Some members of the Hoboken City Council complained at Wednesday night’s meeting about a $5,000-per-month outside employee who is being paid to run the city’s “hurricane resource center” and is not being reimbursed by FEMA.
Members of the council who are opposed to Mayor Dawn Zimmer said they felt an existing city employee would have been capable of helping residents with their hurricane paperwork and issues, rather than hiring someone from outside. They said that Business Administrator Quentin Wiest had mentioned in the past that the city would be reimbursed by FEMA for the employee’s wages, but Wiest said that this was now unlikely.
Corporation counsel Mellissa Longo strongly advised council members speaking about personnel matters to give a Rice notice to the employee. A Rice notice is given to employees before terms of their employment are discussed at a public meeting, so they can request a public hearing if they desire.
Also at the meeting, council members debated increasing the amounts in contracts for city lawyers. The council considered a resolution to raise the cap for a contract for special legal counsel Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader from $35,000 to $55,000.
The four-member anti-Zimmer faction of the council has taken issue with the quantity of outside law firms used on top of the in-house counsel for the city of Hoboken.
Ask without asking
The hurricane issue came to light when council members noticed a line item for the hurricane resource center employee’s wages in the claims report at the start of the council meeting.
Councilwoman Theresa Castellano was the first to inquire about the employee to Wiest, who explained the employee leading the city’s hurricane resource center is receiving $5,000 per month on an impermanent basis.
Councilman Timothy Occhipinti asked Wiest if the city will be reimbursed through FEMA for the employee’s wages, as was formerly communicated. Weist said, “The resource center is for private residents. There is a distinction there that may limit our eligibility to recoup the costs. What we’re eligible for is the city’s direct cost of storm management not private citizens.”
Councilman Michael Russo tried to inquire as to why an already existing employee in the Office of Emergency Management did not take over the role instead.
“Whose decision was it not to use original employees,” asked Russo. “Are we at a point in staffing within the city where we are lacking?”
“We just keep throwing a lot of money to outside labor counsels.” – Timothy Occhipinti
Russo, limited to what he could ask, reworded his questioning to the general skillset.
“I’m asking what the skills are,” said Russo. “Not of the particular employee. It’s like me asking you what are the skills required for a mechanic.”
Wiest explained that the job required prior disaster recovery experience “beyond the norm” and that this level of intensity was beyond what the city could provide.
Longo further advised the council to Rice notice the employee in question if council members needed to ask questions.
Council members also asked Wiest about transportation reimbursements for city employees.
“I am asking what the employee policy is for paying transportation,” said Councilwoman Beth Mason. “Who gets it and who doesn’t?”
The issue came up because of a $10 transit reimbursement item that appeared on the claims report.
“I don’t know why we’re just assuming this is a commute expense,” said Councilman David Mello.
Wiest said he will get the policy together for the council at a later meeting.
Municipal contracts move forward
Then, the council discussed the Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader contract. The amendment would increase the amount of the contract from $35,000 to $55,000. Legal contract amounts have only been approved for first quarter of the year so far, said Longo. The remainder of the year’s dollar amount has to be amended after the adoption of the final budget. Longo said she is well within the budget with this contract.
Florio, Perucci, Steinhardt & Fader will be continuing the work on the contracts for “non uniform” workers and municipal employees. These contracts have not been updated since 2008.
“We had no problem a year and a half ago going internal on this with police and fire contracts,” said Occhipinti. “We completed police and fire in-house. How are we so far off? We just keep throwing a lot of money to outside labor counsels.”
Longo challenged that these contracts were no small task and did not just include raises. Longo also said the counsel was not in-house last year when this was done and said that Occhipinti was wrong “as usual.”
An argument ensued over whether or not the counsel was considered in-house or outside counsel at the point when police and fire contracts were done last year.
“It’s an election year. It’s ramped up. But let’s call it what it was,” said Russo. “The person acting as corporation counsel at the time was outside but that was because there was no in-house corporation counsel at the time.”
Longo later told Occhipinti that if he questioned her employment terms or capability, he could Rice notice her.
The resolution passed 5-3, with Mason – usually a Zimmer critic – voting for the contract amendment alongside council members Peter Cunningham, Jennifer Giattino, Ravi Bhalla and David Mello.
Tit for tat
Former zoning board member and resident Phil Cohen spoke during public portion of the meeting about the ongoing litigation regarding James Doyle and a vacant council seat. Cohen also provided printouts to the council and members of the public on the court costs. Cohen’s legal paperwork totaled $13,242.27.
Cohen has often posed the question to the anti-Zimmer faction in past meetings on how much this lawsuit is costing the taxpayers of Hoboken.
Councilwoman Castellano rebutted his remarks for the first time during new business Wednesday night, putting on the record some information specifically for Cohen.
“Judge Bariso said, and I quote, ‘that the Zimmer administration screwed up,’ end quote,” she said. “And that’s the quote that that individual omits. It was the Zimmer side that decided to spend the taxpayer money and bring the lawsuit that we are currently defending. It could have been very well handled by our in-house legal staff. Instead, Mayor Zimmer hired an expensive election law specialist to fight this case. This lawsuit can be dropped at any time by the mayor’s side, but it’s not. It wasn’t us who pursued this as we won the first case.”
Castellano also said, “We are paying for our own defense, no taxpayers money. Zimmer is the one wasting tax money. All to give the residents the right to choose who they want to be represented by [on the council].”
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.