HILLSIDE, NJ — To put it bluntly, Hillside is a mess, and by all accounts, it’s somebody else’s fault. With no full-time business administrator, no CFO and constant political infighting between the mayor and council, it is a fact that Hillside has seen better days, and that those days are becoming a thing of the past.
Hillside is no stranger to these constant controversies. In the past, well before Mayor Angela Garretson ever took office, the township seldom had a business administrator, and it wasn’t until 2013 that one was hired. Prior to that, the last business administrator left office in 1999. And a revolving door of CFOs has been ongoing for five years or more.
With a small $10,000 salary, the mayor says she is struggling to do her best to keep the township running, despite opposition from the council. The council is at fault for sabotaging any of her efforts, she says.
And on the other side of the aisle, many of the council members say any problems the township is facing are squarely the fault of the mayor.
It is often difficult to separate fact from fiction, and political pandering from steadfast concern for the residents. But it is clear that something in Hillside will need to change soon before the camel’s back crumbles under the weight of constant and unrelenting political infighting.
“She has made this one of the most difficult tasks that anyone has probably endured to fix the betterment of the community,” said Council President Salonia Saxton, who is up for reelection on Nov. 3. “It’s been hard for the council. She doesn’t have a plan. This is a mayor without a plan. She doesn’t have any answers. And so now we are without a CFO. The contract expired Sept. 30. There have been no nominations. This should have been anticipated.”
But the mayor fired back on Monday, claiming that much of the information being fed to the public from the council is simply not true.
“To offer a new CFO a job, you have to have a salary to propose to them. The council chose not to provide a proper salary. We have very qualified candidates, but all I can offer is $1,” the mayor said, explaining the current salary under the previous contract is for $1. The salary is at that level because the former CFO was hired from an outside firm. That outside firm paid his salary.
“I can’t interview a candidate and make up a salary to offer,” Garretson said. “And with a dollar there is no job security. The council chooses to keep interjecting themselves into day-to-day operations as opposed to setting policy.”
The $1 salary could not be confirmed before press time. It was, however, outright denied in strong language by one councilwoman.
“The CFO position is not set at $1,” said Councilwoman Diane Murray, who is not part of the current election cycle. “The mayor is a liar. And she is incompetent and she is a liar. There is no reason to blame anyone for not hiring because she does the hiring. It is a character flaw with her that she can’t hire people, and when she does they always quit.”
The mayor also made contradictory claims to those of the council president. The council president, as well as two other council members, stated there has only been one employee working in the finance department since the CFO resigned effective Oct. 1.
“Three employees are currently working in the finance department. One of the three is a Hillside resident,” said Garretson, adding that there is one accountant and two account clerks and said that they were hired within the last several weeks.
“The good thing is they come with more government experience,” the mayor said.
However, as of press time the township still had a vacant CFO position since Oct. 1.
The mayor said that former business administrator Joseph Santiago, who has since resigned after being appointed to a 90-day acting term, did advertise for the position and interviewed candidates. An ad for the position was found with a simple internet search, which stated to respond to Santiago by Aug. 24. The ad does not list a salary.
Murray, Saxton and Councilman Gerald Friedman, who is running for reelection in November, were all unaware of the ad and the interviews. Friedman’s remarks were more reserved than his colleagues.
“As you know, the turnovers in Hillside come exceedingly,” said Friedman. “We never hold onto one for too long. We had hoped that the mayor would find someone and make an appointment, and now push has come to, and we couldn’t extend them anymore, and now it’s up to the mayor. The CFO is a mayor’s appointment. The council can make recommendations, but ultimately it’s the mayor’s appointment.”
Murray, who was asked specifically about the mayor’s comments, did not mince words.
“This has nothing to do with the council,” she said. “This is her incompetence. Either she is going to do her job or step down as the mayor. ‘Cause she is making Hillside look like a crazy place. I am very confident that there is a salary range in place. And I am more than confident that she is incompetent. This has nothing to do with the council. This is all the mayor.”
While the CFO position remains vacant, the mayor says upgrades to the department have been made.
“In the last year, we were still using typewriters, and we have been able to make purchase orders and utilize computers now,” the mayor said, adding that a new software program has also enabled better work flow.
But with no business administrator and no CFO, the mayor was asked if the vacancies were holding up the township from completing its goals.
“What I am doing is making sure this township functions,” the mayor said. “I have to allow the township to function. The council continues to be obstructionists without providing any solutions. I make a full-time nomination, they reject it. And so I am forced to put in acting positions. This is a right of a chief executive, to ensure that the quality of life continues to grow.
“My intention is making sure the Township of Hillside functions in each of my respective departments that I am responsible for,” the mayor continued. “Every time the council puts in an obstacle, I overcome the obstacle, because it’s about the community and putting the people first. We need somebody who cares about the best interest of the township. The question is no longer about acting or permanent, but is about finding people that can do the jobs.”
The council members that LocalSource spoke with all agreed that despite everything, the mayor should have anticipated the vacancy long ago, and the position should have been filled by now.
“She doesn’t have a plan,” said Saxton. “This is a mayor without a plan. She doesn’t have any answers. And so now we are without a CFO. The contract expired Sept. 30. There have been no nominations. This should have been anticipated.”
And while the political infighting continues, and the mud slinging is beginning to cake the walls, Friedman has at least a possible answer for any confusion.
“People don’t understand the workings of the Faulkner Act, said Friedman. “When something isn’t getting done, they don’t know where the blame should rest. And I can’t blame them. It’s not the easiest thing to figure out. But the mayor makes the appointment of the business administrator, of the CFO.”
At least three council members put the blame squarely on the mayor, while the mayor has labeled the council “obstructionists.” The council members have also expressed repeated concerns that without a CFO, vendors and bills may not get paid, and even payroll may be affected.
However, the mayor says, her department is weathering the storm for now, and will continue working to make Hillside a better place.
“We have not had a business administrator, but fortunately in my department we have a lot of people with a lot of talent. Even if we have not had a business administrator, we have had people capable of performing all of the tasks necessary. I proposed a business administrator to the council, and they were not agreeable, but I have a number of talented people that can perform various duties.”
It remains unclear when a CFO will be found, or when a new business administrator will be appointed. But at least one thing is clear: it’s always someone else’s fault.