PATERSON, NJ – The City Council Wednesday night voted to fire Mayor Jeffrey Jones’ chief of staff and to suspend his business administrator for 60 days without pay as punishment for their actions in Paterson’s overtime scandal.
The council also approved a resolution saying it had “no confidence” in Jones for his handling of the situation in which he and his top managers had received overtime checks in the aftermath of last year’s historic floods.
Councilman Kenneth Morris said the termination and suspension fulfilled the public’s call for accountability for the flood overtime mess and he said the action stemmed from a “fair and just” process.
A city council report issued in February detailed the city council’s reasons for the punishment. The report resulted from last year flood overtime hearings.
In a continuation of the defiance he showed during last year’s overtime hearings, Chief of Staff Charles Pettiford did not attend Wednesday night’s disciplinary hearing. Pettiford also twice refused to accept a hand-delivered notice about the session, officials said. His attorney, Neal Brunson, did not explain Pettiford’s absence, but he argued that his client had not received sufficient notice about the hearing.
Councilman Kenneth Morris said Pettiford’s termination would take effect immediately and he directed Thomas to get Pettiford’s city keys, parking card and any other city-owned equipment he has, including a cell phone, laptop or vehicle that he might have. Pettiford became a target of criticism almost as soon as Jones appointed him to a $105,000 job in the summer of 2010 that previously had not existed. His salary eventually was reduced to $90,000 last year.
In contrast to Pettiford, Business Administrator Charles Thomas not only attended the city council’s special meeting Wednesday night but also asked that his disciplinary hearing be held in public, rather than private session.
“There were numerous mistakes in judgment, there’s no doubt about that,’’ said Miles Feinstein, Thomas’ attorney.
Thomas told the city council he had learned from his mistakes, adding that he had adopted a new philosophy of life “to try to do what is best for those you serve.’’
The city council is scheduled to hold an additional session on Thursday night to consider disciplinary action against Community Development Director Lanisha Makle and Personnel Director Betty Taylor.
Brunson, who is also serving as attorney for Taylor and Makle, asked the council to delay those proceedings. Taylor’s mother, he said, was recently placed on life support and her step- father just suffered a stroke. Moreover, Brunson said he had planned to attend a graduation Thursday night for a woman he had mentored and might not be in position to represent Makle. But the city council said the hearings would go on as scheduled.
During Wednesday night’s discussion of Thomas’ fate, city council members praised the business administrator’s willingness to admit his errors. “There’s no doubt Mr. Thomas from the very beginning, you manned up,’’ said Councilman Aslon Goow. “You were the only one who was willing to admit you made a mistake.’’
But Goow said it was also important to send a message to the Jones administration that the city council would demand accountability. “All those department heads who think this is a dog-and-pony show, you’re going to find out real quick that the authority is here,’’ said Goow.
The city council decided that Thomas’ suspension would take effect on July 2. As business administrator, Thomas oversees the day-to-day operation of the city. Paterson has an assistant business administrator, Nellie Pou, who also served as a state Senator. But Pou works for Paterson just three days a week.
When asked who would fill the void in his absence, Thomas said, “That’s up to the mayor.’’
Jones could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. He did not attend the proceedings, but had attempted to block the city council from disciplining his top managers by filing a lawsuit. A judge ruled earlier on Wednesday that the council was within its authority in suspending or terminating Jones’ managers. Jones has accused the council of running a “kangaroo court” in which it had predetermined the outcome of the overtime proceedings.
When asked if Pettiford would appeal his termination, Brunson said, “I don’t know what he’s going to do.’’
At one point Wednesday night, the city council considered suspending Thomas for 30 days. But only Council President Anthony Davis and Councilman William McKoy supported that option. Morris, Goow, Rigo Rodriguez, Andre Sayegh and Julio Tavarez voted against it.
All seven of the members present voted in favor of the 60-day suspension for Thomas, for the termination of Pettiford, and for the no-confidence resolution on Jones. Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes, who was ill during last year’s flood hearings, and newly-elected Councilman Kenneth McDaniel did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
“I respect their decision,’’ Thomas said after the council voted to suspend him.
Feinstein said Thomas so far has repaid about $7,000 in overtime he received during last year’s floods. Thomas also had been paid overtime for his attendance at city council meetings last year. The state has determined that Thomas received more than $20,000 in inappropriate overtime since becoming business administrator.
Thomas’ salary is $114,000. The 60-day suspension will cost him about $19,000.