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Day 3 of OT Hearings: Duplicate Time Sheets Raise Questions; DPW Chief Asserts Right to Overtime (Updated with Correction)

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Christopher Coke during the Friday night hearing
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PATERSON, NJ – Friday night’s City Council hearing on Paterson’s controversial flood payments uncovered something that perplexed municipal officials – there were duplicate time sheets for Community Development Director Lanisha Makle’s 85 hours of emergency overtime.

The first time sheet was signed by Makle herself and dated September 7, officials said. The second outlined the same hours and was identical to the first in every way except for two – it was signed by personnel director Betty Taylor instead of Makle and it was dated September 19.

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After Makle couldn’t explain the duplicate, the city council called Taylor to the witness stand. Taylor wasn’t sure either, but surmised that the second was a reproduction meant to replace the original.

“As long as she only got paid once, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,’’ Taylor testified.

But council members indicated Taylor was missing the point. The evidence that the personnel director signed a time sheet on someone else’s behalf was a glaring violation of the control measures needed to validate the legitimacy of payroll records, council members said.

“The only person who should certify their time is the employee themselves,’’ asserted Councilman William McKoy.

To emphasize the point, the council then summoned Paterson Finance Director Anthony Zambrano to the witness stand and showed him Makle’s time sheet with Taylor’s signature.

“That’s abnormal,’’ Zambrano said. “This is not typical. I’ve never seen this before.’’

McKoy said Taylor’s signature on Makle’s time sheets reflected a broader lack of proper controls within the city’s payroll system. In particular, he said it was the “gravest violation” to have the same office in charge of hiring, payroll processing and issuing pay checks. The city’s personnel and payroll operations should be separated to prevent potential abuses and fraud, he said.

“We might have a number of ghost employees that we’re not aware of,’’ McKoy said. “We have just stepped on the big gorilla in the room.’’

Council President Anthony Davis said the flaw identified by McKoy was something that needed to be fixed right away. He said it demonstrated the substance of the hearing process. “We’re really serious about this, this is not about a show,’’ Davis said. “What I heard tonight is we have a broken system.’’

From Wednesday through Friday, the hearings have run about 13 hours and included testimony from eight witnesses. Councilman Kenneth Morris said one official on the list of 12 people subpoenaed, deputy emergency management director Rhonda Thompson, won’t be called to testify. That leaves three others for the next set of hearings secheduled for Dec. 9, 14 and 15 – Mayor Jeffrey Jones, Police Chief James Wittig and Health and Human Services Director Donna Nelson-Ivy.

Some officials who already testified may be called back again, Morris said. Also, employees not included on the original subpoena list may be summoned, he said.

The first witness called Friday night was Department of Public Works Director Christopher Coke, who city records show has received more than $18,000 worth of overtime this year, about half of which came during the late summer floods. In his opening statement Coke said he returned his flood overtime check in September “not as an admission of guilt” but rather as an “obligation to the process.’’

Coke, along with the mayor and other city department heads, gave back their overtime checks after the state Department of Community Affairs said managers were not entitled to overtime.

Citing regulations in the Fair Labor Standards Act and Homeland Security Act, Coke argued that he was an emergency first responder and entitled to overtime. He acknowledged in his previous job as project manager for Railroad Construction Corp. he was not able to be paid overtime and thought that also was the case when he took the $105,000 as Paterson’s public works director in September 2010. (Editor's note: The previous version of this story rendered this sentence incorrectly.)

But Coke said he learned through conversations with public works employees that his predecessor in the DPW director's job had been getting overtime. As a result, he said he checked with Taylor in personnel, who had one of her subordinates confirm that the last public works director received overtime.

Coke said he then checked with Business Administrator Charles Thomas and Budget Director Russell Forenza, both of whom he said also confirmed his predecessor’s overtime.

As a result, Coke testified, he had received overtime prior to the post-hurricane flooding. Coke testified that he routinely works more than 40 hours in a week, but has only put in for overtime during emergencies.

But Morris and Councilman Aslon Goow disputed Coke’s characterization of himself as a first responder entitled to the overtime.

“It’s a fact,’’ Coke said of his first responder status.

“It’s your opinion that it’s a fact,’’ Morris said. ‘We have not yet confirmed that.’’

Councilman Andre Sayegh asked Coke whether he knew of any other New Jersey public works directors who received overtime for their flood response efforts. “I don’t know,’’ responded Coke.

Both Coke and Makle were among more than two dozen city workers who received overtime for working regular business hours when city government shut down during the flooding, according to Paterson payroll records. Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations say employees called in during emergency shutdowns may get overtime, but only if the town has a pre-existing policy stipulating that.

“You claimed hours during normal working days,’’ Morris said to Makle.

“Actually, it wasn’t a normal working day because the city was closed,’’ said Makle.

“Then you were being paid straight time for staying home and time-and-a-half for coming to work,’’ Morris said, calling the practice his “basic definition of double-dipping.’’

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