ROSELLE, NJ — It may be the best job in Union County.
A borough of Roselle clerk, put on administrative leave more than four years ago, has been paid a hefty annual salary for not working ever since.
Rhona Bluestein, who began working for the borough in 2005, was suspended from her position on May 8, 2012, and has been paid handsomely by the borough to stay home — with no hint of termination in sight.
Bluestein, who was given tenure and later placed on paid administrative leave by former Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley, has received a total of $409,985.71 since May 18, 2012, according to payroll records obtained by LocalSource through an OPRA request. And there seems to be no end in sight.
According to an official letter from the borough, dated May 8, 2012, sent to Bluestein from borough Business Administrator David Brown that was obtained by LocalSource from an anonymous source, Bluestein was put on administrative leave for a series of alleged missteps, including allegedly failing to publish bond ordinances, providing false information to the borough’s bond counsel regarding the publishing failure, failure to provide borough officials with a 2012 financial disclosure statement in a timely manner and falsification of documents to cover up this failure, and creating a hostile work environment in the clerk’s office.
But the question that borough residents want answered is this: If Bluestein did indeed perpetrate these alleged actions of misconduct, then why has an investigation not been conducted, and why has Bluestein been paid more than $400,000 for four years without any investigatory process in order to resolve the status of Bluestein’s employment with the borough?
Documents obtained from an anonymous sender by LocalSource seem to provide an answer.
An email inquiry was sent in June by a borough official questioning the delayed investigation into the allegations against Bluestein for more than four years, as well as the delayed termination of Bluestein’s employment. In the response, written by another borough official directly associated with Bluestein, that official writes that filing a legal court action to terminate Bluestein might result in the disclosure of damaging information against certain elected officials associated with the borough. “…There was a concern that filing a legal court action would disclose information and issues publicly that may portray the borough or various elected officials in an unflattering light,” states the letter.
Former Roselle councilwoman Sylvia Turnage, who served in the borough from 2006-2012, said that she, along with current Roselle Mayor Christine Dansereau and many others, want answers. They also want the issue actively addressed, and a discontinuation of payments to an employee who is not actually working for the borough.
Turnage told LocalSource that the borough has not fired Bluestein because she allegedly has damning information against politicians connected to the borough. “They haven’t gone after her because she knows where the bodies are buried,” said Turnage. “She has a guaranteed income.”
Turnage said that Bluestein worked for the borough for several years, and she was allegedly asked to do things that made her uncomfortable. “Initially she was asked to do things she wasn’t comfortable with,” Turnage said. “A top official wanted her suspended.”
The letter received by Bluestein via hand delivery on May 8, 2012, from Brown informed her of her immediate suspension, and that there would be an investigation into “certain allegations which touch upon your office.” She was also told that upon the conclusion of this investigation, she would be notified of the results and whether a complaint for her removal would be filed. But there is no evidence of any investigation.
Upon notice of her suspension, Bluestein was directed to turn over her Blackberry, office keys and key card, and she was instructed not to touch any borough documents or the borough computer.
LocalSource was unable to reach Bluestein as of press time. LocalSource also reached out to Brown, who said that “it is the borough’s policy not to speak about personnel matters.”
The question many are asking is that if Bluestein is indeed guilty of “dereliction” in the performance of her statutory duties, as well as “conduct unbecoming a public employee,” — according to the letter delivered to Bluestein by Brown about her suspension — then why was she put on paid administrative leave?
Another question is, why was an investigation not performed immediately, and why has she been receiving a hefty salary for sitting home since 2012?
According to payroll records obtained through an OPRA request, in 2012, records show Bluestein received an annual salary of $58,137. In 2013, her annual salary was $86,589. In 2014, Bluestein received $85,776, and in 2015, $86,089. No explanation was uncovered to explain the fluctuations in salary over the years.
Holley, who is currently a state assemblyman for New Jersey’s 20th legislative district, did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment. Councilman Reginald Atkins also did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.
Roselle Councilwoman Kim Shaw told LocalSource that she could not comment on personnel issues.
Mayor Dansereau told LocalSource that she has been trying to get answers from both the borough attorney, Rachel Caruso, as well as from Brown. “It comes down to why there has been no resolution,” Dansereau said in a phone call. “Just how long do you keep someone out on administrative leave? What’s the justification? What’s the process? We should at least have — as public officials — the information, if we ask for it, and a history of what happened. There has been none forthcoming. I’ve asked for it and I’ve received no documentation.”
LocalSource reached out to Caruso, who stated that, “the borough cannot and does not comment on personnel matters.”
Turnage said, “these are the games they are playing. We’re at a stalemate with Rhona. We can’t get any answers.”
Dansereau reiterated that she has tried repeatedly to get answers from borough officials, but so far she has received no answers.
A New Jersey-based labor law attorney told LocalSource in a phone call that the amount of time that Bluestein has been on paid leave is “mind boggling” and worthy of an investigation by the state’s attorney general.
And although there is no statutory limit to the administrative leave period, according to Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, federal rules do call for use of administrative leave “for short periods of time that generally do not exceed three consecutive work days.” At more than 1,600 days out, Bluestein’s leave period seems to far exceed any timeframe that can be considered reasonable by these standards.
In February, a U.S. Senate panel approved a bipartisan bill that would strictly limit the ability of federal agencies to put employees on extended paid administrative leave while they are being investigated.
The 2016 Administrative Leave Act defines administrative leave as separate from other forms of paid leave or excused absence and limits its use to five consecutive days at a time. While this bill only addresses administrative leave abuses on a federal level, it does offer an idea of an appropriate standard.
Anthony Esposito, longtime resident and former Roselle Board of Education member throughout Bluestein’s employment, said that he has seen a lot during his 30 years in the borough, as well as the 28 years he spent on the BOE. “The local Democratic power base has total control over Roselle,” Esposito told LocalSource in a phone call. “Any dissent is shut right down and the way they shut it down is by intimidating people and shutting them up. This is standard practice. Whenever someone is not part of the organization, the intimidation starts. All you have to do is say ‘no’ and start asking questions and then they start intimidating you.”
Mayor Dansereau said that there must be transparency in the borough, and that unnecessary costs to taxpayers need to end in the borough. “I can’t pretend and sit back and allow Roselle to sink into further problems and pretend that we’re over the rainbow,” said Dansereau.