Bayonne has a new Business Administrator and Municipal Services Director, effective October 1, and the appointments were not without controversy.
Donna Russo was appointed as Business Administrator. The City Council voted to approve a resolution authorizing her appointment by Mayor James Davis at the September 21 meeting.
Russo had been serving as Acting Business Administrator after Davis decided to not reappoint former Business Administrator Melissa Mathews, who is suing him, a number of city officials, and the city itself for gender discrimination. Mathews opted to resign in June of this year before she was not reappointed, leaving the position vacant.
Russo previously served as Assistant City Attorney in the Law Department for many years before being tapped as Acting Business Administrator by Davis in July of this year. Now Davis has appointed her to the role full-time, with the City Council subsequently confirming Russo’s appointment as Business Administrator.
Additionally, long-time Community Health Nurse at the Health Department Suzanne Cavanaugh was appointed as Municipal Services Director via a resolution approved by the council. She takes over for Gary Chmielewski, who was appointed in October 2021 after former Municipal Services Director Tim Boyle resigned upon Davis’s request the month prior after he allegedly illegally recorded a conversation he was not a part of between other city officials.
Chmielewski previously served as the Director of the Department of Public Works (DPW) from 2007 until November of 2018, when he stepped down due to health issues and was replaced by then-First Ward City Councilman Tom Cotter. Now, Chmielewski will be leaving City Hall again, with Cavanuagh replacing him.
Prior to the approval of each resolution confirming the appointment, concerns were raised over both new department directors. In response, the City Council defended the appointments, much like they had defended the appointment of Mathews from criticisms when she was appointed as Business Administrator in 2020.
Wrongdoing by Russo alleged at council meeting
Peter Franco, a controversial former candidate for City Council, claimed that past and present city employees consider Russo a “bully.”
“Donna has been named in multiple ongoing lawsuits and several grievances against her during her time in the Law Department,” Franco said. “Donna serves as the Harassment Coordinator, which decides which complaints to ignore and which to pursue with an iron fist. She often chooses to ignore complaints against employees that have proven loyal to Mayor Jimmy Davis, while at the same time refused to take actions to protect victims. She conducts her own investigations into union grievances and absolves herself of any wrongdoing.”
Franco alleged employees who make complaints against the administration have been viewed as disloyal, leading to some lawsuits in which Russo is named.
“Their complaints seem to be swept under the rug, leaving employees no option but to bring their cases to court,” Franco said. “In many cases, these alleged victims who reported their complaints to Donna have ended up demoted, had their responsibilities stripped from them, moved around to different departments, or fired or eventually resigned because they can no longer endure, given the stress.”
Following that, Franco called back to an audio recording of Russo that former city employee Stacie Percella, who is also suing the city and various officials, previously played before the City Council in February of this year. In the recording, Russo can allegedly be heard stating to a city employee: “I’m not coming at you. If I was coming at you, I would punch you in the face,” which officials defended was not a threat.
“Of course, Donna absolved herself of any wrongdoing,” Franco said. “She was only joking about physically assaulting an employee. Oddly enough, that employee has been moved to the Recycling Department. Not as punishment, of course, right?”
Franco asked if Russo was the best choice for the job and if appointing her would set a bad example. “I find it hard to believe that in a growing city of 80,000 people that this is the best choice the mayor can come up with. Donna Russo shouldn’t be promoted to Business Administrator. She should be immediately replaced as Harassment Coordinator and, in my opinion, fired.”
The council did not respond to Franco’s comments. Following that, they voted unanimously to appoint Russo as full-time Business Administrator.
Claims of dishonesty made against Cavanaugh
Franco also raised concerns over Cavanaugh’s appointment. He took issue to her previously saying Bayonne Medical Center would close without the adoption of eminent domain ordinances condemning the hospital land, which would ultimately assist BMC Hospital, LLC to become the owner and operator of the facility, during the public hearing on the measures in 2021.
“As a city official, Mrs. Cavanaugh had knowledge at the time that the hospital was never in danger of closing,” Franco said. “As a city employee, she blatantly misled and lied to the public by saying without eminent domain and the bond ordinance our hospital will close… During her speech last year, which I remember very clearly, she invoked 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and the pandemic, tugging on peoples emotions to get her goal… Well, here we are today, 17 months after Mrs. Cavanaugh’s comments, and the hospital’s still open.”
On top of accusing Cavanaugh of lying, Franco then went on to claim that Cavanaugh’s husband Bob Cavanaugh, an attorney who advised the firm representing BMC Hospital, LLC on the eminent domain action, would allegedly stand to profit if eminent domain against the hospital land was approved.
“If Mrs. Cavanaugh had an ounce of integrity, she would have disclosed her ethical conflict of interest of having direct financial gain if the eminent domain ordinance went through,” Franco said. “Her husband, Bob Cavanaugh, is the attorney for the medical center handling the eminent domain process.”
Franco then played an audio recording of a conversation between Mathews and former Second Ward City Councilman Sal Gullace that he alleged proved Bob Cavanaugh called Gullace’s bosses at the county in attempt to coerce him to vote on the hospital eminent domain ordinances back when Gullace was on the City Council.
