HILLSIDE — Although Angela Garretson has only been in the mayor’s seat for a few weeks, she has brought sweeping changes along with her that are not sitting well with political enemies.
Despite rumors that bordered on the salacious about her private behavior, and other rumors that gave rise to possible misuse of her rights under the law as mayor, Garretson defended her actions on the record and without hesitation.
“I’m aware there are rumors circulating, but as mayor it’s my job to hit the ground running and do what has to be done to turn Hillside around. Some of those decisions have not sat well with some people, but getting caught up in that serves no purpose other than to feed the rumor mill,” Garretson said in an interview with LocalSource late last week.
In order to more clearly understand how this situation evolved one needs to understand the dynamics of how Garretson became mayor and the political players who helped her attain that goal.
Certainly it is a well known fact that like her predecessor, Joe Menza, she does not have the full support of the council. However, Garretson had and continues to have the backing of Democrat political powerhouses such as U.S. Representative Donald Payne, State Sen. Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman Joe Cryan, County Chairman Jerry Green, Union County Freeholder Chairman Chris Hudak, Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley, and Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, among others.
This support came early on and was even more evident Jan. 1 when she took the oath of office at the Kean University Hillside campus, the only place large enough to hold the 500-plus people attending the event. Even Lesniak, who could not attend, sent a video message of support and encouragement.
However, despite this outpouring of political support for Hillside’s new mayor, former Democrat county chairman and Hillside’s Democrat Municipal Chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo, did not attend.
This did not come as a surprise to Garretson, who said it was a well known fact the municipal chairwoman of her party did not back her candidacy when she ran against Menza and former council member Jorge Batista.
While DeFilippo threw her full support behind Batista, her local political connections failed to meet the challenge and her candidate lost the general election.
However, when neither Garretson nor Menza received 50 percent of the vote, a run-off election had to be held in early December. At this point Democrat sources felt DeFilippo would back Garretson, but she refused.
Garretson won the favor of Hillside voters, but that was not the end of the political infighting by any means.
Although political sources said they expected DeFilippo to move her allegiance behind the new mayor after the dust settled, that too failed to happen. Instead, DeFilippo let it be known in political circles that she was not happy with Garretson as mayor.
More than a week ago DeFilippo called LocalSource to discuss the direction Garretson was taking as mayor just a few weeks into her four-year term, bringing to light several issues that could be damaging.
DeFilippo said she was “deeply concerned” about not only how Garretson was “pushing her weight around” in town hall but how she was conducting herself privately. Specifically, the municipal chairman took exception to how the new mayor hired Elizabeth Councilwoman Patricia Perkins Auguste as Acting Director of Personnel at $30 per hour after the council told her she was not authorized to do so.
Apparently one of the first things Perkins Auguste did was fire the Department of Public Works general foreman along with township attorney Christine Burgess who has been under contract with Hillside since 2006.
Garretson readily admitted she hired the Elizabeth councilwoman on a temporary basis to fill the role because she has 21 years of experience and the qualifications to handle the position on a temporary basis.
Garretson explained that not only did she have the right to hire who she wanted to do this job temporarily, but she said New Jersey Statute NJ 40:69A43A supports her action.
“I did appoint Pat as acting director of personnel for just a month or two because there was no person filling that role and we needed someone to do the job,” said the mayor, adding the Elizabeth councilwoman did indeed “fire” Burgess at her direction because the township needed someone “more progressive.”
The township council, though, did not agree and voted to bring the attorney back aboard. Things did not turn out the same for the DPW general foreman and Garretson explained why he was let go.
“First of all, he was a provisional employee of six months and as mayor I have the right to terminate him because employees serve at the will of the mayor,” Garretson said, adding that this employee “was not performing in a way that was consistent with moving Hillside forward.”
“My focus as mayor is not — the council and what they think, — it’s the staff,” the mayor explained, pointing out that “we have to do some team building.”
“In the end I’m the administrator, I’m the CFO, and I have to do what is right to move this township forward,” Garretson added.
The mayor cited an example of how she had to take control when it appeared waiting would result in damage to millions of dollars of police department 9-1-1 equipment.
“We had a leak on the roof of the municipal building right over the police department 9-1-1 equipment and the DPW workers were up there but they simply were not experienced enough to resolve the problem to my satisfaction,” Garretson said, noting it was 5 p.m. on a Saturday when the leak occurred.
“That’s why I called in an outside contractor to come in and repair the roof,” the mayor said, explaining “you do not let a half million dollars in 9-1-1 equipment be ruined while you wait for council approval. It will cost between $2,500 and $3,000, but this was an emergency allocation and I am allowed under law to do this if the situation calls for it,” Garretson said.
“How could we wait until council meets and we decide whether to bond the money or not? That doesn’t make any sense. We needed this fixed immediately, not later,” she said, pointing out the roof was leaking in eight different locations.
“Many things that have come up seemed to be ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ been done, but were either not done or done wrong,” Garretson continued, noting, for example, the library project was stalled because asbestos removal was not done correctly.
“Apparently we paid $20,000 to have the job done but the company failed to look under the library book shelves so we had to bring in another company to get the job done right,” the mayor said.
Garretson was also concerned when she found out township recycling schedules had not gone out to residents prior to the New Year.
“I called the DPW to find out why this happened and they said no one told them to order the schedules. But when I discovered we were paying $4,000 to have these schedules printed I immediately began looking privately for a business in town that could do the job,” she said, adding she found one that charged only $1,200 to do the same printing job.
“I asked why we were spending that much and was told it was a company Charlotte wanted us to use,” the mayor said.
While most of the rumors and issues surrounding Garretson’s first days as mayor involved governing differences, another more serious rumor was brought to LocalSource’s attention by several sources over a period of several weeks that gave rise to concern.
According to these sources, Garretson brought aboard Dwayne Archibald as an aide, but it was discovered he had been convicted of aggravated child molestation in Georgia and Alabama.
Sources indicated this aide was still working for her as a driver, but the mayor quickly discussed what transpired, denying this person was still working for her.
“First of all, this person worked for me during the campaign and only during the campaign. The minute I was alerted to his record, he was let go,” Garretson said.
“I didn’t know. If I did, he never would have been a part of my campaign team,” she added, stressing she would never knowingly endanger Hillside residents.
Meanwhile, Garretson said she is moving forward, ready to debunk any false rumors and stand firm on what needs to be done to straighten out the township. While many of the first steps she took were controversial, the new mayor said there are minor things that need to be done to make town hall run more efficiently.
“I’m in the process of moving offices,” she said, explaining that it just did not make sense to have the health department and other offices that residents access on a regular basis up on the second floor while the treasurer’s office is on the first floor.
“We need to have municipal offices located where residents can gain access to them easily. We also have three offices on the first floor not being used and that needs to be corrected right away,” the mayor said.
Aware that change does not come easily, Garretson said she never expected the job of mayor to be an easy one, so she is prepared to take the hits and rise above the rumors and issues that can cripple a new administration.
“I’m experienced enough to handle the job and tough enough to take the hits that come my way,” the mayor said, pointing out once again that her focus is on bringing Hillside forward and growth is not always an easy road.