Clashes at City Council Meeting Leave Public Unimpressed
Correction: The fireworks display was requested by the Upper Montclair Country Club, incorrectly reported as the Montclair Country Club. It has been corrected in the story.
Mayor Ray Grabowski opened the meeting with an uncharacteristic prepared statement, asking that everyone conduct themselves with restraint and respect for their colleagues. “As elected officials, part of our responsibility is to demonstrate that we can work together constructively for the good of the constituents. That’s what our Clifton citizens deserve.”
Approximately ten minutes after this plea for decorum things became heated, as Councilman Tony Latona and City Manager Nick Villano clashed over one of their very first action items for the evening. Discussion and debate over action items 2 and 3, concerning funding emergency sewer repair services, monopolized the first half hour of the work session.
Last year the city entered negotiations with the Department of Public Works (DPW), sewer division. From Monday to Sunday, two people and a supervisor remained on standby in case of emergencies, like a sewer backup. Because workers on standby duty have to remain alert and ready in case of a call, their union asked for a standby rate of $350 per person per week to pay for them to stay on call. This added money would pay workers for the inconvenience and interruption to their time off and would cost the city approximately $40,000 for the year.
The last council would not agree to this rate and countered with a lower amount. Negotiations failed and it was not included in the DPW contract. Villano, who said that the union’s request was not unreasonable and that other municipalities do pay their workers to remain on standby (even if they aren’t called out on a job) cautioned the previous council of the possible result. “Decisions you make today are going to affect tomorrow,” he said.
His words proved true when the DPW workers, as of January, chose not to accept on-call work anymore, leaving the city with no one on standby for after-hours sewer emergencies. Councilman Bill Gibson questioned why DPW workers were allowed to simply refuse to show up and Villano explained that the Administration cannot force them to take standby work since Council failed to negotiate it as part of their contract last year. This led to the city needing an emergency contract with an outside company until bids could be collected for a more permanent solution and Advanced Plumbing was hired for that role. Earlier this year, Council approved a resolution to allocate a maximum of $100,000 for this emergency work, which has now been reached.
Sadrakula said that the current Council had agreed to offer the DPW workers $400 per week, per worker to lure them back but Villano explained, and City Attorney Matt Priore confirmed, that they cannot do that because it would be akin to reopening a contract.
Latona did not accept this as a response and motioned to table the action item saying, “We are literally flushing hundreds of thousands of dollars down the tubes.” He insisted that the DPW contract be amended to include standby workers so that the new contract would not be necessary. Villano reiterated that he does not have the authority to reopen a contract and said again that he warned about this a year ago. If this council does not approve the $100,000 for emergency work that has already been done and award the contract to the new contractor for a more permanent solution, then the liability will be on this council when emergencies cannot be addressed.
“You are in violation of state statute,” said Priore. “There is absolutely no legal basis to not award this contract.” Priore continued, stressing that the council has a legal obligation to award the bid for emergency service to the lowest bidder, National Water Main, since they exceeded the $100,000 cap they previously approved for Advanced Plumbing. If there are no emergencies they don’t have to use National Water Main, but as the lowest bidder they are legally entitled to the contract.
Latona then amended his motion to include a $25,000 cap on what they could spend on further emergency services. That motion passed with Councilman Joe Kolodziej cautioning that they were “playing a dangerous game” by banking on needed emergency work not exceeding that amount before January 1st.
Villano said in a statement that had the last council approved the DPW’s request for a $350 per week stipend for standby workers, the city likely would have saved approximately $50,000 by avoiding the need for emergency service from outside contractors.
Earlier in the meeting, Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula asked to revisit the “gentleman’s agreement” regarding cell phone use on the dais. “We all agreed,” she said, “not to use them.” Councilwoman Rosemary Pino interjected immediately, saying, “I don’t think we all agreed to it.” Grabowski noted that it isn’t a good look to have council people on their phones during meetings but said that he could not stop anyone from doing it. Sadrakula asked that it be put on the agenda for next time to create a resolution since the friendly agreement was not being observed by all.
After a brief discussion, the Upper Montclair Country Club’s request for a fireworks display on October 8th was denied. Latona suggested that next year, if this event were held closer to the July 4th holiday, the fireworks might be better tolerated. Later during public comment, resident Gary Perino thanked the council, on behalf of his dogs, for the denial.
During the public session’s second reading of the unruly public gatherings ordinance, Perino asked for a legal definition of “nuisance” and “unruly social gathering.” If it’s disturbing the peace, quiet, and comfort of the neighbor and the police agree that it does, then it would be at the discretion of the police officer to issue a warning or a summons. Sadrakula confirmed that this would give another tool to the police for addressing disruptive behavior. A concerned resident expressed his frustration about the police not always showing up when called or choosing not to issue a summons. Citizens can file complaints against their neighbor if the police fail to respond or issue a summons themselves, City Attorney Matt Priore said.
Latona asked if there was a way to provide new homeowners with a “Be a Good Neighbor” type of pamphlet to ensure that new residents understand some of the city’s ordinances. Villano said that such a thing already exists and the city is trying to work with local realtors to provide these to new homeowners.
Perhaps an indication of general dissatisfaction with City Council, the public comment portion of the meeting brought out many residents and again took up a large chunk of the evening, lasting a full 90 minutes. Several residents’ comments included specific references to the council’s inability to work together respectfully and productively. “I want to cancel my subscription to Clifton,” said Samantha Bassford, who noted that she struggled to be proud of the city she grew up in when there was so much infighting from leadership.
The meeting continued with more personality clashes on the dais before the Council adjourned to executive session to discuss the many confidential items on the agenda.
There will be a Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, September 12 at 6 pm at City Hall to discuss the Islamic Center of Passaic County mosque on Pershing Road and the related parking issues in that neighborhood.