PATERSON, NJ – Mayor Jeffrey Jones is calling for an ethics investigation of Kenneth Morris, raising questions about the councilman’s involvement with city government business that the mayor said favored his employer, St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center.
[Editor's note: This version of the story includes additional input from Councilman Morris after the original was posted.]
Among the situations Jones questioned were Morris’ role in arranging a city council finance committee meeting in March with representatives of a company considering buying the hospital and his efforts in past years to help a hotel project that had been proposed on property owned by St. Joseph’s.
Jones also said Morris may have violated the city’s policies against fraternization by allegedly having an ongoing romantic relationship with an employee in the Community Development department while serving as chairman of the Community Development committee.
Moreover, Jones said he believed Morris’ professional and personal relationships involving the Community Development department may explain the councilman’s harsh criticism of Lanisha Makle, the woman Jones appointed to serve as community development director in 2010.
Jones said the city council ought to convene a Committee of the Whole and use its investigative powers to probe Morris. “If they don’t bring the same degree of scrutiny and intensity that they brought to the whole overtime nonsense, then it bears out what I was saying about that being a witch hunt,’’ Jones said in an interview with PatersonPress.com on Monday.
“This is clear and apparent,’’ Jones said. “What are they waiting for? They have to police themselves the same way they did everyone else.’’
Just last week in his State of the City Address, Jones had asserted he would take a more aggressive approach to combatting his critics. In fact, over the past two years, Morris has played the lead role in condemning the performance of Jones and administration.
Morris laughed out loud when told of Jones’ comments. “This guy is the master of diversion,’’ Morris said. “This is just a fishing expedition, this isn’t just a Hail Mary, this is an attempt to divert attention from the incompetence of his administration.’’
Morris asserted that Jones would better serve city taxpayers by spending his time working on the $10 million structural deficit facing the city. “The mayor needs to concentrate on turning this city around,’’ Morris said.
Jones acknowledged that he has not filed a formal request with the city council asking for an investigation of Morris. But he said he hoped that raising the issue with the news media would spur the council to action. The council, he said, was willing to launch its flood overtime probe “after reading some articles.’’
Morris’ colleagues seemed stunned by Jones’ call for an investigation, especially after many of them had called for a new spirit of cooperation in city government during Sunday’s inauguration speeches.
“I have to sit down with the mayor and ask him what he wants us to look at,’’ said Davis. “I want to protect the city, but we need to be clear what we’re talking about.’’
“We do know that CD has been out of control for a while,’’ Davis said of the Community Development department. “Is it because of the chairman? Is it because of the acting director we had in there before? Is it because of the director we have now?’’
Makle, the current director, this week began serving a 90-day suspension imposed by the city council as a result of its inquiry into the flood overtime. In the fall of 2010, Morris was one of two council members who voted against her appointment, arguing at the time that she lacked the qualifications for the important position. Since then, Morris has frequently criticized her performance, blaming her for the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.
Councilman William McKoy, the city’s longest-serving elected official, said Morris’ early opposition to Makle’s appointment demonstrated that his colleague’s criticisms have been substantive and have not stemmed from personal biases. McKoy called Jones’ comments “irresponsible.’’
“I’d ask him to point to any shred of evidence on which he bases these reckless allegations,’’ said McKoy. “I would urge the mayor to get off the path of gossip and hearsay and to get on board with fixing the problems of the city. That’s the job he was elected to do. If he’s unprepared to do that, there may be other jobs he can apply for.’’
McKoy also rejected Jones’ assertion that the city council needed to be consistent by probing Morris with the same intensity it investigated the overtime checks issued to Jones and his Cabinet members last year.
“That’s rather silly,’’ McKoy said. “The mayor and his administration did something that is really unheard of and egregious when when it was brought to light. The council and the public felt compelled to get to the bottom of it.’’
Jones, meanwhile, said he also planned to ask state officials to examine Morris’ activities involving St. Joseph’s hospital. He also said the city council should not allow Morris to continue serving on its Community Development committee.
The city’s ethics guidelines preclude municipal employees and officials from “conducting City business with a firm in which the employee or an immediate family member has a substantial interest.’’
Jones said Morris, as chairman of the committee that oversees Paterson’s economic development efforts, had been involved in reviewing a proposal to build a hotel at the hospital complex. Morris works as director of government relations at St. Joseph’s.
Medical Missions for Children, the company that was looking to build the hotel on hospital-owned land, had asked the city to provide financial backing to project. At a March 2011 city council meeting, Medical Missions requested the city guarantee a $42 million in bonds needed for the $80 million hotel that would have been built on Main Street.
A bond guarantee is like co-signing a loan. It costs nothing, unless the person borrowing the money ends up having trouble paying it back. Then, whoever makes the guarantee ends up on the hook for the payments.
Morris spoke in favor of the hotel proposal at that meeting, saying: "I'm biased in favor of jobs, I'm biased in favor of tax relief and I'm biased in favor of improving Paterson's profile.’’
In an interview on Monday, Morris said he had no conflict of interests because the hotel was proposed by a private developer, and not by his employer, the hospital. St. Joseph’s owned the land where the developer wanted to put the hotel, he said. Morris said Jones’ criticism of his role showed “a lack of fundamental understanding with respect to business and government.’’
