NEWTON, NJ—The Newton Town Council unanimously approved Town Manager Thomas S Russo Jr’s contract for another four years during Monday’s meeting.
The decision came after months of negotiations and multiple executive sessions between Russo and the council. Information was also delivered to the council during multiple public sessions over the course of the past few meetings from residents.
James Hoffman and Margaret Baldini were two of the residents who spoke during the public session during Monday’s meeting, asking the council to reconsider their decision, due to their concerns about how Russo spends his time outside of his job as Town Manager; information information shared at previous meetings.
Hoffman and Baldini said they were referring to:
- His job as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and Pillar College
- An author of a book he published earlier in 2019
- Empowerment speaker & coach
- Career as a CEO of Valori Group
These items have been mentioned at several meetings by Hoffman, Baldini, and even Maureen Snellen. Snellen said she a problem with the town manager not living within the boundaries of the town they work in and driving a car that is paid for by the town.
Resolution #237-2019 was pulled from the consent agenda, by Deputy Mayor Daniel Flynn. He wanted to have a separate discussion. It was approved unanimously.
Russo addressed the council members and attendees.
Russo does not deny that he is an adjunct professor at both Seton Hall University and Pillar College. He noted he is always accessible during the day in the office and even after hours into the nights, weekends, and holidays via phone or email as well. Russo also said he is no longer affiliated with the Valori group.
Three years ago, Russo and his wife spent their Thanksgiving in the Town of Newton, but it was outside, in the cold, helping fix a water main break that occurred on Thanksgiving day and left the 8,000 residents of Newton without water for most of Thanksgiving and some of the following day.
“That is how I spent my thanksgiving and I would do it all over again for the people of this town because that is how much I care about the town,” Russo said.
Mayor Helen LeFois and the entire council said they did not want to do anything to look for a new town manager; neither to look outside nor post a job offer to seek a new town manager.
Flynn’s comments were positive and supportive of approving Russo.
“Mr. Russo is a highly ambitious and well-respected town manager in Northern New Jersey. If you mention his name and you’re fortunate enough to talk with others in the municipal profession, they’ll say ‘you’re in good hands’. We have a manager who is going to get the job done.
“Redevelopment plans that have been in the works for the last five years are coming to fruition because of Tom. We didn’t have redevelopment plans prior to Tom coming here, we didn’t have a stable financial situation prior to Tom coming here, we didn’t have a fund bank to rely on like we do now. I stand behind Tom Russo.
“We’ve been giving a stipend to the town manager for mileage for 20+ years now and in fact we’re not giving him the car in the new contract, because the optics of it don’t match up with what some people perceive what the town manager should and should not receive in this town.
“I support his employment fully, in fact the four-year contract, I am completely confident that it is the best decision the council can make from here on out moving forward, that we have someone in the right position in that seat”
LeFois said three of the last four town managers have not lived in the town of Newton. She said this contract was compared to similar towns based on the information given to the council by the public. The contract, which started at five years went down to four and the car that Russo drives will be given back to the town on November 30, 2019.
Council woman Sandra Diglio thanked Russo for always being there to answer any questions that she has had and talk things through with her whenever she needed to.
“We might not have always agreed,” Diglio said, “but we have always talked things out many, many times and I appreciate the fact that I can sit down, and you will listen to what I have to say.”
Councilman Jason Schlaffer told the public, “anything that was brought to council members by the residents was investigated and weighed heavily in their decision” throughout the entire process of renewing Russo’s contract.
“We made decisions based on the optics and made it seem a bit more appropriate even though the particular compromise may end up costing us more money,” Schlaffer said. “We did our best and compromises were made, and, in many cases, Mr. Russo actually made more compromises and I really think this contract is a perfect example of the great working relationship the council and manager has.”
Councilman Matthew Dickson commented that “it was a process that we put much thought into. I feel that concerns were listened to, but we also had to take into account the overall big picture. We added language into the contract about outside employment and if it interfered with performance then the council can require those outside employments to be stopped.”
LeFois finished off the comments, defending the process, she said, “I take exception with the accusations that the process was not transparent. We allowed multiple public sessions and every council meeting and we take into account not only what is said but what is recorded on the documents that are handed to us. We looked at what other town managers under similar forms of governments are making, similar budgets, similar projects and Mr. Russo is compensated accordingly for the work that he does.”
The council also approved, despite Dickson saying no, resolution #239-2019 which is a non-pensionable, performance-based bonus for Russo in the amount of $3,500 payable on December 1, 2019 based on his performance in 2019.
Russo concluded by thanking the council for their support and vote of confidence.
“I want to express gratitude to the residents, business owners, visitors, staff, professionals and volunteers for their kind words. We have many accomplishments to be proud of and more work to be done moving forward. I am fortunate to be here and consider it a blessing to be able to be the town manager of Newton for another four years. Finally, I pray the blessings of love, peace, hope and joy to everyone this Thanksgiving and coming holiday season. God Bless the town of Newton. Thank you.”