The Jersey City Council held its first virtual public meeting on Wednesday, adhering to social-distancing guidelines due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic that has infected 130 Jersey City residents as of March 25.
During the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, the council adopted a resolution approving a $918,280 agreement with the Jersey City Employment and Training Program.
The JCETP is a nonprofit agency that provides tools and guidance to prepare Jersey City residents to enter the workforce.
Over the past year, the agency has been embroiled in scandal. Former JCETP employee Nuria Sierra filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against then executive director Sudhan Thomas and the JCETP when she lost her job in July.
She said her dismissal came after she alerted JCETP board members and state officials to several financial improprieties at the agency, saying that Thomas had allegedly made out three checks payable to cash and provided no receipts.
Thomas, who was also the former Jersey City Board of Education president, was later charged with “embezzling funds from an organization receiving federal funds.”
According to U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, Thomas allegedly took $45,000 by issuing JCETP checks made out to cash that he either allegedly cashed himself or used to obtain bank checks that Thomas made payable to his entity.
He pleaded not guilty in January.
The resolution the council adopted authorizes the city to enter into a $918,280 agreement with JCETP, designating them as the administrative entity for the local Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Area (WIOA).
Only Councilman James Solomon raised objections to the contract, saying the city was not including indemnification language for the agency which no longer had insurance, meaning the agency would most likely be unable to pay if the damages sought by Sierra are awarded.
“On the final draft, the city, at the recommendation of the law department, would not be indemnifying JCETP for any claims of any kind that would arise against that organization,” said Corporation Counsel Peter Baker.
“So, were a successful claim to be brought against JCETP, how would they pay for it and how would they ensure the continuation of their services?” said Solomon.
Baker said he couldn’t answer how JCETP would respond in that scenario, as he does not represent the JCETP. He said he had spoken to their counsel, who told him that any funds from a potential settlement would not come out of any state or federal grants.
“My concern is if we proceed without indemnification – and she wrote us all a letter, the full council, asking for us to indemnify – if we proceed without indemnification, there’s no way for us to guarantee that she is made whole,” said Solomon.
Business Administrator Brian Platt said that going forward the city could discuss the possibility of adding indemnification language in future contracts with the JCETP.
Solomon said that while he was glad that it would be considered in the future, moving forward now without the indemnification language would be “the second time that the city doesn’t do right by her and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Baker said the JCETP has been in negotiations with Sierra and offered her her old job back starting early next month, contingent on the COVID-19 emergency.
“That’s my understanding as well, which I think is good and entirely up to her and good that JCETP made the offer,” said Solomon. “But, certainly we don’t know what the ultimate result of the lawsuit could be in terms of the amount of money made up for lost wages and mistreatment. That is my concern.”
The resolution was adopted 6-1. Solomon voted against the resolution, and Councilmen Rolando Lavarro and Michael Yun were both absent.