In city politics, residents are trusted more than outsiders to serve the public good. This is especially true as national policies increasingly favor the few at the expense of the many.
This dynamic is playing out in Bayonne.
A legal complaint against the City of Bayonne, and individually against at least nine municipal employees charges that these employees are in violation of a local residency ordinance.Mike Morris, a community activist, and Peter Cresci, local attorney and former Bayonne Business Administrator, filed the complaint, contending that the employees should be either terminated or required to move to Bayonne.
At the Bayonne City Council Meeting on Wednesday, April 19, Peter Franco, another community activist who rarely misses a meeting, delivered the complaint to City Clerk Robert Sloan on behalf of the plaintiffs. “I just want to remind you that you don’t have to say anything tonight,” said Franco. “You’ll have your day in court.” However, Franco is not a licensed process server or magistrate, and therefore does not have the legal authority to summon anyone to court. He also did not serve anyone personally, except the City Clerk, who is not named as a defendant in the complaint. Law Director John Coffey II said the City plans to respond.
The ordinance (20-16.1) on which the complaint is based is pliable, acknowledging thatif the City deems the local pool of applicants insufficient, it should look elsewhere according to a list of preferences, which includes Hudson County residency, residents of counties contiguous to Hudson County, and the state.
Police officers, firefighters, and teachers are already legally exempt from local residency requirements, and municipalities rarely enforce residency requirements, especially for senior staff. The system that allows mayors to appoint much of the senior staff usually results in mostly local employees.
New discussion on an old argument
The argument for a stricter interpretation of the ordinance is twofold: that residency promotes responsibility and accountability, and that the local economy would benefit by residents spending their salaries in Bayonne.
“I don’t really believe in Bayonne, where we have 70,000 people, that we couldn’t find one qualified attorney to become law director,” said Franco, referencing Township of Oceanport resident and current Law Director John Coffey II. Franco asserts that because the City lacks an enforceable residency ordinance, residents are prevented from serving their community in local government. “I think the idea behind the ordinance was that local residents would have the opportunity to work for their local government.”
Last April, Franco started a petition for the same cause. This year, he hopes the legal complaint will spark debate.
“As the ordinance stands with the exemptions that exist, I either want them to enforce it or repeal it so that the public can really weigh in,” Franco said. “If you don’t like the ordinance, repeal it. If you like it follow it. But you can’t pick and choose when to follow it.”
The bad guys?
City officials who do not live in Bayonne are offended by being characterized as negligent and indifferent to Bayonne residents’ concernsbecause of their address.
“If you can point to hard evidence that I don’t care, or I’m not good at my job, that criticism I will debate,” said Business Administrator Joe DeMarco, a Jersey City native, current resident of Bernardsville, and former business administrator for the City of West New York. “But my not living here doesn’t mean that I don’t care.”
DeMarco said the primary requirement for job openings should be the applicants’ personal qualities and experience. That judgement falls on a longtime resident – the elected mayor.
A sloppy complaint that smells fishy
The formal complaint is unusual for several reasons. First, it’s messy. It mistakenly describes Law Director John Coffey II as a resident of Ocean County, when he is a resident, and write-in mayor of Oceanport, Monmouth County. The complaint, filed on April 3, also names Andrew Casais as a defendant, though he has not worked for the City since early March. It also names Police Chief Drew Niekrasz as a defendant, though his police status exempts him from local residency statutes.
The complaint is also unusual in that it omits an opening paragraph, starting at Paragraph 2. It also requests that municipal employees be required to move to Bayonne within six months, despite the ordinance stating that employees should become “bona fide residents” within one year. According to the ordinance, “In the event such employee does not maintain or fails to obtain bona fide residency, the City of Bayonne shall notify the employee that failure to again take up bona fide residency within the City of Bayonne within six months of the notification will result in removal or discharge. Such removal or discharge shall take effect on the date specified in such notice, but any employee so removed or discharged shall have the right to such appeals as are available pursuant to law.”
Normally, a complaint is filed against the City in order to convince a court to require the City Council to enforce the ordinance. But this complaint names specific defendants and accuses at least one of lying in order to “circumvent” the residency requirement.
Peter Cresci, who acted on behalf of himself in the complaint, could not be reached for comment. The phone number listed on the formal complaint is the same as that for the Bayonne Initiative, a local political organization. Cresci is currently suspended from practicing law by the NJ Bar Bar Association.
Peter Cresci and Mike Morris could not be reached for comment.
This article was updated to reflect that the following was corrected:
In the April 26 edition of The Bayonne Community News, we reported that Peter Cresci was suspended from the NJ Bar Association in December. He was temporarily suspended in November. We also reported that the Bayonne Initiative is a political organization. It is a charitable organization.
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.