HILLSIDE — Life as a Hillside township employee has been “unbearable” for the better part of the past year because of Mayor Angela Garretson, and employees are being micromanaged and threatened, and they are working in fear of losing their jobs at the hand of the mayor’s temperament, according to several sources. Now, the council president says he has had enough, and the mayor is saying the allegations are “nonsense.”
“I’ve been on the council for three years and I’ve been a resident since 1967, and I’ve never seen morale this low,” said Council President Donald DeAugustine in an interview with LocalSource last week. “It’s really disheartening. It’s do what the mayor says or do nothing at all.”
DeAugustine’s frustrations with the current mayor reached a tipping point in recent months, and they culminated in a letter to the director of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs dated Dec. 2, a copy of which was obtained by LocalSource through the Open Public Records Act.
“I am the president of the Hillside Township Council and write on behalf of the Township Council to alert you to a situation which is of serious concern to the council,” the letter reads. “The mayor has acted outside of the scope of her legal authority and she refuses to enforce the ordinances of the municipality.”
But in an interview on Monday, Garretson shot back, saying the accusations were “nonsense,” and alleging the council simply will not let her do her job.
“My initial reaction is that they have an imperfect understanding of administration and the role of the council,” Garretson said upon first reading the letter.
In fact, the mayor thinks the council president did not even address his letter to the correct office, questioning whether the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs was the best place to address these concerns.
“They should have sent it to me,” she continued, saying the council needs to learn how to work with her. “Deal with me. They have a lack of understanding. This is clearly hearsay. If there are any accusations, it will be properly evaluated.”
The full letter goes on for a page and a half and details a specific and ongoing situation that has not been resolved since the mayor took office in January of 2014.
According to the letter, the council has been trying to pay the township attorney, Christine Burgess, for legal services rendered, and the mayor has gone to great lengths to stop the efforts.
When asked last week during an interview, DeAugustine said the issue began when the mayor, after having just taken office, fired the township attorney for unknown reasons. Pleased with the work of Burgess, the council overrode the firing by majority vote, and since the mayor has refused to facilitate paying this employee, even going so far as to threaten employees in the finance department with termination if the payments are processed.
“The mayor has refused to approve the invoices, and has removed the invoices from the treasurer’s office,” according to the letter. “It has now come to my attention that the mayor has forbidden the business administrator from approving any invoices that the township attorney has prepared for her services this year.”
This was the first time the council approved paying the township attorney, according to the council president. In a second attempt, the council recently passed a new ordinance authorizing compensation of up to $50,000 for the attorney’s services this year. Again, the council’s attempt was thwarted by the mayor.
“We actually passed an ordinance to compensate her for the time she spends at council meetings. We passed that. The mayor vetoed that. We overrode that veto. I give her a lot of credit for hanging in there,” said DeAugustine in the interview last week referring to the township attorney working without compensation for an entire year.
But this second attempt was then thwarted again by the mayor, who allegedly made threatening remarks to a township employee in the process.
The incident is detailed in the letter to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
“The township attorney has prepared invoices … for the months of January 2014 through November 2014 that have been signed by the Township Council president attesting to receipt of the services by the township council, and by the township CFO attesting to the availability of funds,” the letter reads.
The bills would then appear for review and approval at concurrent council meetings, but on Dec 2 and Dec. 16, this failed to happen, according to the long missive.
The letter goes on to say that “a clerk in the finance office stated to Council Vice President Salonia Saxton that the mayor threatened her in a loud voice saying that if she processes any payment for the township attorney for her legal services in accordance with the ordinance,”
she could consider herself gone!’”
The letter names the clerk from the finance department, but LocalSource is withholding the employee’s name after failing to make contact. However, it was confirmed by the chief of police that a report detailing the harassment by the mayor was put on file.
“The victim made a report of an ongoing incident, but it is up to them to sign the complaint,” said Chief of Police Louis Panarese. “There was a report taken but nobody signed the complaint. We can’t sign the complaint.”
The mayor took issue with all of these claims, including the incident of harassment detailed in the letter.
“The bulk of this letter is nonsense,” Garretson said. “It is a waste of energy when there are a lot of real issues that the township needs to focus on. It did not happen. You can’t just make blatant accusations when there are no facts. There is nothing in writing. Where is the documentation that you tried to resolve these issues?”
The letter from the council president ends by making it clear that the council believes Garretson is acting beyond her legal authority, and is creating a hostile work environment.
