PATERSON, NJ - After facing both criticism and praise for his handling of the first blizzard during his tenure as Acting Director of the Department of Public Works, Christopher Coke was unanimously confirmed as Director by the City Council at its December 29 special meeting. Coke had been serving in an acting capacity since Mayor Jeffery Jones appointed him earlier this year.
Coke's salary will be be $105,000, an 8% increase over what his predacessor Manuel Ojeda made in 2008. Councilman-at-large Ken Morris raised concern over the salary increase given the city's fiscal position.
"If we had the money, people should be compensated for what they're worth. But this is public money, public dollars," he said.
Councilman-at-large Benjie Wimberly noted that the Jones administration had put an end to overtime pay for department heads, something that he said may have artificially inflated the salary of Coke's predacessor by as much as $20,000-$30,000.
Coke faced a difficult confirmation, in large part due to the fact he and his family moved to neighboring Prospect Park in 2002. City ordinance prohibits non-residents from serving as department heads without a waiver from the City Council.
Councilman-at-large Benjie Wimberly said many past department heads have circumvented the law by using the address of a friend or relative, and were accepted without further investigation.
"Mr. Coke easily could have used his brother's address or his mother's address, but he’s an honest man," Wimberly said.
During the discussion of the waiver, Business Administrator Charles Thomas spoke of the skillset and experience Coke brought to the department, primarily his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes compared Coke to his predacessor, who she said "had no skill set. None whatsoever. No kind of degree, no certifications, no nothing."
Called up to the podium at one point, Coke defended his connections to the city, "I am a Patersonian. Pre-K thru 12th grade I was in Paterson Public Schools. My family lives here, they continue to live here."
Ames-Garnes, who chairs the committee on public works, gave strong praise to Coke, "We have not had one cost overrun since he came on as Acting Director."
Immediately after approving the residency waiver by a vote of 4-3, the Council took Coke to task for the department's response to the season's first blizzard just days earlier.
Referring to a surprising shortage of working heavy machinery that could have sped up the snow removal process, Council President Aslon Goow said, "You should have known well in advance that certain equipment was not functioning, broke down, or not able to produce the results you were looking for."
Goow also went after Coke for spending some of the blizzard in his home, "I found it very awkward and strange, to say the least. We have a blizzard going on and my director is at home."
Coke called the blizzard a "50-year storm" and said the fast rate of snowfall, moreso than the total amount, was what made it so challenging to keep up with.
"It’s very difficult for our men to keep up, they did a great job. Some of it was problematic in that safety is first, and I couldn’t afford to risk the safety of our men having them out the night before."
He said the workers did an excellent job of making city roads passable and employed new practices to coordinate with police.
"No major thoroughfares in Paterson were blocked... This year the Mayor did implement more cooperation between the police and DPW. We were in constant contact."
Goow was quick to come around and admitted that, all told, Coke's team did a decent job: "This was a big test for you. Overall in two days, we got a pretty clean city."
Coke responded by commending the men and women of his departmentand saying that Paterson's response to the blizzard was superior compared to the surrounding municipalities.
Goow initially indicated he would vote against Coke's appointment, as he did on the residency waiver, saying he had never in his tenure as Councilman approved a non-resident for any position in the city.
"If you depended on my vote to get confirmed I’d give it to you. But under the circumstances, with the residency thing, I think you get my point."
However, when the dust settled, Goow and every Councilmember present voted to confirm Coke as Director of Public Works.
"I took this job because I love this city. Point blank," said the new Director.
When asked by the Council if he intends to move back to the city, he quipped "If my taxes are low enough, I definitely will."
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