HILLSIDE – Although she has only held the title of township mayor for a month, Angela Garretson is creating a firestorm of controversy with the changes she is making.
Since Garretson took the oath of office as mayor she has managed to turn things upside down in town hall and some employees are in the direct line of fire. On the other hand, Garretson flatly denied she was in the wrong, citing state statutes to back up her authority to reorganize “at the will of the mayor.”
One of the first things Garretson did was fire township attorney Christine Burgess, but council promptly overturned that move Jan. 14. This was quickly followed by the mayor hiring an Elizabeth councilwoman as the acting personnel director against the council’s advice and the township attorney’s advice.
After that came the firing of the Department of Public Works general supervisor. And now this week, accusations have been made from township employees that Garretson humiliated them in front of residents and is behaving like a “tyrant.”
Some employees even contended Garretson was abusing her power by riding roughshod over them, demanding her needs as mayor be met, regardless if it takes them away from their paid duties as township employees. Still confusing is whether Paul Drejaj, DPW General Supervisor, actually has a job or not, because his firing is being questioned by the township attorney.
Drejaj, a life-long resident of Hillside and president of the Chamber of Commerce, was hired by former mayor Joe Menza six months ago to oversee the DPW.
“There was no cause for termination,” Drejaj said in an interview Monday, mentioning that Garretson “failed to follow protocol,” arguing that when he came aboard the department was in shambles and so was the township.
“Things were a mess. No one was doing anything. We wanted to straighten out things, make the town look the way it should and we were doing that,” he said, adding that when he took over things were in a state of complete disrepair.
“I made sure the curb lines and fire hydrants were repainted all over town, and trimmed and made sure things were landscaped around town,” said the former contractor, who assured he had the experience to handle the job.
Because of his experience, Drejaj said, he was able to get the DPW under control so the employees were focused and working.
According to Drejaj, Garretson “bumped up” William McClave, who had been working for the township 23 years but, in his opinion and in the opinions of others, did not have the experience to run the department.
“Look, my heart is for this town, for the youth, residents, the community and business organizations,” he said, adding that he retained an attorney who is pursuing legal action against the township.
“I mean, look at it from my perspective. The mayor has me fired, the township attorney tells me to ignore it, but when I was fired they took away all township property from me which included my township car, keys for everything, cell phone, gas card and identification. I can’t do my job without those things,” Drejaj explained.
In an article appearing in LocalSource Jan. 23 titled “New Hillside Mayor defends actions” and which can be found online at www.unionnewsdaily.com, Garretson said Drejaj was a “provisional” or “at will” employee who served at the pleasure of the mayor. She said although she was not at liberty to discuss the reasoning behind his being fired, under state statutes, she had the right to remove him from the position.
Meanwhile, even though the mayor gave the order to have Drejaj fired, Burgess sent a letter to the former DPW general supervisor telling him to ignore the order and also that he will continue to get paid.
So, Drejaj is being paid for a job he is not able to do but no one can explain whether Garretson had the right to have him fired in the first place. Nor has counsel for the township returned calls requesting the township’s official’s position in this matter.
Still in question is whether Elizabeth Councilwoman Patricia Perkins-Auguste, hired by Garretson as the acting personnel director, had the right to fire Drejaj.
LocalSource obtained several official letters on township letterhead regarding this issue, but both are conflicting. For instance, while Drejaj received a letter on Jan. 14 from Perkins-Auguste informing him that he was being removed from his position as the DPW general supervisor, the following day he received a letter from Burgess indicating otherwise.
“Please be advised that this individual does not have the authority to act in an official capacity on behalf of Hillside Township, but is a councilwoman in the city of Elizabeth and member of Mayor Garretson’s transition team,” Burgess noted, pointing out that on Jan. 14 the township council adopted a resolution instructing Perkins-Auguste to “cease and desist” her actions as acting personnel director.
“I ask you to disregard the January 14 letter from Pat Perkins-Auguste and to address any questions you might have about her communication to me,” said the township attorney that has been the legal advisor for more than seven years.
Drejaj received another letter the same day he received the letter from Burgess, but it was from Garretson.
This letter informed him in writing that he had been removed from the DPW as the general supervisor on Jan. 14 and his employment with the township was concluded in full force and effective on that date “as per my directive.” The mayor also confirmed that all municipal issued property had been returned by the former DPW general supervisor.
Meanwhile, a number of Hillside township employees contacted LocalSource in the last two weeks to say they were concerned about what was taking place in town hall.
Specifically they noted the new mayor had taken the building “by storm” and were apprehensive about who would be next on the “chopping block.”
According to one employee on Jan. 7, Garretson “ordered” every DPW employee, including the office staff, to attend a meeting in the mayor’s office at 9 a.m.
“This left no employees to take calls in the department for about an hour,” the employee reported, noting even the four mechanics servicing police, fire and DPW vehicles were called to the meeting. This left no one in the garage to service these vehicles, they stressed.
At the meeting, employees said, Garretson told each employee to state their job title and add any remarks they would like about the position they held. After every employee spoke, the mayor introduced two residents and asked them to speak about the service they receive from the DPW.
“The residents said they were very unsatisfied with the service they received from our department. The streets were filthy and DPW employees stand around doing nothing,” said one employee who feared reprisal if their name was used.
The employee said Garretson blamed all the employees for how residents felt, pointing out that the offices of the mayor and her secretary were “absolutely filthy.”
“The mayor blamed every employee at the meeting for this,” said another employee, who said nothing like that had ever occurred as long as he had been there.
Garretson was called multiple times but did not respond by press time.