Legal oversight stops Cranford in its tracks

Township keeps same contract with Westfield after learning layoff of employees was illegal

CRANFORD — It appears the township failed to do their homework completely before informing the two remaining Health Department employees they would be losing their jobs at the end of 2013.

When former township administrator Joe Hartnett told full-time health inspector Monica Koscova Jencik and part-time deputy registrar of vital statistics Joan Holler in November that both their positions would be eliminated Dec. 31 because Westfield would be handling all of this department’s functions, he apparently was not aware there was a state law on the books that does not allow such a move.

Due to a legal oversight regarding health department employees, the township had to renew the same inter-local agreement with the Westfield Regional Health Department as last year, instead of moving all remaining health services to this municipality as previously planned.
What will happen at this point remained up in the air but one thing is known; the township employees who were supposed to lose their jobs at the end of the year are still employed by the township and on the job in the health department.

Although the township had been contracting with Westfield for health officer and other mandated public health services since the fall of 2011, they still opted to keep several employees on board locally. However, over time it became apparent this was not working as well as expected.

While governing body members refused to comment publicly on the matter, other sources reported the township would be handing over all health department duties to Westfield by the end of the year.

In late November when LocalSource reported the two remaining employees had been notified their positions would be eliminated, it was expected the township would renegotiate the contract with Westfield by the end of the year, but this failed to take place by late December. While governing body members refused to discuss the issue, they did say the matter was “still under consideration.”
There was no indication that a mistake had been made by Hartnett or that the township was in hot water legally.

The township health department has undergone many changes since September 2011 when township health officer Warren Hehl, employed by the municipality for 23 years, left to take a position as Rahway’s Director of Health and Senior Services.

At that time the township opted to go with a shared services agreement with Westfield for health officer services which is required by state law, instead of hiring someone to fill the position paying more than $90,000 a year, plus health benefits.

This left several employees in the Cranford Health Department to handle local inquiries, issue marriage and death certificates and inspect local restaurants as well as other establishments providing food products. Whether moving some health department services to a regional health system is a cost saving measure for a municipality depends on several factors, including what additional health services a town contracts for in addition to mandated health officer services.

According to the last negotiated inter-local agreement the township signed with Westfield in February 2013, obtained by LocalSource using the Open Public Records Act, the township had amended its January 2013 agreement to include nursing services.
This increased the amount Cranford was paying annually to Westfield for public health services to $77,756 a year. However, that number would have increased as of Jan. 1 because of an annual contractual increase clause.

The fact that the township was contracting these services while still maintaining an employee presence locally raised the question of whether there was any real cost savings to this route.

More specifically, while Hehl was making $92,205 when he left, the township still has to pay Westfield for their services, in addition to Jencik, earning in excess of $65,000 annually and Holler, paid more than $24,000 a year. Also to be considered in the final tally is the fact the township is paying for Jennifer Kobliska, now working as assistant to the administrator, for her duties as registrar of vital statistics.
Kobliska previously was appointed to the health department in 2011 by the governing body as administrative assistant and registrar of vital statistics, but was moved to the administrator assistant position Oct. 28. The township is required by law to have at least a part time registrar of vital statistics on site even when public health services are being provided by another municipality through an inter-local agreement.

Puzzling is that township attorney Dan McCarthy, who also represents the board of health, did not research the legal ramifications of eliminating both Jencik’s and Holler’s positions prior to Hartnett notifying these employees they would be terminated. Jencik has been an employee for more than ten years, while Holler was hired more than three years ago.

LocalSource did find out through sources that these two employees did receive “Rice Notices,” or legally required notification that elimination of their positions would be discussed by the governing body in closed session. It is, though, unclear what date those notices went out, or if these employees opted to attend these discussions, which they are entitled to do.

The state statute governing over this particular department was very specific in outlining protections for employees who by no fault of their own would lose the positions they held for more than two years if a municipality decided to go with a less costly regional health department for the same services.

The law in question is New Jersey State Statute 26:3-94, which specifically applies to health departments and local board’s of health.
Under the section titled “employees” it points out that if a municipality decides to go with a regional health department for full public health services, all full-time employees with two or more years of service “shall” be transferred to the regional health department. They also must be assigned duties comparable with those previously performed and at the same rate of pay.

This would mean Jencik would have to be absorbed into the Westfield Regional Health Department and be provided with a position doing the same thing she did in Cranford, at the same salary. At issue is why someone was not aware of the state statute regarding the disbanding of a health department and the employees involved.

The law also addressed part-time employees, noting that if an employee has worked two or more years for a municipality, which the Cranford deputy registrar has, they must be placed on a “preferential re-employment list” for a period of “at least” two years for any position that opens up in the regional health department requiring the same license and type of work.

In other words, the Westfield Regional Health Department would be required to offer Holler first shot at any position that opened up with the same state license and job status she previously held as an employee of the Cranford Health Department.

Late last week LocalSource spoke with newly appointed Mayor Andy Kalnins who was evasive about what transpired and what might be in the works for the health department.

“We had implementation problems,” he said, but preferred not going into the matter any further except to point out the township renewed the same contract with the same level of services it had with the Westfield Regional Health Department as last year.

“We are still looking at all our options,” the mayor said, hesitant to say anymore about the issue or what might be coming down the road.