Gender discrimination lawsuit charges ‘toxic’ culture at City Hall

Bayonne Business Administrator Melissa Mathews alleges 'hostile work environment'

Mathews became Business Administrator in March of 2020.
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Mathews became Business Administrator in March of 2020.

Bayonne Business Administrator Melissa Mathews’ lawsuit in Hudson County Superior Court against the city focuses on alleged behavior by Director of Municipal Services Tim Boyle and Assistant Business Administrator Mark Bonamo. In the suit, Mathews alleges that she was discriminated against because of her gender.

It names six counts: Hostile Work Environment, two counts of Retaliation, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, and Violation of Public Policy.

Also named in the suit is Mayor James Davis, Law Director Jay Coffey, Assistant Counsel Donna Russo, and Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Eduardo Ferrante, and the City of Bayonne.

Telling her story

Mathews first began working for the city in 2019, in the Division of Planning and Zoning. She said she was largely sheltered there from what she would come to experience working as Business Administrator.

“I was not aware of what I was stepping into,” Mathews told the Bayonne Community News. “I had no idea. I never, ever, ever thought that I would be stepping into that environment, and it’s not something that’s really unique to Bayonne. As you can see from the news, a lot of this is happening in the world in a lot of industries. It’s not something that I’ve ever really seen before, the extent to which it happened and the extent to which it was permitted to happen, even with me voicing very serious things. For it to be allowed to get to that level is something I never expected, ever.”

The alleged harassment began when she was in the process of applying to be Business Administrator. Boyle allegedly asked her multiple times “whether she would possess a suitable work ethic due to her needing to raise her children.”

Rapid escalation

Once she began working in the position in March of 2020, things escalated rapidly. In her first month there, Boyle allegedly insinuated that “it was not possible that she could understand everything being discussed in a meeting they both were in, and that he would explain it to her” and “slammed a cane into a wall in an attempt to intimidate her and chastised her for speaking with a staff member who reported to him,” according to the lawsuit.

Boyle allegedly repeatedly verbally disparaged and screamed at Mathews in front of other city employees, including Russo. In October of 2020, at the height of the harassment, Boyle allegedly cornered Mathews, closing the door to her office despite Mathews having requested not to meet with him alone.

Boyle and Bonamo allegedly purposely and improperly addressed Mathews, misspelled her name and or referred to her by a different name either in person or via email. Despite Mathews being their superior, the lawsuit alleges that Boyle and Bonamo constantly undermined, ignored, usurped, and or disobeyed the orders, requests, initiatives, and authority of Mathews during her tenure.

“It’s blatant insulting, constantly needling at me for every little thing, everything was just a fight and I didn’t understand why,” Mathews said.

The lawsuit alleges that Boyle and Bonamo possess a strong dislike and or disrespect of women, which Mathews has allegedly observed on many occasions. Bonamo allegedly abusively screamed at a female municipal employee; would allegedly rarely respond to women, acknowledge women, or “even so much as look women in the eye when talking to them”; and that Russo had allegedly told Mathews that Bonamo “seemed to have a problem with women.”

Former Business Administrator Joe DeMarco allegedly told Mathews that Boyle was a “misogynist” and had been known to use “the C-word” in the office. The lawsuit alleges that other female city employees made complaints about abusive, bullying, and or intimidating conduct by Boyle.

Part of the culture?

Mathews alleges in the suit that she had made numerous complaints to city administrators, including Davis, Coffey and Russo, about the alleged harassment and hostile work environment allegedly created by Boyle and Bonamo. Despite her many complaints, Mathews was still constantly subjected to “gender motivated harassment” by Boyle and Bonamo, the lawsuit alleges.

In the suit, Mathews alleges she was retaliated against by Davis, Coffey, Russo and Ferrante as well as Boyle and Bonamo for complaining about the “gender motivated harassing behavior of colleagues, superiors and administrators.” The retaliation allegedly included treating Mathews differently from other employees, allowing harassment, bullying and intimidation of Mathews to continue, and stripping Mathews of her responsibilities.

Mathews said that the harassment was part of the culture at City Hall.

“It’s definitely the culture,” Mathews said. “I think what you’re looking at is a strong mayor … and whatever the mayor says goes. We have two mayors, one is not acting mayor of Bayonne, but he is the mayor of Oceanport. You have two mayors and basically whatever they say goes.”

Mathews is referring to Coffey, who in addition to being the Law Director in Bayonne, is also the mayor of Oceanport.

