PATERSON, NJ – The City Council and Paterson’s police officers appear to be on a collision course.
On Wednesday, an attorney representing Paterson’s two police unions filed legal papers seeking to quash the city council’s subpoena for nine officers to testify in the flood overtime hearings.
In response, Council Finance Chairman Kenneth Morris on Wednesday night suggested to his colleagues that they not approve any overtime for any city police officers until the nine officers show up for the flood inquiry.
“If they’re not willing to come forward, how can we verify that overtime?’’ Morris said. “To me, that calls into question all overtime.’’
“We’re not going to engage in a public do-and-pony show,’’ said Charles Sciarra, attorney for the Paterson Policemen’s Benevolent Association locals that representing rank-and-file and superior police officers.
Michael DeMarco, the special counsel representing the city council in the hearings, said he received word on Wednesday that the unions were seeking to quash the subpoenas. He also said the unions have indicated they previously registered their opposition to the subpoenas in October. But DeMarco said he has not yet seen that correspondence.
The City Council already has refused to pay $209,000 in overtime for city employees for the two weeks after the first wave of flood checks were issued on the grounds that the administration has not provided documentation to verify the time. That action already has prompted the police and fire unions, whose members would receive the bulk of the money, to file contract grievances.
In regard to the overtime hearings, Sciarra said the unions maintain that police officers are governed by “different statutory and regulatory provisions’’ which allow them not to appear at the city council inquiry. The unions’ motion likely will be decided upon in January, he said.
“That’s not remotely to suggest that there’s a concern about the content of the police officers’ testimony if they were to testify,’’ Sciarra said.
The nine officers who were called are:
· Lt. Patrick Papagni, who collected $5,350 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks. During his testimony, Wittig said Papagni was one of two people who collected overtime forms from rank-and-file officers during the flooding.
· Sgt. Kelley Hemmings, who collected $7,002 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks. His was the largest check issued by the city. City documents show Hemmings put in for 18 hours of overtime on six consecutive days.
· Officer Antonio Blasucci, who collected $6,306 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks.
· Sgt. Alex Popov, who collected $6,253 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks. Popov, a former lieutenant demoted during the city’s spring budget cuts, runs the police department’s disaster operations, Wittig said. The chief said Popov also handled officers’ overtime submissions, along with Papagni.
· Sgt. Manuel Hernandez, who collected $5,882 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks.
· Sgt. Lazzaro Mazza, who collected $5,740 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks.
· Sgt. Christopher Straub, who collected $5,142 in net overtime in the first round of flood overtime checks.
· Deputy Police Chief William Fraher, who received no overtime during the flood, as stipulated in the union contract.
· Deputy Police Chief Danny Nichols, who received no overtime during the flood, as stipulated in the union contract.
The city council has threatened to file contempt of court charges against the officers, but that decision will wait until after the union’s court order seeking to quash the subpoenas is resolved.
Two other employees who previously had not appeared at the hearings in response to the city council’s subpoenas showed up for the first time Wednesday night. Health Officer Trevor Weigle gave about 35 minutes of testimony, while Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Hancock was in attendance but not asked to testify.
The council has concluded its inquiry on overtime paid to the mayor and his Cabinet, and plans to issue its findings next month. But the council also plans to conduct additional hearings on overtime procedures in the police, fire and health departments.
Sciarra said the police unions are not contesting the city council right to conduct its inquiry, but simply maintain their members are covered by different provisions. Sciarra said that if there were any questions about the officers’ overtime, the issue should be referred either to an outside law enforcement agency to the Paterson Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.
“This is a procedural issue,’’ Sciarra said.
Councilman William McKoy, chairman of the public safety committee, said he found the unions’ attempt to quash the subpoenas “intriguing.’’ McKoy pointed out that Police Chief James Wittig has been regularly complying with the subpoena and has testified in the proceedings.
“I find it strange to see that lower level officers have found this caveat to thwart the investigation or review of this council,’’ McKoy said.
McKoy also took note of the fact that Fraher and Nichols would not show up and pointed out that the two of them were lead candidates to replace Wittig when he soon retires. Their absence, McKoy, is something the council should remember when it votes on Wittig’s successor.