Hot Topics at the City Council Meeting: Legal Fees, Overtime, Censures and Flood Damage, But Who Pays?
All Council members attended the April 5th meeting, Councilman Eagler participated virtually due to illness. The meeting begins with Action Items from the agenda and the following event authorization requests are approved:
- Boys & Girls Club Annual Food Truck Festival, May 15th
- St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church Procession, April 15th
- St. Brendan’s Church Procession, April 15th
- Flag Raisings for 2022
A request for Power of One 10 Year Anniversary Celebration on June 5th to be held in Nash Park is discussed. Councilwoman Sadrakula asks if the event will create overtime. The City Manager, Nick Villano responds that it will not for the Fire Department or Police, possibly for DPW if they are needed, and he will have to confirm if the Health Department will. It is requested to amend the motion so the other entity pays overtime costs as opposed to the City. The City Manager asks what other entities have been required to pay overtime? Councilwoman Sadrakula responds that the Police were required to pay for the race (John Samra 5K). The City Manager explains this event is different than the race, which takes place on the street and requires closing roads, this is in a park. He continues that there are many events held in parks that the city does not request organizations pay overtime; cleanup is handled by the organizations.
The Mayor adds that the Power of One letter doesn’t request DPW. He explains that the organization did so much for city residents during Covid and IDA, adding “charity builds community.” Councilwoman Sadrakula makes a motion to table until the CM can confirm if there will be Health Department overtime required, which Pino seconds. The motion to table is voted down 6-no, 1-yes. The motion to approve the event is voted 6-yes, 1-abstain.
The next item for discussion is the Fire Station 1 Flood Damage Restoration. Councilwoman Sadrakula questions why they are voting on awarding architectural services to George Held if the work is complete. The City Manager explains he is authorized to approve contracts up to $17,500, this contract was $14,500. But the City’s licensed QPA (qualified purchasing agent) is requesting this contracted amount be approved by resolution because the same architect will likely be used for additional services on the project, pushing it over the $17,500 threshold. The Mayor explains the work has to be done because the Firehouse was flooded and is overdue. The motion is passed 6-yes, 1-no with Sadrakula voting no to approve the Fire House rehab. An argument ensues between the City Manager and Sadrakula, as he explains they have been criticized for not getting the work done fast enough, he asks “does voting no mean you don’t want us to proceed?” Councilman Grabowski calls a Point of Order as they are both speaking over each other and asks to move on since the motion has been voted on.
The meeting moves to New Business and the Response to Council Fire Department Inquiry is discussed, Councilwoman Sadrakula questions if the Fire Committee met to discuss the list of questions from Councilman Gibson regarding the Fire Department overtime breakdown. The Mayor explains all the questions were answered and provided to the Council in the packet. Councilman Grabowski weighs in from the Committee and says the Fire Chief explained the overtime was caused by the Covid pandemic and officers sick time, adding that the extra ambulance was used during Covid. The City Manager explains that in addition to Covid, water distribution and work due to the IDA flooding also contributed, but those are being reimbursed by PVWC and FEMA. Although FEMA reimbursement can take 1-2 years, so the city has to expense the cost. Councilwoman Pino asks if an email summary can be sent. The City Manager explains that the Fire Chief provided 3 different variations of reports which broke down the overtime by brass, by firefighters, etc. $500K was budgeted, which went about 600-700K over budget. The Chief’s reports explained it was a unique year with the pandemic, a third ambulance run completely on overtime plus water distribution and flooding work from IDA, explaining OEM went door to door to pump basements and deliver food. The overtime was broken down to be reimbursed by FEMA and PVWC, which Council was given copies of.
The Mayor adds that the discussion on the item was started with an untrue statement by Councilwoman Sadrakula that Councilman Gibson’s questions weren’t answered, when the answers are in the Council packet. He states it is improper for a Councilperson to speak untruths at the Council dias, it is not right to the taxpayers or to the city’s professionals. An argument ensues between the Mayor and Councilwoman Sadrakula.
Councilman Gibson interjects and asks everyone to let him speak since he asked the questions. He explains he submitted 10 questions and the Fire Chief answered all 10. He wanted to understand if this overtime needed to be budgeted in the upcoming year, and they learned the department is 5 men down. He explains it’s unfortunate to have both Covid and IDA, but it’s important for residents to know these are unanticipated things we have to fund until we get reimbursed. Councilwoman Sadrakula states her questions were not answered, she wanted a breakdown of sick days and Covid related days. Councilwoman Murphy asks the City Manager if its possible to do that type of breakdown of overtime related to sick time or Covid. The City Manager answers it is not possible.