“I think people need to remember that, just because they are like a king, we still operate in a city, in a state, in a country with laws,” Mathews said. “There are rules of civility of things that need to be upheld. We have a lot of really great employees at City Hall, a lot of really great women employees, and everybody needs to feel like their contribution matters because they are the people that are really working to keep the city running right and that really deserve to work in a safe environment where they feel protected and they don’t feel uncomfortable. They shouldn’t be put in awkward positions because of people’s actions at work. We work for the citizens. We work for the taxpayers so we owe it to our employees to do it right and to protect our employees.”

‘Cronyism’

According to Mathews, City Hall is a “boy’s club” and has a “cronyism” vibe. A prime example of that, she said, would be Coffey’s suggested solution to Boyle’s alleged harassment of Mathews.

The suit states that Mathews formally reported Boyle on May 31, 2020 for “his direct and indirect bullying, intimidation, and or abuse” of Mathews. In response, Coffey allegedly told Mathews that “she should have a beer” with Boyle to “smooth over everything.” In August of 2020, Coffey allegedly told another municipal employee that Mathews had a “problem with men,” according to the lawsuit.

“It’s really frustrating more than anything when you’re making legitimate complaints and there is no response,” Mathews said. “It feels like people don’t care. These aren’t minor things, but you feel like you’re kind of going crazy because you feel like you’re shouting at the walls. How does this happen?”

As a result of the alleged toxic work environment created by Boyle and Bonamo, Mathews said she was forced to take multiple leaves of absence without pay.

“It really did take a lot out of me and it was bad for me and bad for my family,” Mathews said. “Being bullied constantly sucks. And we know the consequences of what bullying does to people now. Hostile work environments are not conducive to getting work done, they’re absolutely not appropriate, and it’s really difficult to work in.”

Doing better

Mathews said she took the job because she wanted to make a difference. She didn’t have to go back to work, but Mathews, was then a stay-at-home mom with a background in finance and technology.

“I really loved the job,” Mathews said. “I love my city. I really saw a future in Bayonne. I cared and I do care. But at this point, it’s just crazy.”

Unrelated to the alleged harassment, in the suit Mathews also alleges “abuse of public office” by some city officials.

In the lawsuit, Mathews allegedly objected to actions taken by employees, servants, agents and or administrators of the city of Bayonne which she believed were in violation of state law, federal law, and or policies and procedures of the city. According to the lawsuit, on multiple occasions during Mathews’s tenure as Business Administrator, she allegedly alerted Davis, Coffey and Russo to the “misappropriation of funds and abuse of public office of certain municipal employees and administrators.”

For her objections and complaints, Mathews was retaliated against again. The retaliation allegedly included treating Mathews differently from other employees, allowing harassment, bullying and intimidation of Mathews to continue, and stripping Mathews of her responsibilities. However, she did not comment on allegations from that part of the lawsuit.

Despite being allegedly stripped of job titles, Mathews remains in the position. She continues to work on grants, building supply, the digitization of the buildings department, the food bank, and whatever else she can. Moving forward, she said that in order for City Hall to be a healthy workplace, there needs to be a “total cleaning of house.”

“We owe it to employees, to our citizens, to do better,” Mathews said. “It’s not right, and it’s not fair.”

Mathews is represented by attorney Juan Cervantes, who also represents a woman in a similar ongoing case in Bayonne. Sincerrae Ross, a former clerk for the city, filed a lawsuit in 2019 against the city alleging that DeMarco, Davis, and other city officials were part of a “culture of sexual harassment.”

Officials silent

Amid the allegations, the only city official to speak on the matter was City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski.

“Seven years ago, I was asked to join a team in the hope that together we could change our City for the better,” Ashe-Nadrowski said in an emailed statement. “I am proud of our team’s accomplishments during the first four years. From the redevelopment of MOTBY, new contracts for teachers and public employees, refurbishing our parks, building new walkways, and introducing new community events. Together we were moving Bayonne forward.”

Ashe-Nadrowski continued: “Unfortunately, over the past several months I have begun to realize that team no longer exists. Today, confronted with the allegations made by Melissa Mathews, I cannot stand silently by. As a resident, elected official and most importantly as a woman, I am deeply concerned by the claims made. I believe there has been a shift in culture.  As council members we are not involved in the day-to-day operations of the administration of the City and have not been informed of these complaints. As such I can’t comment on them. But as council president I pledge to stand up and fight for the rights of our residents and workers.”

Boyle and Bonamo did not respond to requests for comment. Davis, Coffey and Russo had no comment on the matter, citing city policy not to comment on active litigation.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.