PATERSON, NJ – The City Council may give Police Chief James Wittig a severance check worth about a quarter million dollars under a retirement deal scheduled for a vote Tuesday night.
For more than a year, the size of Wittig's retirement payment has been a divisive topic among city officials, with the discussions complicated by the lack of an employment contract that defines exactly what severance payouts the chief has coming to him.
Barring a sudden change in state law, Wittig would reach New Jersey’s mandatory police retirement age of 65 in February.
City council members say that by completing a deal for Wittig’s retirement before January 1 they would avoid having to provide him a new annual allotment of leave days which he could cash in.
“It’s going to be more expensive if we let it wait until February,’’ said Councilman Andre Sayegh. Councilman Kenneth Morris said the difference would be an extra $40,000 for Wittig.
But critics of the proposed severance package say its numbers are based on questionable personnel records documenting the chief’s accumulated leave time. They insist the city simply should wait until February and have the chief retire then, without paying him for all the leave time he says he has accumulated.
Last December, the city council rejected a severance package of more than $300,000 that the administration had negotiated with Wittig.
“This should have been done a long time ago,’’ said Mayor Jeffrey Jones. “This is going to end up costing us more money.’’
Moreover, Jones argued, the delay in reaching a deal with Wittig has also delayed the city’s ability to make changes in the police department, such as eliminating one of the deputy chief positions.
The city has not yet released details on the proposed buyout for the chief. Last year, one of the components of the $300,000 deal included about five years of retroactive pay for salary increases that Wittig did not get when he moved from deputy to chief in 2005.
City council members said that Paterson gave the chief the retroactive payment earlier this year. On October 24, PatersonPress.com submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requesting seeking details on that payment. Almost two months later, the City of Paterson has not provided the information, even though state law says it must respond to OPRA requests within seven business days.
In November, PatersonPress.com reported that Wittig’s salary was raised to $215,000. That was based on numbers in a biweekly payroll report at the city budget director’s office. But Wittig’s staff says that number was inaccurate and may have included payments the chief received earlier in the year as part of his retroactive check. PatersonPress.com has had difficulty confirming that account because the city no longer allows the press access to the payroll records at the budget office.
Wittig said his salary is about $166,000. The chief, however, declined to discuss any details of his proposed severance.
In some ways, Wittig has been a lame duck for more than two years. In 2009, Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration told him to begin using up his massive amounts of accumulated leave time because he would not be paid for all of it. As a result, during one seven-month stretch between the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, the chief reported for work on only two days, using more than 140 leave days.
Months after that, the chief’s severance negotiations began with the Jones administration. This year, Jones said, the administration has left the Wittig negotiations to the city council.
It’s not clear what documents the city council used to calculate the proposed buyout for the chief. Some members have said that without his own contract, Wittig is covered by the terms of the city’s employment agreement with deputy chiefs and other ranking officers.
The superior officers’ contract says they can carry from one year to the next a maximum of one year’s “entitlement” of leave days. But Wittig’s payroll records show he has been carrying over far more than one year’s worth of days ever since he became police chief. In fact, in three instances, he carried over more than two years’ worth of leave days and once he carried more than three years’ worth, the records show.
The city’s payroll records show 416 hours, or 52 days, as Wittig’s normal annual allotment of leave time. He became chief in 2005. At the start of 2006, he carried over 89.5 days; in January 2007, he carried over 122.5 days; in January 2008, he carried over 154.5 days; in January 2009, he carried over 176.5 days; in January 2010, he carried over 114.25 days; and in January 2011, he carried over 70.75 days, payroll records show.
One of Wittig’s staff members said the chief’s leave time is based on an arbitrator’s decision rendered in 2009, not on the superior officers’ contract. A copy of that decision at the city provided to PatersonPress.com under OPRA makes no reference to leave time and only says the chief was entitled to retroactive pay.
Once Wittig is gone, the city’s next chief will be picked from among the three deputies.
Morris said Paterson must reach a contract with the next chief that limits the size of the retirement payouts.
“We don’t want to keep repeating this,’’ Morris said.