The Jones administration refused to provide Medical Missions with the $42 million guarantee on the grounds that the city could not take such a risk. Jones said he believed Morris had brokered a deal with former mayor Joey Torres’ administration that would have allowed the hotel to go forward. “He never expected us to win,’’ said Jones.
Jones previously had questioned Morris’ role in arranging and attending a city council finance committee meeting in March with Ascension Health Care Network, a Missouri-based for-profit company that’s looking to acquire St. Joseph’s. Part of the reason for that meeting was Ascension’s interest in getting a short-term tax break if the hospital property were returned to the city tax rolls, officials said.
Ascension’s efforts to acquire St. Joseph’s are part of ongoing negotiations, officials said.
Morris has said his role at the meeting did not constitute a conflict because the session was with Ascension, and not St. Joseph’s.
Councilman Andre Sayegh, who was at the Ascension meeting, said he supported projects for St. Joseph’s “because I know they would benefit the city. I want to put the hotel there.’’
Supporters of the proposed Ascension acquisition have said it would provide the city an ongoing infusion of revenue by restoring to the property rolls a large piece of land that has been tax exempt.
Jones said Morris may have crossed ethical lines involving his personal relationships in addition to his professional role. Last week, a city employee, Montaha Deeb, filed revisions in her lawsuit charging the city with harassment and discrimination. Deeb, who had been an employee in the Community Development department before she was transferred last year, accuses Makle and other city workers of mistreating her.
In her original lawsuit, Deeb mentioned that she was a “friend and supporter” of Morris and pointed out that Morris and Jones were political rivals.
In an amended complaint filed in federal court in Newark last week, Deeb elaborated on her involvement with Morris, saying they “had a romantic relationship for seven (7) years.’’
The lawsuit goes on to say, “Ms. Deeb and Councilman Morris have been observed together by Mayor Jones and other members of Mayor Jones’ campaign staff and cabinet at political events including the League of Municipalities and in other social venues. Councilman Morris and Mayor Jones are political opponents.’’
The lawsuit said Deeb was mistreated by the Jones administration because of her relationship with Morris.
Jones, in an interview on Monday, asserted that the disclosure of Morris’ alleged romantic relationship with Deeb cast a cloud over the councilman’s criticism of Makle’s management of the Community Development department. “I’ve said all along that there was a personal element here,’’ said the mayor.
In her lawsuit, Deeb says she was hired in the Community Development department in March 2002 as an account clerk and was made a permanent employee in 2004 as a program monitor. In 2006, the lawsuit says she was given a $5,000 raise for taking on the additional duties of fiscal analyst.
But the lawsuit says Deeb was demoted when Makle became director. The lawsuit also says Deeb’s salary was reduced by $5,000 as a result. The lawsuit then says that Makle then hired Joyce Hunt to take Deeb’s place in performing fiscal analyst work.
Numerous times at public meetings in the past 18 months, Morris has questioned Makle’s decision to hire Hunt and criticized the performance of the department’s fiscal analyst.
When asked whether Makle’s treatment of Deeb prompted any of his criticism of Makle and her handling of the community development department, Morris responded, “I was critical of Miss Makle even before she was an employee of the city.’’ He added, “Her competence has been brought into question by the entire council, not just myself.’’
When asked about his relationship with Deeb, Morris said, “I have multiple relationships with employees of the city of Paterson and I will continue to have them.’’
In a subsequent interview on Tuesday, Morris said he was disappointed that Jones was manipulating a lawsuit involving alleged wrongdoing in his administation to try to use it for his own benefit. Morris also said he agreed with one of the premises of Deeb's lawsuit - that her friendship with him prompted the Jones administration to retaliate against her. Morris asserted the facts seemed to bear that out
But Morris also said the lawsuit "mischaracterized" his association with Deeb. He said the romantic aspect of their relationship was "disputable.''
Meanwhile, Jones said he believed Morris violated city rules by allegedly being romantically involved with Deeb, saying there was a policy against fraternization.
“There’s no such thing,’’ Morris responded. “The mayor cannot make up policies that are convenient to him.’’
The city has the following policy on “consensual relationships”:
“The City strongly discourages romantic or sexual relationships between a management or other supervisory employee and his or her subordinate (an employee who reports directly or indirectly to that person) because such a relationship may give rise to the perception by others that there is favoritism or bias in employment decisions affecting the subordinate employee. Moreover, given the uneven balance of power within such a relationship, consent by the subordinate is suspect and may be viewed by others, or at a later date, by the subordinate, as the result of coercion or intimidation.’’
Paterson’s policy manual also says, “If a city employee enters into a consensual relationship which is romantic or sexual in nature with a subordinate (an employee who reports directly or indirectly to that person), the employees must notify the Director of Personnel. Once the City receives notice, the Director of Personnel or his or her designee will review the situation in light of all the facts (reporting relationship between the parties, effect on co-workers, job responsibilities, etc.) to determine whether to change the reporting relationship or take other appropriate action.’’
Morris asserted on Tuesday that the policy does not apply to him because he is "an elected official official and not a city employee.'' Morris said the only elected official to whom employees report directly or indirectly is the mayor. As a council member, Morris said, he has the authority to discipline city directors, but not to hire, fire or make other personnel decisions regarding rank-and-file city workers.
Morris added that he does not condone romantic relationships between supervisors and staff.