The Mayor continues that the department head wrote 3 different reports and all the additional questions were answered and are in the packet. He states the line of questioning is targeting staff and its wrong stating “…this has been a pattern for 36 months, it’s not the first time, and we have to protect staff from being harassed, two censures prove it.” Councilwoman Sadrakula’s first censure in this term was due to a city hall staff workplace harassment lawsuit, read it here. The second censure was also voted on unanimously by the Council after a superior court judge investigated misinformation Councilwoman Sadrakula posted on Facebook about police contract negotiations. Read the censure here and the investigation report here.
As the Councilwoman and Mayor argue, the City Manager interjects that this is an ongoing attack on certain staff and he will not tolerate it. He states “Councilwoman you spins things” adding "this is an attack on the Fire Chief" and "a good leader doesn’t throw their people under the bus like you do.”
Councilwoman Murphy adds that she would like to thank the Fire Chief, who was in the audience, for all the work he did during the Covid-19 pandemic, explaining at one point he had 40 firefighters and staff out at the same time.
Next a Civil Rights Committee is discussed to update status. The Mayor explains the next step is to pass an ordinance, and it is important to fill the committee with a wide range of people from various communities in the city. The City Attorney, Matt Priore explains the last meeting determined it will be Advisory in nature as serious civil rights offenses would need to be sent to the attorney general or county prosecutor; the draft ordinance is being written.
A report of an Analysis of Legal Fee Expenditures is read into the record by Councilwoman Murphy. The report, prepared by John Markle of Bergen Risk Managers, explains that almost all the cases defended by outside counsel relate to lawsuits in defense of the Police Officers, most from the prior administration. Only 3 cases were unrelated. One was from Councilwoman Sadrakula against the City which falsely alleged she didn’t receive bills which were unequivocally displayed to be provided to the full Council, that cost $16,000. Another, Doremus vs. Clifton cost $13K and Baker vs Clifton which was an auto accident involving the DPW cost $5K.
The total cost for outside counsel was $310,231. In order to save the city money the law department was legal counsel in cases the city was named defendant. It should be noted that this total is significantly higher than in the past in part because the rates for outside counsel representing police officers and other staff were raised in August 2019 from $90/hr to $150/hr, a 66% increase. This was despite the recommendation to raise to $125/hr only for federal cases. Councilwoman Sadrakula made the motion to raise the rate to $150 for all cases, not just Federal.
The 2nd request, prepared by the CFO, lists all the other matters handled by outside counsel including labor, employment, bond, environmental, redevelopment, workers compensation and disciplinary counsel. Plus, any case the law department is conflicted out of involving staff or a Councilmember that sued the city. Although redevelopment is outsourced, most of these fees are required to be reimbursed by developers including $84K from the Roche developer.
The only other matter involves a lawsuit brought against the city, Palmer vs. City of Clifton. 6 of 7 council members, the city manager, CFO, and purchasing agent all agreed to be represented by 1 attorney to save money, Michael Pasquale. However, Councilwoman Sadrakula requested to be represented by her personal attorney, Juan Hernandez of Hernandez Garcia. Pasquale’s bill to represent 3 staff and 6 council members was $2,300. Hernandez’ bill to represent Councilwoman Sadrakula only was $2,055. The report adds “It is concerning to hear Councilwoman Sadrakula complain about legal fees when she cost the city $18,000 in just 2021, which is 1/3 the salary of the 2nd municipal attorney, who contrary to Councilwoman Sadrakula’s public statements does not receive health benefits.”
Additional actions taken include resolutions:
- Authorizing submission of grant application from the Health Department and NJ Dept of Health for the Strengthening Local Public Health Capacity
- Authorizing execution of a shared service agreement for fire hydrant inspections with Passaic Valley Water Commission for Five years
- Authorizing the Clifton Adult Opportunity Center to submit an application to the State Historic Preservation Office
- Authorizing submission of a capital preservation grant application to the NJ Historic Trust Preserve NJ Fund for Phase II Improvements to the Flag Barn
- Authorizing submission of a capital preservation grant application to the NJ Historic Trust Preserve NJ Fund for stabilization of the Morris Canal
- Congratulations of 100th birthday to Anna Maria Giaconia and Alma Dickinson
Councilwoman Murphy also reads the formal recognition of April 2022 as Autism Awareness Month in Clifton.
The next City Council meeting is Tuesday, April 19th.