“The mayor’s action in threatening to potentially terminate an employee for carrying out her official duties … and interfering with another employee’s official duties under township ordinances clearly exceeds the scope of her legal authority and violates New Jersey statute, which requires the mayor to enforce the laws of the state of New Jersey and the ordinances of the municipality. We require your immediate assistance in this very serious matter.”
DeAugustine, in the interview last week, said he was hesitant to come forward and detail the events, both to the state and to LocalSource.
“One of the things I considered is that she is a new mayor trying to find her way, and I’ve given her time to get to know the job,” he said.
But come August and September, the council president said enough is enough.
“There is a fear factor now because people are concerned if they complain they are going to lose their jobs,” he said. “We have some really great workers around town that just want to do their jobs. The mayor makes work unbearable. It’s hard for them to do their job. I’d understand if these people were incompetent, but these people have been doing their jobs for years and all of a sudden they can’t and don’t.”
But the mayor shot back on Monday, saying that the council is the group responsible for any hostility in town hall.
“It just seems like they want to continue to take problems externally, not internally,” she said. “They really should concentrate on trying to legislate. How do you expect a solution to things if you have people who keep tiptoeing around the situation? I want to make sure that everyone is involved. I’m eager to work with the council and the professionals in place if they are capable of working with the goals that are set for the New Year.”
The council president, however, maintains that the problems with morale and unpaid bills at town hall are the fault of the mayor, and her inability to work with others to get things accomplished.
“The mayor has a total disregard for what council wants,” he said. “It opens you up to the possibility of lawsuits. Instead of spending money on roads and the township and what not, she is forcing us to spend money on lawsuits. We need police cars. We need fire engines. But every month it turns out that we have invoices that are turned back for whatever reason. We are trying to process invoices going back to last June.”
The mayor takes issue with these remarks, and also says it is her prerogative to hire a new attorney if she wants. When asked why the mayor decided to fire the township attorney, Burgess, in the first place, the mayor said “because she is a holdover attorney from three other administrations.”
“Most mayors,” Garretson said, “when they come into office, they have the ability to appoint their own cabinet of leaders. I think with the number of issues that we have in the township, we need a legal team that handles stuff in house. We really need to make sure that we have someone that can provide contracts in a timely manner. We need to be able to consult with legal professionals and believe that the advice is actually accurate.”
When challenged about her comments saying that the township is entitled to advice that is “actually accurate,” the mayor responded, saying “I think that each administration should be entitled to have a fresh look.”
The mayor also alleges that the township attorney is working without a contract, and that the few invoices her office has received are not detailed enough.
“There were two invoices that were submitted to the administration for January and February, and that’s it,” she said. “When the labor attorney requested to go over the invoices, she refused,” referring to Burgess. “This could have all been resolved six months ago. It is inappropriate to usurp my authority. She does not have a contract. She hasn’t had a contract through three administrations. She has not provided bills through February.
“But you don’t just get to do work and not check with anyone,” the mayor continued. “There is no check and balance there. They have now attempted to take away my authority as the mayor, and they want to now pay her as the council attorney.”
According to a LocalSource article about legal services throughout Union County, however, Burgess had the most detailed contract in the county as of October of 2013.
According to that investigation a year ago, Kologi & Simitz handle legal services and litigation for Hillside, but Burgess was contracted to provide routine attorney duties for the township and was paid $125 an hour. The amount she could charge was capped at $25,000, but she went over that amount, with council approval, three years in a row, never charging more than $34,662 in a single year during the period LocalSource investigated.
“All of these charges were detailed in her billing,” the article reads. “which detailed the issues involved and the amount of time spent to resolve the matters. Hillside, which had the most comprehensive, detailed contracts with all outside firms, not only clearly defined what legal services were involved, placing caps on the yearly amount to be spent, but also required attorneys to submit vouchers with detailed information. Hillside also put in their contracts that all legal firms had to notify the township when the charges reached 70 percent of the contracted amount.”
LocalSource does not have documentation for services rendered since October of 2013. However, if the attorney is working without a new contract as the mayor stated, she would be working under the previous contract until she is told, in writing, that her services are no longer needed.
Despite this ongoing war of words in Hillside, the mayor says she is determined to move forward and continue improving Hillside.
“The main thing that I would like to do is perform the role I was elected to do,” the mayor said. “I don’t want these distractions and I don’t want this legislative body that gets in the way of good management. My hope is not only that I continue to function, but I want a functioning mayor and council that can continue to move Hillside forward.”