HILLSIDE — Mayor Joe Menza won a major court battle last week, one that should let council members know who has the final word when it comes to layoffs, hiring and firing.
The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division made two important findings, including that the mayor can initiate layoffs without the council’s approval, something that became the subject of controversy in 2010.
In fact, it was the Firemans Mutual Benevolent Association, local 35 and 235, that initiated the legal action that eventually led to the appeals court decision handed down last week in favor of the mayor.
The appeals court also ruled that subordinate officers and employees can be removed by department heads with the approval of the mayor only. This takes away any power the council thought they had when it comes to blocking layoffs or removal of certain employees by the mayor.
The decision threw out lower court decisions which ruled the mayor could not hire and fire without the approval of council members. In other words, the higher court ruling determined that because the township is a Faulkner Act municipality, the mayor is the “appointing authority,” for employees and the council cannot override his decisions.
This was a major coup for Menza who has had to wage war against the governing body in order to get anything accomplished.
Last week when he was reached by telephone, Menza admitted he was relieved about the higher court ruling, but said there was no doubt in his mind he was right from the beginning.
“I knew the law and they didn’t,” Menza said, adding “now I don’t need four votes to do the job I’m supposed to do for the taxpayers.”
Menza is not one to back down, especially when he believes he is right. This outspoken mayor readily admitted last week that when elected in 2009 he was well aware the road ahead would not be an easy one because of the Democratic stronghold on the council. The stronghold, he said, leads back to Union County Democratic Party Chairwoman Charlotte DeFlippo. But that has not stopped this headstrong mayor from standing up for taxpayers, even if that meant waging one legal battle after another in order to prove he was in the right.
Such was the case in 2010 when Menza faced a budget deficit that would have raised taxes beyond what he felt residents and other property owners should have to bear. So, in June 2010 he decided to lay off 50 employees, including 28 police, fire and public works personnel, along with 22 clerical employees. That move raised the ire of all concerned, including council members, who sided with employees.
Menza, though, remained firm, contending the township could not afford these employees. Although he asked the unions to make concessions so the majority of layoffs might not be necessary, they refused. This, he said, left him with with little choice but to initiate the layoff plan.
This enraged both the employees whose jobs were at stake and council members. But, again, Menza refused to back down or withdraw the layoff plan.
Civil service approved the mayor’s plan a month later and all hell broke loose. The firemen’s union filed an objection with civil service and threatened that they would go to court if necessary to stop the layoffs.
Meanwhile, the mayor, council and union began negotiating to come to a meeting of the minds and Menza agreed to temporarily withdraw his layoff plan. However, that did not last long.
When negotiations failed to resolve the issue, Menza resubmitted his layoff plan to civil service in July 2010 and received approval to layoff employees as of Oct. 15, 2010.
Just days before the layoff, though, the township council and union filed separate complaints in superior court, challenging the authority of Menza to lay off any employee without the approval of council. That legal action stalled the layoffs, but not the mayor’s determination to do what was right for taxpayers.
While the two superior court decisions were pending, the mayor, council and unions sat down at the negotiating table in an effort to resolve the matter. The result of these meetings was a financial plan that would only require seven employees laid off, as opposed to the 50 Menza proposed initially. But the court battle was far from over.
In March 2011 a Superior Court decision concluded the mayor was not authorized to submit a layoff plan to civil service without approval of the township council. This was a blow to Menza, but he refused to back down and filed an appeal.
While complicated, the appeals court explained the Faulkner Act allows municipalities to select from four structures of local government to meet the needs of its citizens. These four alternatives, however, allocate power and authority differently among elected and appointed officials.
“The mayor-council plan establishes a strong executive, concentrating the most authority of the four alternatives in the office of mayor,” the appeals court pointed out, adding it is the mayor who has “substantial power” under the mayor-council plan because he is elected by popular vote for the office.
The Faulkner Act, they went on to explain, clearly states it is the mayor who has the right to exercise this “executive power of the municipality,” and therefore the authority to supervise, direct and control all departments.
The mayor also has the power to supervise the development, installation and maintenance of the municipal budget, something Menza has fought for since he was elected to the office of mayor.
More importantly, the mayor is charged with determining the “hiring, firing, salary, wages and other compensation of municipal administrative employees.” The council’s role, on the other hand, is limited when it comes to municipal employees, according to the appeals court.
In fact, when it comes to removing an employee, the mayor has all the power and he can act without input from department heads or anyone else.
Actually, according to the appeals court ruling, the only authority the council has is when it comes to the mayor firing a department head. The council can block the move by a two-thirds decision. But the council has no similar authority over administrative employees.
The appeals court also found the lower courts were not right when they decided the Faulkner Act permitted council to modify the law by ordinance so the mayor was forced to share these duties with council, which they tried to do, Menza said.
In other words, according to the appeals court, “the actions of the Hillside township council in this case intruded upon Mayor Menza’s statutory authority.”
The mayor does not need council’s approval to initiate a layoff plan, either. So how does that bode for employees this year? According to Menza, they do not have much to worry about. This year, that is, but next year could bring an entirely different set of circumstances.
As for the budget, the mayor was pleased about one thing.
“We will be under the 2-percent cap,” he said, but did not mince words when it comes to how he envisions what is needed to make Hillside run even smoother.
“The truth is we need a business administrator,” Menza said, explaining that he fully intends to free up some money by eliminating a position that is not needed.
“We have a director of economic development that previously was the UEZ director and frankly he answers to no one. The business community is up in arms and something has to be done,” the mayor said, noting that Yves Aubourg, who is also council president in Roselle, “needs to go.”
“We are in dire need of a business administrator more than a director of economic development, who I have no idea what he does or has accomplished,” the mayor said, mentioning this position pays $106,000 a year.
“When Gov. Chris Christie shut down the UEZ’s two years ago, the council gave him a new title of director of economic development, but with the appeals court decision, I can change things so we spend that money wiser,” Menza said, asking “does it make any sense to keep a guy who you don’t even know what he is doing or accomplished?”
The mayor said he has to give Aubourg 90 days notice, as required by civil service, but he had no qualms about getting that ball rolling.
The mayor also was pleased about the retirement of former police chief Robert Quinlan.
“He was making $210,000, or $230,000 with benefits, and the new police chief is making $165,000,” Menza said.
“You have to find revenue somewhere or cut expenses,” the mayor added, saying it is his job to watch out for taxpayer dollars and he fully intends to do his job.