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Under Fire, Community Development Director Retains Lawyer

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PATERSON, NJ - Embattled Community Development Director Lanisha Makle has retained an attorney for a possible lawsuit involving "unfair treatment" by City Council members.

"Some of the City Council people have been too harsh in terms of the public comments they made about Miss Makle,'' said her lawyer, Neal Brunson of Rutherford. "I'm not sure they realize the importance of what they say from their seats.''

Makle has come under repeated fire ever since her nomination hearing last year for the job. Councilmen Kenneth Morris and Aslon Goow, in particular, questioned her qualifications for the community development director's position.

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During the past year, Makle has been criticized for her handling of several federal programs awarding housing funds. In one instance, she approved a $43,000 home repair grant to Paterson Personnel Director Betty Taylor, a decision that prompted a federal inquiry. In another, she asked the City Council to approve housing grants using money that already had been earmarked for another project.

Makle's conflict with one of her subordinates, Paterson's economic development director, Brian Sweeney, resulted in police being called to the community development offices. The city eventually moved Sweeney's office from the building where Makle worked.

Brunson acknowledged that part of the City Council's job is to review the performance of top municipal officials "as long as they're not slanderous.'' In Makle's case, Brunson said, there has been "a fair degree of unfairness.''

Brunson disclosed his work for Makle at the December 2 City Council hearing on flood overtime.  "I would be remiss if I did not state my representation of Director Makle predates the formation of this committee,'' Brunson said. "My representation began when she inquired of my office as to an issue that can be best described as her concern about the unfair treatment that seemed intended to affect her performance and duties as your Director of Community Development. My work in this regard continues as I am still evaluating and reviewing the past events and circumstances.''

When asked about Brunson's comments, Morris said he had "no idea" what the lawyer was talking about. "Several of her employees have filed grievances against her, maybe he's referring to that,'' Morris said. "I do know that department been decimated by employees asking for transfers.''

Mayor Jeffrey Jones appointed Makle as Community Development Director in September 2010. Brunson said that she has not received proper credit for the work she has performed in that job. For example, he said, Makle in January 2011 helped redraft Paterson's damage assessment plan, a document that became crucial in the aftermath of this summer's historic flooding.

"It's important to give compliments, as well as criticism,'' Brunson said.

In his comments during the flood hearing, Brunson noted that Emergency Management Director Glenn Brown had described Makle's performance during the flood crisis as "excellent.'' Brunson said Makle wore "two hats" as Paterson's community development director and damage assessment coordinator.

"Ms. Makle toured the city with the Honorable Jeff Jones. She toured the city on her own,'' Brunson said. "She manned the phones and addressed the needs and concerns of the people who live here.''

Brunson also argued that the City Council's handling of the flooding hearings has been, at times, unfair. For example, he said, the council's decision to sequester Makle and other officials in side office guarded by a city police officer was improper. "That was a tort,'' Brunson said. "They didn't have the authority to do that.''

In speaking during the hearings, Brunson said he hoped there was a "new wind blowing" in the city council chambers.

"It is my hope that this new wind provides my office with the opportunity for me to take off my hat as a litigator and to put on a hat as a facilitator,'' Brunson said.

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