Linden council clashes on city employee hot line

LINDEN, NJ — A resolution knocking down an agreement between the city of Linden and a confidential employee hotline service provider has been passed, and that is leaving several members of Linden’s council asking questions.
At the Jan. 17 meeting of the council, a resolution to sever the agreement with In2Vate, LLC, was passed.

In September, Linden Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby-Hurling introduced the idea of the tip line, through the council’s personnel committee, to committee members, Linden’s chief financial officer, Alexis Zack — who oversees the city’s personnel division — and others.

The hotline was to be implemented in order to give city employees a safe way to report harassment, intimidation and bullying in the workplace.

According to Cosby-Hurling, the entire eleven-member council was on board with the idea.

“The idea was well-received and there was research done through the division of personnel to see what the industry standard is, check pricing and so on,” Cosby-Hurling told LocalSource in a phone call. “It should be noted that the Sept. 20 resolution was unanimously approved by council and prior to this vote, there was never a concern raised about the process from anyone other than who would be the main point of contact, and that matter was resolved.”

According to Cosby-Hurling, the city is in dire need of a confidential hotline where city employees can feel safe reporting issues without fear of retaliation.
Cosby-Hurling cited repeated incidents of employee harassment and intimidation within the city, allegedly on the part of some department heads, as well as retaliatory action taken against employees, including demotions.

“A lot of stuff goes on like this,” Cosby-Hurling said. “The tip line would have been something to keep it honest and help get issues resolved.”

But at the Jan. 17 meeting of the council, Resolution 94 was passed, severing the agreement between the hotline service provider and the city of Linden.
Six members voted for the resolution, with five members voting against it.

Cosby-Hurling questions the resolution, which states that the city was dissatisfied with the company’s service.

“The company never started the program, which means the statement that the city was not pleased with the service is false, as there was never any services provided,” she said.

The Sept. 20 resolution authorizing the contract with In2Vate, LLC, for an employee protection line service stated that, “the city of Linden has a need for an employee protection line which allows employees to report wrongdoing,” which would provide city employees with a toll-free, 24-hour way to report “workplace wrongdoing” and a “barrier-free method for preventing and discovering workplace violence, harassment, discrimination, theft, fraud or other wrongdoing that lowers morale and reduces productivity.”

The cost for the hotline would not have exceeded $1,300 annually, and would have cost $2.75 per employee per year.
The resolution was passed unanimously.

A $3,500 stipend that would have been paid to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officer was the only additional cost indicated, according to Cosby-Hurling.

But something changed between September and January, apparently, as several council members spoke out against the measure at the Jan. 17 meeting.
According to Cosby-Hurling, the election of a new councilman in November changed the political dynamic of the council.
At the meeting, Cosby-Hurling questioned her fellow council members about Resolution 94.

“The city was dissatisfied with the services they received,” Cosby-Hurling said at the Jan. 17 meeting, regarding the wording of the new resolution. “I want to be clear. This service was never started. This service was for an employee tip line, something which the city voted unanimously on in September. I am extremely confused as to why in January, before it was ever initiated, before there was an opportunity to see if it would fail, to see if the employees would get any benefit from it whatsoever, it’s being rescinded. I’m asking the members of the council to consider the employees.”

Cosby-Hurling also noted to fellow council members that much legwork and research had been done to find a reliable company to provide services.
“You should be outraged because, for a number of years, we on council have been getting letters in our mailboxes at home, letters in our council mailboxes, and on email,” Cosby-Hurling said at the meeting. “Members of the workforce have come to committee meetings to make their issues known, and what happens? It falls on deaf ears.”

Linden Mayor Derek Armstead did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.

Cosby-Hurling said that the hotline was supposed to begin in December.
“I believe it was being stalled,” she said.

Linden First-Ward Councilwoman, Lisa Ormon, who was in favor of the tip line in September, voiced her opposition against the tip line.
“Tip line?” Ormon said at the council meeting. “I call it a snitch line. First of all, coming from corporate America, we hate people that tattle. We expect people to be able to talk to one another.”

Ormon said that the new council was trying to improve communication.
“We just feel as though that if there is a problem with harassment or intimidation, you should be able to go to your manager. We have an adequate HR department that handles these particular issues. You have to give HR the first leg up in handling these problems. If you let them do their jobs, and also let our lawyers, who we pay a lot of money, to do their job in terms of employee problems, there’s no need for a snitch line.”

But 10th-Ward Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey, who has maintained support for the tip line, disagreed with Ormon.
“Unfortunately, that is not the way things work in this city,” Hickey said at the meeting. “I’ve had calls all day from employees and text messages from residents. This isn’t a snitch line. There are many employees that aren’t in the loop. They are bullied, they are scared to say anything, and they’re good, hard-working workers, and because they’re not with the right people and the right friends or connected, they have problems at work. There are issues going on in our city.”

Michele Yamakaitis, 8th-Ward Councilwoman, noted that although she did not want the tip line, there were pressing issues that needed to be addressed in the city.

“The snitch line isn’t the proper way to go,” Yamakaitis said.
Yamakaitis said that the city is trying to avoid further lawsuits.
“The last two years, the number of lawsuits for employees that have come in have been astronomical,” she said. “You have to ask yourself, why? What’s going on?”
City Attorney for Linden Dan Antonelli, told LocalSource that there are procedures in place for city employees to handle issues in the workplace.

“The council believes that the employee hotline is not necessary, and the current procedures and policies are appropriate when complaints need to be made,” Antonelli said in a phone call. “If an employee has a complaint or problematic issue, the city will embrace that complaint and do what’s required by them by law. The city will not tolerate intimidation or retaliation.”

But according to Cosby-Hurling, there is an undercurrent of fear and a climate of retaliation that is being well-hidden from further scrutiny.

“In a nutshell, the city is run with toxic leadership and a great deal of incompetence,” she said. “I find it amusing that some of these council members who supported it were so assertive when they voted against it. Nobody ever said a word of complaint about it before the meeting.”

Hickey told LocalSource that employees are scared to speak out.
“Many employees are scared to speak up and complain,” Hickey said in a phone call. “They are targeted. I thought that the money the tip line costs would be worth it. I thought it would help the employees. $1,300 out of a $100 million budget — it truly makes you wonder.”