ROSELLE, NJ — A Roselle clerk who was put on administrative leave more than five years ago is still being paid an annual salary, and borough residents are asking why.
Rhona Bluestein, who began working for the borough in 2005, and was later given tenure, was suspended from her position May 8, 2012, and has been paid by the borough ever since, yet Bluestein has still not worked a day since she was put on administrative leave more than five years ago.
LocalSource reported this story in November 2016, after payroll records obtained through an OPRA request showed that Bluestein had received more than $400,000 from the borough since she was placed on administrative leave.
And the tab keeps growing as Bluestein continues to collect while borough officials, according to some residents, seem to be sitting on their hands.
Last year, soon after the article appeared in LocalSource, the state Office of the Attorney General was contacted regarding Bluestein’s yearslong administrative leave, according to several sources with direct knowledge of the communication between the OAG and the borough.
Peter Aseltine, spokesperson for the OAG told LocalSource in a July 10 email said that he could neither confirm nor deny the status or existence of investigations and that he had no comment.
At the June 20 meeting of the council, resident Maria Hegener demanded answers from the council.
“I have a lot of questions,” Hegener said at the meeting. “I need to know from the borough attorney, and I know she’s going to say it’s a personnel issue … the personnel issue is now the borough and the citizens’ issue.”
LocalSource reached out to Roselle Borough Administrator David Brown, who said it was the borough’s policy not to comment on personnel issues.
LocalSource also reached out to Rachel Caruso, the borough attorney; she did not respond to a request for comment.
According to an official letter from the borough dated May 8, 2012, which Brown sent to Bluestein and which was anonymously passed on to LocalSource in November 2016, Bluestein was put on administrative leave for a series of alleged errors, including: failing to publish bond ordinances, providing false information to the borough’s bond counsel regarding the publishing failure, failure to provide borough officials with a 2012 financial disclosure statement in a timely manner and falsification of documents to cover up this failure, and creating a hostile work environment in the Rosell Clerk’s Office.
Brown’s letter, received by Bluestein via hand delivery on May 8, 2012, informed her of her immediate suspension, and that there would be an investigation into “certain allegations which touch upon your office.” She was also told that upon the conclusion of this investigation, she would be notified of the results and whether a complaint for her removal would be filed.
Upon notice of her suspension, Bluestein was directed to turn over her Blackberry device, office keys and key card, and instructed not to touch any borough documents or the borough computer.
Yet, despite the allegations against Bluestein, action has yet to be taken, and residents — whose taxes have been paying Bluestein’s $80,000 annual salary for years — say that they want the issue resolved once and for all.
Documents obtained from an anonymous sender by LocalSource in November, 2016, seemed to suggest that the delay in resolving the issue was to keep Bluestein quiet about certain information that the borough does not want disclosed.
As reported in LocalSource’s article in November, an email inquiry sent last year by a borough official questioning the delayed investigation into the allegations against Bluestein, as well as the delayed termination of Bluestein’s employment, was responded to by another borough official directly associated with Bluestein, who said that filing a legal court action to terminate Bluestein might result in the disclosure of damaging information against certain elected officials associated with the borough and “portray the borough or various elected officials in an unflattering light.”
A source close to the situation who requested anonymity told LocalSource those involved are nervous about the situation.
“Council people are nervous,” the source said in a phone interview last week. “No one is letting go of the Rhona thing.”
The source also noted that the ethics board should be involved.
In response to LocalSource’s query as to whether the borough was trying to resolve the issue with Bluestein, 5th Ward Councilman Samuel Bishop said that it was.
“The answer is yes,” Bishop said in a July 8 email. “I will have to refer you to legal counsel.”
Councilman Reginald Atkins told LocalSource that the matter is being addressed.
“The council doesn’t comment on personnel issues, but the matter is being dealt with according to the law governing tenured municipal clerks,” Atkins said in a July 10 email.
LocalSource also reached out to borough council members Kim Shaw, Yves Aubourg, Carla Walker and Andrea staten, none of whom responded to a request for comment as of press time.
Hegener accused the administration of not working toward a resolution of the Bluestein issue.
“Almost six years and nothing’s going on,” she said at the June 20 meeting. “You either bring her back and get her $80,000 and make her work for it, or you fire her and get rid of that $80,000 elephant in the room. This administration has not been working for the citizens. We are paying a person that for years that is collecting money and hasn’t stepped foot in the borough.”
Borough resident Cynthia Johnson, who recently won the borough’s primary election for a seat on the town council, reiterated at the June council meeting that something needed to be done about the ongoing situation with Bluestein.
“I need to know answers in reference to that also,” she said of Bluestein, also noting that more help in the clerk’s office was needed to assist current deputy municipal clerk, Lydia Agbejimi. “I want to know if we can get an assistant deputy clerk to assist Lydia until this problem is more solidified with Rhona.”
Roselle Mayor Christine Dansereau said that the public deserves better.
“The public is entitled to as much transparency as possible,” Dansereau told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. “While I understand that this is a legal matter, it’s almost five years now. We have suggestions only as to when this will end. This is costly to taxpayers and must come to a conclusion. The public deserves this to come to a conclusion.”
Although there is no statutory limit to the administrative leave period, federal rules do call for use of administrative leave for short periods of time that generally do not exceed three consecutive work days.
Bluestein has been on administrative leave for approximately 2,000 days.
In February, a U.S. Senate panel approved a bipartisan bill that would strictly limit the ability of federal agencies to
put employees on extended paid administrative leave while they are being investigated.
The 2016 Administrative Leave Act defines administrative leave as separate from other forms of paid leave or excused absence and limits its use to five consecutive days at a time. While this bill only addresses administrative leave abuses on a federal level, it does offer an idea of an appropriate standard.
Bluestein is currently listed as a member of the legislative committee for the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New