Hillside Council addresses freezes in employee pay at meeting

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HILLSIDE, NJ — Two meetings were canceled by the Hillside Municipal Council, on Thursday, Jan. 28, and Tuesday, Feb. 2, with no appropriations made, leaving some employees unpaid in the midst of a snowstorm and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The majority of the township employees were paid. There were a few in one department that were not paid on Feb. 4,” Councilwoman at large Nancy Mondella said on Friday, Feb. 5. “When we did our temporary budget, we funded all of the departments at the 26.25 percent, which is pretty standard across the state, with the exception of two. … We decided to fund those two departments at one-twelfth the amount, and we overfunded one department and the other department, we gave them one-twelfth.

“We were supposed to have another meeting, but that got canceled because of lack of a quorum. One of the council people had a death in the family, and others could not make it,” she continued. “So then we expected to designate another one-twelfth at this past Tuesday’s meeting, but the township was closed due to the snowstorm. They did not get their one-twelfth. That one department that was designated as a one-twelfth was short. So we have a meeting scheduled for Monday.”

According to Mondella, the department in which some employees did not get paid on Thursday, Feb. 4, was the administrative department.

“I am disappointed that the township council has continued to play politics with our township and budget, creating a shortfall in funds,” Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese said in a press release dated Saturday, Feb. 6. “The council’s inactions and political grandstanding have put our town in danger of inadequate services. Sadly, the administration is suffering from this action. For at least this pay cycle, we were able to make sure most of the employees were paid, but I am uncertain how long that will last without having any administrative staff to assist in the biweekly payroll process.

“I am hoping for immediate action by the council to resolve this issue,” she continued. “The administration will continue to do everything in our power to absorb the effect of these pay freezes. I hope the council will stop politicizing this and put the betterment of the town first.”

According to the media release, at the end of 2020, Vertreese and the administration sent out requests to meet with the council, and only two of the seven members met with the mayor. Since then, no additional members of the council have reached out.

Council President Gerald Pateesh Freedman challenged this claim.

“She made mention that she asked each of the council people to meet with her. The last time Councilman (George) Cook and I met with her, she had cameras set up and changed the reasons for the meeting,” Freedman said on Monday, Feb. 8. “We were supposed to talk about vendors. She immediately switched it into budget talks. I reached out and said that the time she wanted to meet with me, I couldn’t do it. I gave her an alternate time and got a response back from her assistant that she was unavailable at that time and never suggested any other time. The two people who did meet with her never came back with any positive information or statements.”

According to a statement the township sent to LocalSource on Monday, Feb. 8, the council had taken certain liberties to undermine and destroy the mayor. It said they didn’t want to pay the mayor, the business administrator or the members of the mayor’s administrative staff.

“No mayor in New Jersey works for free, except in Hillside, where the council clearly has a vendetta to weaken the mayor politically for personal reasons and are even willing to take their feud out on the business administrator, who is in charge of the day-to-day operation of the township” said the press release.

Despite the council’s action, the press release said the mayor remained committed to her oath of office to serve the residents of Hillside on a daily basis, whether with food distribution, reading to the youth, taking part in a book club with seniors or executing checks to make sure the bills are paid.

“The mayor will continue to serve the residents of Hillside and will continue to collaborate with all township personnel to make sure Hillside continues to operate under these trying times, regardless of the council’s politically motivated acts aimed at debilitating the township’s administration,” it read.

“During a time when people are hurting and worried about their next paycheck, the health of family members and dealing with a pandemic, Hillside’s council is more focused on hurting the mayor elected by residents and the administration staff she put in place to serve the township,” the press release continued. “Moreover, the mayor and staff continue to be in communication with the state, in hopes of a practical solution.”

Mondella said she sympathized with the employees who weren’t paid and understood their frustration.

“People aren’t volunteering, they’re working, so they expect a paycheck,” Mondella said. “If wages aren’t paid, it’s upsetting to people. I don’t want to minimize anyone missing their wages. Until we have a budget, we have to allot money to those two departments monthly. Again, because of the lack of quorum and then the snowstorm, we missed that meeting. There isn’t a fault. You can have people try and cast blame, but, again, a temporary budget is that and it’s usually done for three months, which is standard practice.

“But we’ve had issues in Hillside, and the township council is trying to keep track of spends in certain departments, administration being one of them and recreation,” she continued. “We’ve had an employee from administration transfer to recreation. It is administration’s prerogative to transfer an employee, but they transferred the employee’s entire salary as well, which was a mistake, and when it was caught by myself, it was never rectified, and it still hasn’t been rectified. Those are the things that make people wary. If it was a genuine error, I would imagine it would’ve been corrected, and I was told it would be right away. Months have gone by, and it hasn’t been corrected.”

After the virtual emergency meeting on Monday, Feb. 8, addressing this issue, with all council members in attendance, an emergency temporary budget appropriation for a total sum of $14,601 was authorized. Salary and wages for recreation, as well as administration, were discussed and the motion carried.

The Municipal Council also released a press release on Monday, Feb. 8, addressing the mayor’s claims of financial mismanagement.

“In her attempt to sensationalize the circumstance, I am left with no other choice but to derail, correct and short-circuit her version with facts,” Freedman said in the release. “All township employees got paid except the mayor, business administrator and human resources coordinator. Any further glorification of this story is a lie.

“The mayor gave the business administrator a $15,000 raise three weeks ago,” he continued. “She gave the recreation director a $5,000 raise two weeks ago. Our residents just got a 3.2 percent tax increase for 2020 in December. The mayor has authorized and allowed our current chief financial officer to spend more than $540,000 unauthorized and unapproved by council from 2018 to the present. On completion, the township’s recent audit will be available for personal verification. So much for checks and balances. We are headed for another increase at the rate she is attempting to encumber funds now.

“The Division of Local Government Services has been in Hillside since Dec. 7, 2020. When they step up and address the monetary spending practices of this administration, I will let you know. After several meetings with state officials, they told us they do not have the statutory authority to intervene. We forwarded the factual information to the state comptroller last week,” he added. “Stay tuned.”