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Mayor Asks Outside Counsel To Review Directors’ Overtime; Uncertainty Remains Over Some Repayments

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A scene from the City Council's 2011 overtime inquiry
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Part Three in a Three-Part Series

PATERSON, NJ – In a year when Paterson’s overtime spending reached unprecedented levels, there was one group of municipal employees who received a drastic reduction in extra pay in 2012. Those were city directors.

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After the city paid out more than $100,000 in overtime to various directors in 2011, the number dropped to less than $1,000 last year, according to records provided to PatersonPress.com under an Open Public Records Act request.

The exception was $706 paid to Public Works Director Christopher Coke. That money came from a $1.3 million federal grant covering an audit of city energy use. Business Administration Charles Thomas said it was a “one-time payment” and that it was stopped when city officials realized Coke was being paid for his work on the grant as overtime. After that, officials said, Coke was not compensated for the extra time he worked on the grant.

Other city directors who received substantial overtime payments in 2011 got nothing last year. That includes Thomas, who had gotten $23,767 in 2011, Budget Director Russell Forenza, who was paid $22,830 in overtime in 2011, Personnel Director Betty Taylor who had gotten $17,803, and Health and Human Services Director Donna Nelson-Ivy who had gotten $8,548. Even Coke’s $706 in 2012 paled compared to the $17,844 in overtime he received in 2011. [Editor's note: Part of those 2011 payments - that which stemmed from the post-Irene floods -later was returned.]

But Mayor Jeffrey Jones said the question of whether Cabinet members are entitled to overtime remains unresolved as far as he’s concerned. The city has retained an outside law firm to examine the issue and to figure out the best way to compensate senior staff members for the extra hours they work, including the possibility of a formal comp time policy, Jones said.

“Will people be amassing great wealth? No, that’s not the intent,’’ said Jones. “But we’ve got to take care of people for doing a good job. They’re working 24 hours a day on programs that benefit the city. We can’t ask people to work for free. That is so unreasonable and so unfair.”

Jones said the task of coming up with a policy on overtime and comp time was difficult because of the different types of work directors do. “You can’t say one size fits all,’’ he said.

But City Council members say the situation is not as complicated as the mayor makes it out to be. People in “exempt” positions should not get overtime, no matter what the circumstances are, they say.

In December 2011, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) completed a review of Paterson’s overtime payments and told the city to recoup payments that the state agency said were improperly made to various managers.

By then, city administrators already had made repayment on overtime stemming from the historic floods that followed Hurricane Irene, which accounted for more than half the extra pay given to administrators in 2011. But the DCA report called for the repayment of any additional overtime paid to city managers that was unrelated to the floods. In particular, the report listed what it deemed as inappropriate overtime given to Thomas, Taylor, Coke and Nelson-Ivy.

The City Council’s own overtime report, completed in February 2012, also called for the repayments. The council last fall also passed a resolution designed to force the repayments, especially after the DCA said the issue might affect Paterson’s Transition Aid allotment.

Thomas last year entered an agreement with the city to repay his overtime. Nelson-Ivy recently did so as well. “I’m tired of the negative stuff, I’m tired of the negative press,’’ Nelson-Ivy said, explaining why she agreed to pay back the money. “It wasn’t anything I did wrong.’’

When asked whether she planned to repay the overtime, Taylor said, “You’ll have to talk to the business administrator about that.’’

Coke said he felt he was entitled to the overtime he received in the past because of the city’s long-standing practice of paying overtime to its public works directors. “I understand going forward’’ that he won’t get overtime, Coke said, “but I don’t think it’s right.’’

City records show that both of Paterson’s previous public works directors received overtime. Manuel Ojeda, who ran the department during former mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration, had been paid more than $38,000 in overtime while he was director. Robert Washington, the director during Martin Barnes’ administration, also had gotten overtime, the records show.

Jones said he thought it was unfair to hold his administration to a different standard regarding overtime than what had used by prior administrations.

“We’ve been following the very same practices that were in place when we got here,’’ the mayor said.

But Councilman Kenneth Morris said he wasn’t buying Jones’ “past practice” explanation. If something is wrong it’s wrong, no matter whether previous administrations were doing it, Morris said.

When asked about the repayment of the overtime, Morris said the council had done all it can on the issue. He said it was up to the mayor to compel his staff to repay the money in question. “I’m doing my job, but the taxpayers seem to be giving this guy a free pass on this,’’ Morris said of the mayor.

Moreover, Morris said the DCA also was responsible for letting the city off the hook regarding the overtime repayments. The state agency has said it would reduce Paterson’s 2013 Transition Aid by the amount of questionable overtime that hasn’t been repaid. But Morris said the state could have taken a tougher stand on forcing the repayments.

One city official whose overtime stopped in 2012 filed a lawsuit against the city. Forenza, who is not a department head, contends that he is not an exempt employee because he does not have the authority to hire or fire staff and because he supervises less than two workers.

What’s next? Last February, the city council’s report from its overtime hearings called for a variety of suggestion reforms – new policies, resolutions and ordinances that were supposed to reign in overtime abuses. A year later, few of those have been put in place. PatersonPress.com next Sunday will examine what’s been done – or not done – as a result of that report.

 

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