HILLSIDE, NJ — The controversy regarding the township of Hillside’s municipal website continues, as several council members, along with some residents, want to know why many roads — or links — on the site either lead to nowhere, or to the top of the site’s homepage, which features a greeting from, and a photo of, Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson.
In addition, council members are also asking questions about why the township is currently dealing with three different web-service providers.
The issue of the problematic websites in the township is not a new one. According to Hillside Council Vice President Gerald “Pateesh” Freedman, the township has seen many different web service companies come and go over the course of 20 years.
But the last two years, according to another council member who requested anonymity, has seen approximately four different web service companies in the township. And, according to Hillside Councilwoman Diane Murray-Clements, the township is currently entangled with three different companies providing web services.
According to several council members, they became aware of issues with the municipal website after residents began calling town hall at the beginning of February.
Murray-Clements said that Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson at the Feb. 7 meeting of the town council provided a RFQ — Request for Qualifications — of $20,000 for website services from a different company than is currently servicing the township, while the previous company, Websignia — who took over the site in July and has since been replaced — is allegedly still billing the township. In addition, new issues have arisen after Hillside Business Administrator, Ray Hamlin, brought in a web service company in recent weeks to resolve problems with the prior website.
The latest company, according to Hamlin, was brought in to fix problems with the site and at a far lower cost than Websignia. But council members, who say they are unaware of the company’s identity, are taking issue with the $15,000 price tag that comes along with the overhaul, and many of them state that issues with the website have not been rectified.
The general controversy over the township’s website came to light last year, after the township’s former web-services provider, AlphaDog, found out that his contract had not been renewed.
AlphaDog had been hired in December 2014 to provide Hillside with municipal website services, and in February 2015, was awarded the contract by municipal resolution for the 2015 calendar year.
In December 2015, AlphaDog once again submitted papers for the next calendar year, and in January 2016, the company continued to provide services to Hillside on a month-to-month basis.
At the end of May 2016, AlphaDog found out that he was being replaced by Websignia, a Newark-based marketing company.
Although the website was rudimentary at best, according to some, things seemed to be quiet for a while — until, according to Murray-Clements, residents started calling town hall to complain.
“Several residents did contact me over the weekend preceding the Feb. 7 council meeting, stating the township’s website was under construction and updates were happening while they were on the website” Murray-Clements told LocalSource last week in a phone call.
LocalSource last navigated the site on Feb. 20 to determine whether there were issues consistent with the allegations.
Clicking on financial information, such as budgets and statements, resulted in a pop-up box requiring a username and password, with the domain name of “webnetdev” attached to the box. Clicking on a link to “resolutions,” “introduced ordinances,” “tax, municipal and road reconstruction maps,” as well as “solid waste and recycling,’ all led back to the site’s homepage.
Some links, however, did work, including links to the police department, PSE&G to report street light outages, and a New Jersey courts website, among others.
Murray-Clements said that she requested information from Hamlin.
“I did request additional information from our new business administrator and what he knew about the website, since the council was just receiving the RFP at the council meeting, and not in January as in the past,” she said, referring to the Request for Proposal. “He stated that he decided that he would call one of his people to update the website and the cost was $15,000 and he felt he was within his rights to make that judgement call.”
According to Hamlin, a resolution to consider CJ Media Matters for approval was tabled at the Feb. 7 meeting until the Feb. 28 meeting of the council.
Hamlin said that there were concerns with Websignia’s services.
“There were some issues with the prior web company,” Hamlin told LocalSource in a phone call last week.”
In a Feb. 16 email to LocalSource, Hamlin also addressed questions about the new site.
“I am unaware of any specific issues with the site but we are in the process of trying to address them,” he wrote. “As I understand, there were issues with the site prior to my arrival in terms of aesthetics and other related issues.”
Council members say that although the threshold amount for the site that would require the council’s permission is $17,500, they would have liked to be consulted about the new web service company.
Freedman reiterated this, stating that although the $15,000 amount quoted by Hamlin was below this, he feels that Hamlin should have run it by the council.
“Maybe he doesn’t need authorization, but he’s brand new and this is controversial,” Freedman said. “One would think he would have run this past us. All I know is that it doesn’t work. More web companies have come into this town than I can count. We pay for inferior nonsense. The new B.A., on his own, without any authorization, brought in God knows who to do who knows what. All I know is that it don’t work.”
But according to Hamlin, he has received no complaints regarding the new site.
“We needed to make a site that was representative of the town, and at a lower cost than the prior site was,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin also stated that there were many serious concerns regarding the previous web company, as well as with the actual site, that prompted him to take action.
“There were significant concerns about the viability of the site,” Hamlin said. “In order to avoid what the administration thought could have caused more issues than we anticipated, we took control of the site so that no one could do anything to the site.”
According to Hamlin, he knows that the council is not happy with his decision, but that the decision was necessary.
“The council wasn’t happy about it,” Hamlin said. “I could have done nothing. We were doing this in the background so that there would be a seamless transition. Now we control the process. The folks who did are people that I trust and they will not do anything negative to the township.”
Murray-Clements was critical of the move made by Hamlin, citing her concerns for the township’s residents.
“As a seasoned B.A., one would know that laws are put in place to protect the public,” she said. “The residents of Hillside don’t always get to have input on all decisions, but elected officials like myself are required to do what’s best for the majority. I am concerned that Mr. Hamlin disregarded the public law of obtaining services and bypassing the $17,500 threshold put in place to allow competitive bidding.”
Clements-Murray said that when she asked Hamlin for the names of other companies that provided quotes, Hamlin was unable to produce any names.
Freedman also said that when he asked for the name of the company, Hamlin did not answer.
But according to Hamlin, there is good reason that he is trying to keep this information quiet for the time-being, stating that his silence is to keep the township out of harm’s way from outside sources.
Clement’s Murray claims that she simply wants answers.
“Now we have the current website company that was hired last year and is still billing the town, the second website company that Mr. Hamlin hired for $15,000,
and the third company the mayor wants to hire,” Murray-Clements said. “Hillside can’t afford rash decisions and extra, unnecessary bills.”
That said, Clements-Murray said that that she appreciates the fact that Hamlin’s take-charge attitude.
“I do respect his take-charge leadership skills,” she said. “However, I would ask that Mr. Hamlin would be more careful with our taxpayers’ money because if this is how he plans to run our township, it could be hurtful to his legacy and questionable to the integrity of his work. I am optimistic this will not be another year of wasteful spending.”