It’s been a long 18 months in Hillside

Mayor, council at odds since day one, but residents ultimately suffer the consequences

HILLSIDE, NJ – The township of Hillside has just recently appointed its fourth business administrator in the past 18 months, and stands poised to appoint its fifth amid continued and persistent clashing between the mayor and the council.

The most recent hire, former Irvington Police Superintendent Joseph Santiago, was officially appointed to the position Aug. 6 at a salary of $120,000 a year, but he was quickly downgraded to a 90-day appointment for $25,000.

Mayor Angela Garretson, who could not be reached for comment on this story by LocalSource, reportedly shared harsh words with The Star-Ledger last week.

“Before he’s there even two weeks, they say they don’t want him,” she told The Ledger. “They want an administrator, then they don’t want him.”

But council members were quick to defend themselves in interviews with LocalSource.

Council President Salonia Saxton took issue with many of Garretson’s actions in the past 18 months, but regarding the appointment of Santiago, she stated clearly that the board felt he was the wrong man for the job.

“The problem is that Joe Santiago was kind of shoved down the council’s throat,” Saxton said. “The mayor showed up with him on July 7 and the memo was dated July 6 that basically said this is the new business administrator and that’s that. This is what she does. The mayor just shows up with whoever, whenever. I definitely have a problem with Joe Santiago, not as an individual, but with how he came to our township as a business administrator.”

According to Saxton, and other council members LocalSource spoke with, the council interviewed potential candidates for the job, and so did the mayor. None of those candidates, sources said, was Santiago. His recommendation for the job, they said, was allegedly a complete surprise at the July 7 meeting.

And according to Saxton, the council has already voted unanimously, with one abstention, to deny Santiago the job following the 90-day appointment.

“We are without a business administrator prior to Santiago arriving,” Saxton said. “We want someone permanent. Her memo states ‘acting’ to force us to accept who she wishes us to accept.”

Santiago comes with a bit of a checkered past. According to The Star-Ledger, Santiago was the police director in Newark until 2002 when Gov. Jim McGreevey appointed him as the first non-trooper to head the State Police. After seven months at that post, he left after allegations surfaced he consorted with mobsters in Newark. While Santiago blamed the allegations on troopers who did not like how he handled the department, the state Attorney General’s Office reprimanded him after an ethics review found he illegally and improperly ordered subordinates to bring him investigative files about his own past.

In 2003, The Ledger reported, he became Trenton’s police director until 2008 before he was forced out for failing to comply with a city requirement that he live in Trenton. According to The Ledger, his “attempts to change the department divided officers, and the city council finally filed a lawsuit over the residency requirement.”

LocalSource spoke with multiple council members in Hillside, and none of them questioned Santiago’s resume as a police director. They did, however, all point out that he has no prior experience as a business administrator.

Two weeks after Santiago’s appointment, the fourth acting business administrator in 18 months revealed plans to restructure the township, including appointing a new police director.

“We already have a police chief,” Saxton said. “The town is not big enough for a director. We voted to reject the mayor’s nomination of Joe Santiago. I have nothing against Santiago. I don’t know him personally at all. But this is turning into a real nightmare.

Saxton, and other council members LocalSource spoke with, like Councilwoman Diane Murray, wonder why the acting business administrator wants to create a new, unnecessary position of police director when there are already very important job vacancies that have gone unfilled for months.

“We have issues all over town that need to be tackled right now,” said Murray. “We have trash all over town. We have issues regarding employee hiring and other issues that need to be taken care of. Mr. Santiago wanted to change the structure of the town, and that’s not necessarily a problem, but we need to first figure out the issues we need to work on.”

‘Nightmare’ scenario

The “nightmare” Saxton speaks of does not begin with Santiago, and it is not even contained within the office of business administrator. That position is simply the longest running political battle being waged between this council and mayor.

Samson Steinman, the first acting business administrator, stayed on long after his 90-day appointment but was never appointed to the position permanently. He was also the first to resign with a two-sentence letter on Feb. 4, 2015. He was appointed in March of 2014, shortly after Garretson took office.

“I greatly appreciate my employment at the Township of Hillside and the opportunity I received to work with members of the community,” Steinman said in his letter, tendering his resignation effective Feb. 1, 2015, three days earlier than the email was sent.

Shortly thereafter, David G. Brown, the business administrator for Roselle, was tasked with filling in part time. But on April 14, he sent an email tendering his resignation.

“Thanks for the opportunity to serve the residents of Hillside, the Administration, you and the Council, but at this time I am tendering my resignation effective immediately,” said Brown in his resignation email to the mayor. “I believe I have tried my best to manage in the current Hillside environment, but I am unable to meet your satisfaction.”

Just one week later, on April 20, Garretson alerted the council via email that William Lee would replace Brown as the acting business administrator, “and serve in the mayor’s office assuming all of” Brown’s responsibilities.