“Did Cavanaugh’s husband call you? The husband called your boss?,” Mathews asked in the recording. Gullace responds: “He called all my bosses, he called everybody.” Mathews asked: “To try and pressure you to vote?” Gullace confirmed: “He’s a lawyer for Hudson… Yeah, my boss called me and said ‘You could vote. You work here, you don’t sit on the board.’ I said ‘I know, but I’m not doing that.'” “You’re conflicted, that’s all that matters,” Mathews interjected. Gullace continued: “I said to him, ‘I’m not voting because I sit on the hospital board, not because I work for you.’ I know I don’t sit on no board, I don’t make no decisions for Hudson,” Mathews again asks: “He called everybody?” “He called everybody,” Gullace responded.
“At first we had Mrs. Cavanaugh lying and now we have Mrs. Cavanaugh’s husband trying to influence a voting member of the City Council for their personal financial benefit,” Franco said. Continuing to criticize Cavanaugh, he said: “Is this the person you want supervising and training employees? Is this type of behavior you want to reward? Is this someone that the public can trust being responsible to oversee over redevelopment, zoning, and a $350 million long term control plan? I don’t feel comfortable personally putting someone in charge of Municipal Services that has lied to the public and been involved with coercion to an elected official and has demonstrated dishonest behavior while serving as a city employee.”
Cavanuagh’s husband defends his wife and himself
After Franco’s comments, Law Director Jay Coffey asked Bob Cavanaugh to take the podium and clarify things: “I spoke to Mr. Cavanaugh and asked him if he had a conflict in that area. And I think he would like to address what you said because you’re basically making an accusation about it.”
Cavanaugh began by threatening legal action against Franco, stating that while he did have a phone conversation with Gullace, he did not call his county bosses to pressure him to vote on the ordinances.
“Mr. Franco made an accusation… a most damaging one and I will be talking to my partners about for a libel suit, that I made phone calls to Mr. Sal Gullace’s bosses at the county and put pressure on them to get him to change or do something with the vote,” Cavanaugh said. “I wish Sal was here because I did have a direct conversation with Sal and he explained to me that he was on the board at the hospital. He said ‘Does that cause a problem for me?’ and I said to him ‘Sal, I don’t represent you, but you should talk to the corporate counsel from the hospital and ask if you have a conflict. I personally don’t think that if you’re involved in the hospital matter itself and then you’re going to be asked to vote on something that impacts the hospital, you may have a conflict there. But I’m not in the position where I can advise you because I am not your attorney. So I would suggest speak to the attorney from the hospital in that regard.’ That is only conversation I had in relation to Sal and that vote that’s taking place on that eminent domain.”
Cavanaugh said he only advised attorney James Flynn and the law firm of Epstein, Becker, and Green “on what eminent domain means” because they were unfamiliar. According to Cavanaugh, he is since no longer involved with the matter at the firm.
“I haven’t been called back in since they last asked me about how the eminent domain would work and whether if it went forward,” Cavanaugh said. “If I have a conflict because I gave them advice on how eminent domain works, where am I making money on that by virtue of my wife? My wife does not sit on the council, my wife does not cast the vote, my wife has no influence whatsoever. And whether eminent domain gets done or not done, if she had a vote, you might have a point, but she has no vote. She’s a nurse.”
Also in regards to his wife, Cavanaugh said she was not lying in that the hospital was struggling to stay open. He added: “The hospital, as we all know, has struggled since 2008 to stay there and stay afloat… She cited 9/11, she cited Hurricane Sandy, she cited things that… We’re on a peninsula. Things are closed off. If you have a heart attack, and we’re closed off and we can’t get to Christ Hospital and St. Vincent’s in Staten Island, or Jersey City Medical Center, you’re going to die.”
Cavanaugh concluded, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let somebody like him impugn on her integrity. Where were you in 2008 Mr. Franco? When we were trying to save the hospital, I’d love to know where you were.”
Council votes unanimously for both appointments
Prior to voting, City Council President Gary La Pelusa defended the appointments of both Russo and Cavanaugh, noting politics were at play considering Franco’s recent run against him for the Third Ward City Council seat.
“There are differences of opinion, some of them have gone along political lines,” La Pelusa said. “The two women that are here are appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. So I heard both arguments. I know both of those ladies personally. They’re tough when they have to be tough. They’re gentle when they have to be gentle. Getting through COVID-19 was very, very difficult. I personally think Ms. Russo and Mrs. Cavanaugh did a great job during that time. I can’t disagree more with some of the comments I’ve heard today.”
The council voted unanimously to approve both of Davis’ appointments to the positions. In addition to that, the city is also contemplating an overhaul of the departments at City Hall.
There was an ordinance set to be introduced by the City Council at the September meeting that would authorize that, but it was withdrawn without explanation. After the meeting, La Pelusa told the Bayonne Community News the details of the ordinance were still being worked out.
“It’s a reorganization of Chapter 2,” La Pelusa said. “We’re in the process of, and again, there’s some things that have to be changed as well, so that was not ready. But it’s a reorganization of the departments, and who’s going to be in charge of what departments and whether we’re going to keep the same amount of departments and things like that. So there’s a few questions on that, which is why it was pulled, but that’s pretty much what it is, a reorganization of Chapter 2 and all ordinances.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.