Moving on? Director and administration battle over severance pay, other issues
by Nicholas J. Zitelli Reporter staff writer
Jan 16, 2005 | 599 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Town Director of Public Works Michael Gonnelli seems on the way out - at least figuratively - with current the administration of Secaucus.

In the few short days of the new year, Gonnelli has become somewhat of an enigma. In 2004 Gonnelli was named "Citizen of the Year" and inducted into the Hall of Honors run by UNICO, an Italian organization. But at the onset of 2005, rumors circulated that Gonnelli, currently Secaucus' superintendent of public works, was retiring and haggling with the mayor and Town Council over details of a hefty severance package.

"The truth," said Gonnelli last week, "is that I have always wanted to retire by the time I turn 50. It's a tiring job, one that requires working seven days a week, and I am starting to burn out."

But while Gonnelli has not yet announced his retirement he has hired a labor attorney to help negotiate a possible severance package with the town for when he does.

From reports given by both Gonnelli and Town Administrator Anthony Iacono, the argument revolves around how many sick days Gonnelli should be compensated for as he approaches retirement.

Iacono said he is entitled to half of his 320 sick days, as well as all of his 115 vacation days, for approximately 275 paid days off.

According to a town ordinance passed on Dec. 14, 2004, the salary for the superintendent of the DPW will be $116,139 in 2005. Gonnelli also will receive an additional $11,000 in 2005 for services involving recycling and grant programs. At a yearly salary of $127,139 and with 280 work days in the calendar year, the daily wage for Gonnelli comes out to $454. That means that Gonnelli, if he retired in the near future, would be entitled to $454 multiplied by the 275 days off, so he would receive $124,850 worth of days.

But Gonnelli would like to take all of the vacation and sick days off before officially retiring. That would mean he'd get the value of all of the sick days, rather than half. He would receive a total of $197,490 in salary.

Gonnelli has said that other employees were able to do this. "I don't know one department head that didn't get the full severance package," said Gonnelli last week.

Iacono said Gonnelli's request presents a problem.

"One of the problems here is that [Gonnelli] has accrued sick time and vacation time going back 30 years," he said. "The rate for those days isn't nearly what his rate of pay is today, so it's very disproportionate. The ratio of what he is asking for is off, so it's hard to give him the full package he's asking for."

There have been political undertones to the battles. Gonnelli is also a commissioner of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC). He has seemingly fallen out of favor with the town's administration for splitting on issues supported by the mayor such as the installation of a Wal-Mart gas station at the northern end of town.

Some voices in City Hall have made it clear it might be a good time for him to move on as Gonnelli, who turns 50 in August, nears his personal mark for retirement.

The contract

When Gonnelli asked the council and mayor to alter his severance package at the end of last year, the request prompted some town officials to suggest that the retirement was imminent. One publication reported that a communication was transmitted to one of Gonnelli's supervising foremen, Chuck Snyder, informing Snyder of a promotion to Gonnelli's post as superintendent.

As truth would have it, no appointment can be made until Gonnelli retires.

According to contracts given to all department heads within the municipality, Gonnelli is allowed to take all of his accrued vacation time as well as half of his sick days as paid vacation time.

"There has been dialogue between the township and I regarding my retirement and severance going back to a year and a half ago," said Gonnelli. "I have been working for Secaucus for 32 years, since I was 17. I love this town, and all I ask for is what is fair to me."

The Hartwig case

As an intriguing sidebar to the story, the rumors about Gonnelli's impending retirement began to circulate at a time when past incidents involving the township and Department of Public Works (DPW) are beginning to resurface. A wrongful dismissal suit against the township stemming back to 2001 has raised speculation that Gonnelli's possible "retirement" was in response to a hearing scheduled late this week regarding allegations filed by Joseph Hartwig, a former employee of Gonnelli's at the DPW.

The suit specifically names Gonnelli but also includes the names of the mayor, town administrator and council members. Although all township employees are indemnified from such lawsuits (meaning that they cannot be personally sued in work-related matters because the township's insurance intercedes), some linked Gonnelli's desire to leave to the suit. "I know [Gonnelli] has been a part of this town for over 30 years," said one city employee speaking on the condition of anonymity. "When I heard he was resigning to get away from this mess in his department, I was saddened."

But while Hartwig had worked at the DPW and worked directly for Gonnelli, his dismissal was based on numerous hearings held by the township regarding warnings, disciplinary actions, suspensions and finally the termination. Gonnelli was not solely responsible for his dismissal, which is why numerous officials have been named in the suit.

The township was seeking to have the case dismissed altogether at a hearing scheduled for late last week.

Related matters

With speculation still present about the possible strong-arming of Gonnelli to resign as chief of the DPW and with a mayor/council election looming later this year, the notion has passed through Secaucus political circles that the current administration may be inadvertently setting the table for an opposition ballot.

As a commissioner at the NJMC, Gonnelli holds a coveted position as a Secaucus resident, with the NJMC overseeing nearly 90 percent of zoning within Secaucus. It has been mentioned that Gonnelli may utilize his ties at the NJMC to pursue employment on the state level with the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) after his retirement from the DPW. Susan Bass Levin, currently chairwoman of the NJMC, is the director at the DCA in Trenton. When asked about the accuracy of such speculation, Gonnelli denied the claims.

"I think that I will definitely seek employment elsewhere after retirement," said Gonnelli. "But as of right now, I have not made commitments to anyone regarding [a future position]."

With campaigns building in preparation for the November election, the possibility exists that Gonnelli could become a powerful ally on the opposition's ticket, assuming he wants a candidacy for Town Council or mayor.
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