The latest political retaliation lawsuit connected to a West New York election has landed before a judge in Hudson County Superior Court.
West New York Mayor Felix Roque filed a 25-page lawsuit against Commissioners Gabriel Rodriguez, Cosmo Cirillo, and Margarita Guzman, as well as Town Attorney Michael Jimenez, claiming they allegedly broke the law in an effort to unseat the mayor and his ally, Commissioner Susan Colacurcio, in the upcoming May 14 election.
Roque claims that Rodriguez, Cirillo, and Guzman, who he refers to as the “Rodriguez Commissioners,” used unlawful methods to strip him of power as an elected official “for no reason other than to limit his ability to participate in the town’s government as an elected official.”
Commissioner Gabriel Rodriguez said that Roque’s lawsuit is “frivolous.” Rodriguez called the suit a desperate attempt to promote a political campaign, and a way to grab headlines.
“Last year, the mayor made a decision not to work with us, not only in terms of government, but in his decisions.” Rodriguez said. “It’s been a long time coming. He isn’t able to focus on what’s really important, and that’s why we want to do better, take control of government, and stop the mismanagement. His track record in hiring employees is just political friends and cronies at high salaries who don’t even live in town.”
Where did it start?
In his suit, Roque claims that these actions were precipitated by an alliance between Amy DeGise and Union City’s Mayor Brian Stack, during DeGise’s successful bid for Hudson County’s Democratic Chair, despite his opponents saying that issues were limited to West New York.
The suit accuses “the Rodriguez Commissioners” of violating the Walsh Act. Adopted in 1911, the act established the nonpartisan commission form of government used by the town. West New York is one of seven municipalities in New Jersey governed by five nonpartisan commissioner seats.
Five commissioners are elected; each heads one department while legislating in “an equal distribution of power and duties,” according to the Walsh Act. Under the Walsh Act, mayors have no powers over and above their fellow commissioners, and are responsible only for their specific department.
The suit alleges that Roque’s jurisdiction as both mayor and commissioner of Parks and Public Property, and his ability to act within that capacity, were infringed upon.
Roque’s alleged that “the Rodriguez Commissioners” used their 3-2 majority to “reduce and eliminate Mayor Roque’s participation in the Town’s government.”
“If he was focused on governing, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point,” Commissioner Cosmo Cirillo said.
Who pays the price?
Political retaliation, and its related lawsuits, don’t come at a cheap price for employees, or residents.
Taxpayers foot the the bill for legal fees connected to elected officials. According to Rodriguez five recent lawsuits against Roque by 19 town employees alleging political retaliation have cost taxpayers more than $3.5 million.
“If you look at the political retaliation cases, or the lawsuits that have been filed, they all stem from the mayor,” Cirillo said. “Whether they’re against the mayor himself for actions he’s taken, or being filed by the mayor against the town, all of this stems from one individual.”
Wearing many hats
Roque and his opponents have been at odds over votes to reassign members of the board of commissioners to different departments.
In March of 2018, Rodriguez was named head of Revenue and Finance, taking jurisdiction from Colacurcio and replacing her as head of the town’s DPW, Rodriguez’s former department.
The suit alleges that at the next meeting, a resolution appointed the town administrator, Jame Cryan, to the Revenue and Finance department. This was done in an effort to “ensure the town administrator reported to Rodriguez,” Roque said.
In November 2018, “the Rodriguez Commissioners” removed Roque from the Public Safety Department, so Rodriguez could head it. Instead of implementing a straight trade and appointing Roque to head Revenue and Finance, Roque was assigned Parks and Public Property. Guzman, who had originally been with Parks, was given the Revenue and Finance spot through that same resolution vote.
Roque maintains that these moves were made to render him a “commissioner in name only,” and that this is a violation of the Walsh Act because it removes Roque’s “equivalent power” as a department head.
‘They gutted my department’
The suit alleges that after placing Roque in the Parks and Public Property department, “the Rodriguez Commissioners emptied Parks and Public Property of its divisions and employees,” and transferred those to Guzman’s division, Revenue and Finance.
Among offices transferred from the parks department to revenue and finance were the municipal court and cultural affairs departments. Roque maintains that this, too, violates the Walsh Act, because duties were removed from his parks department after he was placed there.
Claiming conflict of interest
Roque claims in the suit is that the town’s attorney, Michael Jimenez, is acting in conflict of interest because he took on some responsibilities of the town administrator’s office. This occurred after former town attorney Jame Cryan resigned, and a resolution was passed to allow for Jimenez and Human Resources Clerk Kelly Schweitzer to assume his duties. Roque recommneded hiring Town Clerk Carmela Riccie to the position, but that resolution failed to pass.
This suit, like an ethics complaint Roque filed in mid-February, calls for Jimenez’s removal from those duties, because he cannot provide independent counsel to himself as he carries out the administrator’s responsibilities. The suit alleges that, while Jimenez said he would not take part in personnel matters, he allegedly signed a hiring form on Jan. 12.
“The attorney cannot reasonably be expected to give the body candid, objective advice concerning his own conduct as administrator,” Roque said after filing the ethics complaint. “His [Jimenez’s] refusal to step down is an example of compromised judgment that cannot go unchecked.”
Roque’s opponents maintain that there is no conflict of interest in Jimenez taking on a partial role as the town administrator, as there were no changes to his salary and title. They stated that he had the integrity to take on the additional tasks in the interim without compromising judgment.
Not so new hiring policy?
Roque claimed in a suit that the board modified the way commissioners are hired in April 2018. He said that new hires were required from that point to receive signed approval from the town administrator, the town’s chief financial officer, and the commissioner of revenue and finance, in what’s known as a “long form.”
“The long form has always been a practice,” Rodriguez said. “It’s to make sure the budgets are in place with each corresponding commissioner to support those salaries. We just made it an official document.”
Commissioner Cosmo Cirillo echoed that sentiment.
“The long form was put in place prior to us even becoming commissioners in 2015,” Cirillo said. “[Roque] was a fan of the long form. The mayor never had a problem with that until after the fact when we were trying to expose the hires he was going to make. These were hires that would’ve put his budget over what it should’ve been. These hires weren’t qualified for the positions they were put on for.”
Roque alleged that this, too, violates the Walsh Act, which reportedly gives commissioners sole discretion to hire or fire within their departments, providing that funds are available. The suit claims that “the Rodriguez Commissioners” weaponized the new hiring policy against Roque by withholding signatures on his hires.
Roque alleged in the suit that he was blocked from making a number of hires to Parks and Public Property. He attempted to hire James Darley as a clerk for the department, but alleged that his opponents had “continually and strategically avoided” him since early December 2018.
Rodriguez, Cirillo, and Guzman said that the long form is a measure of good government policy. “It’s an important function in maintaining a budget,” Rodriguez said. “It’s all about checks and balances.”
Roque went on in the suit to claim that the town’s annual hiring freeze, which takes place near the end of each fiscal year (and will end on May 21), is unlawful. Roque claimed in the suit that elected officials don’t have the power to adopt this policy, according to the Walsh Act.
“We all live by the hiring freeze,” Rodriguez said. “None of us are able to hire during that time period until we adopt the budget.”
For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com. or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.