea’s suit implies a link between his request for the tests and the firing, there was another matter going on in the city at that time.
Around that time, the news had broken that Alicea, in his capacity as a City Council candidate in Hoboken, had been among candidates who had met with an undercover FBI informant who was trying to get candidates to accept bribes as part of an FBI sting operation. Alicea was not implicated in any wrongdoing.
On April 8, Zimmer announced that Alicea had resigned because he had not disclosed to her that he had met with the informant in 2009.
The case was “Operation Bid Rig,” which brought down former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano.
It was Cammarano who first appointed Alicea to the public safety position after taking office, and Zimmer kept Alicea on for a period after Cammarano had to resign and Zimmer took over.
Alicea’s suit also alleges racial discrimination, noting that the current public safety director, a white male, makes $110,000, while Alicea, a Hispanic male, earned $27,500.
The curious case of Jennifer Maier
Zayas also represents former Environmental Services Director Jennifer Maier, who is claiming in a recently-filed suit that she was wrongfully terminated after a conversation she had during a dinner with Alicea.
Maier, who was hired by the Zimmer administration in 2010, had been working for the township of Plainfield when Zimmer hired her. She is a resident of Rahway, where she had previously served on the council.
The suit also names another defendant in the complaint, a Hoboken resident and businessman who was apparently in attendance at the dinner. The complaint alleges that Zimmer sent the resident to the dinner to relay Alicea’s comments back to her.
The complaint says that during the dinner, Alicea discussed with Maier his feeling that he had been forced to resign from his office because of his repeated complaints of alleged illegal activities by the city.
The complaint alleges that following the dinner, Maier started to “have responsibilities removed by Zimmer.”
Zayas did not return phone calls for comment.
Zayas has been involved in other lawsuits in this area including: A suit on behalf of a Hoboken Parking Utility employee alleging employer sexual harassment; a case involving five police officers and SWAT team members who sued the Hoboken Police Department for alleged racial discrimination; a suit that former campaign contributors filed against former Mayor Peter Cammarano; and a suit involving former 4th Ward Councilman Chris Campos against Hoboken and New York City police officers regarding a DUI charge. Zayas has also represented clients in suits against Jersey City, Weehawken, and Union City.
Numerous city officials both allied with and opposed to the current administration declined to comment on the lawsuits.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.