Lee lasted three days. No letter of resignation could be found.
Santiago was appointed as the acting business administrator two months later. But his appointment, amid contention and controversy, is just the latest in a laundry list of complaints leveled against the mayor by the council.

In addition to being without a full-time business administrator, Hillside also does not have a full-time chief financial officer and is without a superintendent of the department of public works. According to a letter from Council President Saxton to Timothy Cunningham, director of the Division of Local Government Employees for the state dated July 22, these absences have resulted in big problems. Saxton stated that the letter had been mailed to Cunningham.

“The township is to date without a Department of Public Works superintendent, which has created a total lack of supervision and has resulted in our streets being scattered with trash, potholes are left unfilled in a timely manner or not at all, an understaffed department, neglected overgrown trees, and abandoned properties which have become complete eyesores,” the letter reads.

Regarding the lack of a full-time CFO, the letter reads “the mayor refuses to advertise for the full-time CFO position. Currently the town has spent over $200,000 to contract an outside accounting firm. The accounting firm provides the township with two employees, one full time and one part time. The firm has complained of trying to complete the budget and other daily accounting transactions in a timely manner. However, once they complete their portion of the job and send it to the mayor for approval, it is then delayed for weeks at a time. The accounting firm is costing the township more than it would be to hire employees and/or a permanent full-time CFO.”

This letter begins, however, by stating an intention to file an ethics complaint, and asks for a full investigation of the mayor’s actions.

“I regret to inform you that the township of Hillside mayor, Angela Garretson, has abused her powers as an elected official resulting in loss of revenue, resignation of employees and lack of public trust,” the letter begins. “I am filing an ethics complaint against Mayor Angela Garretson and I am requesting a full investigation into the operations of the mayor.”

The letter is nearly five pages long, and is a 16-point referendum on the actions of the mayor that details many allegations, some of which have been confirmed by LocalSource. The length of the letter makes it difficult to detail all of the allegations here in full, but they paint the picture of a mayor unwilling to compromise, unwilling to accept “no” for an answer, and even leveling threats against township employees on several occasions.

In one instance, the letter says that “one former business administrator complained of her (the mayor) berating him to the point that work conditions became unbearable and he resigned on the spot.”

It is unclear which business administrator the letter is describing.
The letter also says the mayor has delayed the hiring of two full-time civilian dispatchers in the Hillside Police Department by refusing to give them a start date. “This is costing the town thousands of dollars,” the letter reads. “Currently, police officers that are making higher salaries are filling these positions that should be held by civilian dispatchers.” The letter goes on to complain about these officers being unavailable for street duty. LocalSource was unable to confirm this before press time.

The mayor has also reportedly failed to address the hiring of qualified code enforcement officers, according to the letter. “The township has missed opportunities to collect on outstanding fines, forcing court cases to be dismissed because code enforcement officers are not available to testify,” the letter states. LocalSource was unable to confirm this before press time.

To sum up some of the rest of the allegations, the letter says the mayor has held up payment of many vendors contracted with the township, including the IT professionals hired for the library and the former attorney, which the letter states has threatened to sue. LocalSource has spoken with some vendors that have voiced similar complaints, but was unable to confirm this berfore press time. In addition, the letter says the mayor has refused to provide more help to the single full-time employee of the senior center, going so far as to deny volunteers from helping and causing seniors to sit outside wondering why the center is closed. The mayor has also refused to sign a contract for the new phone system, according to the letter, “without explanation,” and the township is spending a lot of money on “temporary fixes.”

More complaints include the budget being very late, no capital improvement budget being delivered to date, grant writers being held up and grant opportunities missed, the mayor having her vehicle “detailed” by the public works department, and having a volunteer working in her office clean the inside of her vehicle.

But one of the more disturbing complaints, of which LocalSource has been able to confirm, involved the harassment of an employee.

“Mayor Garretson has threatened employees whom have documented the threats with the Hillside Police Department, which is clearly an abuse of power,” the letter states.

On Dec. 3, 2014, the Hillside Police Department responded to town hall for a welfare check of a distraught and crying Julie Seelogy, a township account clerk. Seelogy subsequently filed a harassment complaint “toward Hillside Township Mayor Angela Garretson.”

“Ms. Seelogy stated that there has been an on-going harassment issue between her and Mayor Garretson,” the police report of the incident reads. “Ms. Seelogy stated that since she was appointed Hillside Township Account Clerk, she feels that the mayor refuses and dismisses all financial/payroll issues that she advises her about. She stated that the mayor has constantly tried to provoke her into saying or doing something that requires her to be disciplined. Ms. Seelogy stated that on Nov. 11, 2014, during a meeting with the mayor over issues regarding township employees …, the mayor stated ‘If she gets paid and I’m not notified, your gone.’

“Ms. Seelogy states that a former township employee came to her regarding a payroll issue,” the report continues. “Ms. Seelogy stated that she explained to the former employee what she needs to be done, however, she believe that the employee may not have heard her correctly. Ms. Seelogy stated that the employee then told current employees of the issue which was not resolved at which time the mayor had come to hear what had occurred. Ms. Seelogy stated that she was advised from a township employee that ‘the mayor wants to suspend you till Friday with pay.’ Ms. Seelogy stated that was a ‘final straw’ and could not take the constant harassment.”

