HILLSIDE, NJ – The Township Council recently passed a resolution of no confidence in Mayor Angela Garretson in a 5 to 1 vote, but the mayor has fired back, saying the move is simply politics as usual.
During the council meeting on Tuesday, June 16, Council President Salonia Saxton, along with council members George Alston, Pateesh Friedman, Donald DeAugustine and Diane Murray, voted in favor of the resolution declaring no confidence in Garretson. Councilwoman Tonia Hobbs abstained and Councilman Sip Whitaker voted “no.”
The council president expressed remorse concerning the situation during the meeting, giving several reasons why she and others felt the vote was needed.
“It’s with deep regret, but many of the sitting council members feel it has to be done,” said Saxton. “Therefore, I am going to ask this council for a vote of no confidence against Mayor Angela Garretson, due to her failure to comply with township ordinances that have been set by this council, her lack of communication with the Township Council to move the township forward, her failure to pay vendors in a timely manner and her failure to appoint department heads to key positions that would allow the township to function.”
In an exclusive interview with LocalSource, Garretson shot back, saying any truth to these allegations was the result of council actions.
“We need to be able to communicate,” the mayor said. “There is a gross misunderstanding of what it means to govern. This is not governing. Eighteen months ago, they said they had no confidence in me when I was elected. Why make this something new? They never had intentions of working with me.”
According to the council president, the situation has been building for the past 18 months and she felt there were no other options.
“It has just gotten to the point that our hands are tied with this mayor,” said Saxton. “We have done everything possible to try and work with her and she has just totally ignored every ordinance, every resolution.”
According to Saxton, the level of communication has plummeted to near zero in recent months.
“We didn’t even know that the library was going to reopen,” she said. “And for a year and a half, people were not happy that the library was closed. She never said one single word to us that the library was opening.”
Hillside Public Library had been closed from August 2013 until about three weeks ago. Following extensive flood damage and a series of repairs and upgrades, the library finally reopened with a new floor, a repaired roof, new computers donated by a local company and a revamped collection. The library was closed for so long that Hillside was removed from the inter-local reciprocal borrowing agreement with other area municipalities, giving residents no way to access any library in the area.
But the library, which is not controlled by the township but is instead governed autonomously by a board of trustees, was only one arena in which the council president took issue with the mayor’s actions.
“She won’t hire any department heads,” Saxton said in an interview last week. “We have submitted four names for the business administrator, and nothing. We went above and beyond to get that done.”
According to the mayor, at the recent meeting where a no-confidence vote passed, the council only just now approved an annual salary range for a full-time business administrator of $50,000 to $125,000. The township has had at least two acting administrators in the past year and a half, although, according to the Faulkner Act form of government, it is required by law to have one.
But, as the mayor pointed out, that salary approval still does not take effect until Monday, July 6. According to the Faulkner Act, the township has a strong mayor and it is the mayor’s responsibility to nominate a candidate for the job and the council to approve it, not the other way around.
“This is child’s play,” the mayor said. “I want my community to move in the right direction.”
According to the mayor, the council has been playing games with salaries for some time now, particularly with the position of director of the Department of Public Works.
Saxton said that the mayor “picked a guy that is not qualified. He doesn’t have the credentials.” Garretson says the council has not given this position a competitive salary and her hands are tied.
Garretson did not directly address the qualifications of the current acting director, but did take strong issue with the salary available. The council president and other sources said the acting position came with a $15,000 salary for a 90-day period, but the mayor alleged the salary is $15,000 annually and the current acting director’s salary is approximately minimum wage.
When reached by phone, Tharien Arnold, the acting director of the Department of Public Works, confirmed that his pay checks reflect a salary of $15,000 a year, but declined to discuss the issue further.
“When I was council president, despite not getting along with Mayor Menza, I worked with him to get things done,” said the mayor. “It wasn’t about me. It was about the residents of Hillside. And that’s what this council and mayor need to do.”
Garretson also pointed out that she butted heads with former mayor Joe Menza often, but after Menza received a court decision in his favor explaining his powers as a strong mayor in a Faulkner Act government, she came around and tried to work with him.
“As a mayor, I’m an elected official, not an administrator,” Garretson said. “They aren’t giving me the resources to get the job done.”
This was a sentiment echoed by Whitaker, the lone “no” vote on the resolution regarding no confidence.
“The reason I voted no is because I think it is a waste of time and more of a witch hunt than anything else,” said Whitaker. “I believe our time would be better spent dealing with the issues of the township than voting on a personal vendetta.”
Whitaker felt the council majority was simply attacking the mayor for political reasons and the business of a no-confidence vote did nothing to help township residents.
“Nobody in this world is perfect,” he said. “When you vote no confidence in the mayor, you need to look at yourself and what you’ve done for the township. The council put a cap on the salary for $15,000 to run the public works department. How are you going to hire someone to run public works for $15,000? We need to give the mayor the tools she needs to get the job done and I don’t feel the council has done that.”
Whitaker had other examples where he felt the council failed the people and blamed it on the mayor. For instance, he talked about the current budget, saying the leadership of the financial committee didn’t “talk to the stakeholders” and cut a million dollars from the budget.
“People are complaining about potholes, tree services and abandoned houses,” Whitaker said. “We cut a million dollars and we didn’t put any money aside to deal with these issues. These are the things we should be attacking in the town. We shouldn’t be attacking the mayor. Let’s not worry about the mayor. Let’s give her the tools she needs and then, if she doesn’t get it done, let’s talk about the mayor. Put the people first and move forward to make the town a better place.”
Nevertheless, the council president was steadfast in her opinion.
“It appears the township is running itself and the morale of the township employees is damaged nearly beyond repair,” said Saxton. “And we want a mayor that we can count on, not a mayor that abuses her authority and not a mayor that’s been in office for 18 months with a record of being ineffective.”