PATERSON, NJ – In Paterson’s ongoing budget brawl, some City Council members are calling for Mayor Jeffery Jones to attend next Tuesday’s meeting to explain his administration’s financial plans.
“The mayor has been absent on this,’’ said Councilman Rigo Rodriuez. “I demand that he be there.’’
“We need to hear from the chief executive,’’ said Councilman Andre Sayegh. “He’s got to come and make the case.’’
But Jones says he is not sure whether he will show up. “They can request my attendance and I have the right to deny it,’’ said the mayor. “Tell me why? To say so that I can explain it to the public - that’s not an answer to me.’’
The council last week rejected a proposed temporary budget designed to authorize city spending for the month of February. As a result, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has sent Paterson a letter warning that the failure to approve the temporary budget could result in a shutdown of city government.
Meanwhile, after Finance Director Anthony Zambrano consulted with the DCA, the city went ahead and issued paychecks to its employees last Friday, a move that sparked a debate that quickly descended into name-calling and threats of lawsuits. On Tuesday, the administration will ask the council to approve a temporary budget for the month of February.
Several council members continue to assert that administration officials illegally issued the payroll checks because they did not get the requisite authorization from the council to spend the money. Jones said he understands the council members’ concerns, but he asserted that his administration’s decision to issue the checks prevented the city from committing violations of state and federal labor laws that require the employees be paid.
“We avoided additional liability,’’ Jones said. “Isn’t that what you want? I don’t know what the issue is. They should get over it.’’
Moreover, Jones said he felt the DCA’s letter supported his staff’s actions.
But Councilman William McKoy disagreed with Jones’ assessment of the state letter. “The million dollar question is: Can you find anything in the letter that provides authorization to make the payments?’’ said McKoy. “Nowhere does it say, ‘Go ahead and make the payments without authorization.’”
McKoy said Jones’ staff should have called for an emergency meeting of the city council last week before issuing the paychecks. Councilman Kenneth Morris agrees with McKoy.
“The Mayor continues to wage a campaign of misinformation and half-truths regarding the Council’s actions in an effort to vilify certain members in the eyes of hard-working city employees,’’ Morris said in an email to other city officials. “For the record, and anyone attending last Tuesday’s meeting can attest to, at no time did the Council represent that employees should not be paid for services rendered. In fact historically, I personally recommended to the Council that adjustments be made to irresponsible temporary budgets to allow for payroll to be met.”
“The fact remains that if the Mayor and his Administration felt Federal Law was going to be violated by the failure of the Temporary Budget it was incumbent upon him and his team to make that argument to the Council or Finance Chair, present a modified temporary budget to meet payroll, and listed it for a vote,’’ Morris continued. “This did not happen. What did happen was the Administration unilaterally took it upon themselves to circumvent the Council’s authority.”
In his email, Morris indicated the council might take the issue to court if it doesn’t get a satisfactory explanation from the Jones administration.
When asked whether the state authorized the paychecks, DCA spokeswoman Tammori Petty simply said, “The Division verbally responded to a call from Paterson fiscal staff and informed them that it would be a violation of federal and state law to not pay staff who had worked. There was no written request or response given to Paterson. The only thing in writing given to Paterson was yesterday’s letter.”
That letter has convinced at least some council members that they ought to go ahead and approve the temporary budget.
“It’s our duty to keep the city out of harm’s way with respect to fulfilling the obligations we have,’’ said Councilman Kenneth McDaniel.
“We’re obligated to pass the budget,’’ said Councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman. “We could debate this, but at the end of the day, people need to get paid.’’
McDaniel said that he believes the council would have given its approval last week if the administration had called for an emergency meeting last week to seek authorization to issue the paychecks. “I think the outcome would have been the same,’’ he said.
Some council members took offense at the state’s letter. “I don’t like the state coming in and forcing us and telling us we’ve got to do this,’’ said Council President Anthony Davis. “I don’t like the administration trying to go over our heads on this when we’ve been elected to be the stewards of the financial matters.’’
Even some of the council members who say they will support the temporary budget say they hope the mayor shows up at the meeting.
“It would be better if he came,’’ said Akhtaruzzaman. “This way he can explain it. You want to hear right direct from the boss.’’
“I personally don’t need to see the mayor there per se,’’ said McDaniel. “I read the documents. I know what they say. But out of common courtesy, I don’t see why he would not show up. If he does show, I just hope we stick to business.’’
Davis said Jones’ attendance would be an important way to show Patersonians that their two branches of government are willing to try to work together. “We can’t do this in silos,’’ he said.
Tuesday likely would be the last time the city seeks a temporary budget. On the next day, the state says it will announce how much Transition Aid Paterson and other cities will receive. Once that number is known, city officials have said they will be able to finish the budget for the year and present that to the council within a week.