Seelogy, according to the police report, left work for the day due to being “distraught and emotional.”

On July 27, Seelogy filed a letter of resignation with the township, citing “unsatisfactory working conditions.”

“I have, over the past year, tried to work these issues out with the Hon. Mayor Garretson and have filed repeated complaints with your police department but with no success,” the letter from Seelogy reads. “On repeated occasions, I have been asked to work under her lack of professionalism, trust and extreme hostile behavior.”

Seelogy praised the “most recent” CFO, Mauricio Canto, and says he should be awarded for his “patience and conduct” while working with the mayor and for his employees. But Seelogy again condemns the actions of the mayor.

“As I mentioned previously,” the letter continues, “I have raised concerns on several occasions and was forced recently by the mayor not to follow State and Local Township Ordinance laws. This concludes that my needs are no longer part of the Township of Hillside’s best interests.”

Seelogy shares well wishes for the people of Hillside, saying it has at times been a “great pleasure” to work with many of them and for them. “They will be greatly missed,” she says.

Her resignation, which is effective Sept. 4, is only a formality. She stopped working on Aug. 11, and used all of her unused vacation and personal days.

“I want you to know that I have enjoyed my job at the Township of Hillside,” the letter concludes. “I’ve learned many things in this past year, including what makes a hostile work environment. Just the sense of relief I feel in writing this letter confirms that my resignation is the right move. Thank you for the mostly positive experience.”

Seelogy is the second account clerk to resign this summer, the first being Brigitte Volturo of the treasurer’s office on July 10. Volturo’s resignation letter was unceremonious.

When asked about this incident, and about the new business administrator, Councilwoman Murray had a few choice words.
“Anybody who has had direct contact with the mayor,” Murray said, “has had difficulties working with her for various reasons. I think they were not employee reasons, but more personal reasons. I think it has to do with her attitude and personality.

“And that’s a big problem,” she continued, “because the mayor is the CEO of the township. And when the mayor can’t get you to do what she needs done, and you feel harassed, that’s bad for the town. As a resident of the town, neglected issues affect me as well. I don’t understand or know what her motivation is, but I don’t know if anyone else understands her either. We have a lot of top positions that are empty, and we need these positions filled with qualified people. And for some reason, the mayor doesn’t appoint people to these positions for the council to approve. I don’t know what the issue is, but she can’t seem to bring in qualified people.”

The council president, in the closing paragraph of her letter to the state, paints a grim picture.

“This is almost a cry for help …,” the letter reads. “As elected officials our job is to strengthen our community by raising public confidence in our township and under the administration of Mayor Angela Garretson it has become very difficult to move the Township of Hillside forward.”

The mayor did not return repeated requests for comment by press time.

3 Responses to "It’s been a long 18 months in Hillside"

  1. John   August 31, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Here’s the bottom line.

    The mayor and council can NOT and WILL not work together.

    It’s a smaller representation of our current presidential administration. “WE” (council/house) are going to tie “YOUR” (mayor/president) hands so you are unable to do ANYTHING, then we will publicly defame you for not DOING anything.

    These issues carry over from Mayor to Mayor. The same tail wagging different dogs (metaphorically speaking). The residents all know this, just as they know as long as the current political structure remains as is, it matters not WHO the mayor is, today, tomorrow, next year, 5 or 10 years from now.

  2. Tony   September 1, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    I totally agree with John. It saddens me that the council would use such tactics to defame the mayor and they have been for years. So it makes it difficult to believe that it’s the mayor’s fault – even if any of the allegations were true. The council members and the mayor need to figure out how to work together and stop embarrassing our town.

  3. Charlotte   September 4, 2015 at 11:50 am

    John & Tony, you are both wrong.

    If you understood government in Hillside then you would understand this. The Mayor oversees the day to day operations of the town. That simply means that she has the rights to hire and fire all employees as well as oversee their job performance. So if trash is flying through the streets, or roads are not cleared during snow storms, or trees are not trimmed in Spring before winter, the results are her fault. It is her job to make sure every department runs smoothly!

    The council is responsible to oversee the laws of the town. The council and the mayor must only agree on Department Head hires. The reason this was put in place was to make sure qualified employees were hired to oversee the departments.

    So if anything as of today the Mayor has hired an employee in the Senior Department. Although the person was her campaign manager, she did get the sole employee some help. The article did make the Business Administrator send out the DPW on weekends to start cleaning the abandoned properties. So thank you to the reporter, because it Mayor lite a fire under her azz!

    I think the Council President and council are doing a great holding the Mayor accountable of her duties. If she spent more time in Hillside and less in Essex County, Hillside would be thriving faster!

    And residents deserve a clean safe town! I know that’s what I want.