Thursday, December 30, 2010

HPD problems cost $1.5 million

HPD problems cost taxpayers $1.5 million
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Managing Editor
HACKENSACK - People everywhere, including in Hackensack, are making New Year's resolutions this time of year. And whether the people of Hackensack realize it or not, their elected representatives on the City Council have also been making end-of-the-year resolutions.

These resolutions, made in the past two months, differed significantly from past years, because this wasn't any ordinary year in Hackensack. Charles "Ken" Zisa, the city's police chief, was arrested twice, criminally charged with insurance fraud and official misconduct, suspended from his job, indicted, and arraigned in court. These events involving Chief Zisa have all occurred since the end of April, which is when the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office began monitoring the city's approximately 107-member police department.
According to publicly available records, the city appropriated $500,000 at the start of the year for legal services, up from $400,000 in 2009. This increase was tied to the costs of defending 11 lawsuits filed since June 2009 by 22 current and retired Hackensack police officers in federal and state court against the city, the chief and other superior officers.
The legal bills resulting from defending so many lawsuits has far surpassed the budgeted amount for legal services. Since November, the council has approved a series of resolutions that has appropriated more than $350,000 to pay legal bills. As of Dec. 7, the total appropriated for legal services and court costs equals $860,500.
This number does not include another source of cascading costs: the city's bill for proceeding against four Hackensack police officers in separate administrative disciplinary hearings. All four officers were suspended with pay for long periods of time, in some cases over 18 months.
In the end, more than $600,000 was paid for suspended officers' salaries.
Breakdown of HPD turmoil's known costs
The resolutions that raised the limit for the City of Hackensack's legal services appropriations began to be passed at the Nov. 9 City Council meeting, when resolution number 345-10 added $50,000 to the original $500,000 municipal budget appropriation for legal services and costs.
Resolution number 379-10, passed at the Dec. 7 council meeting, added an additional $195,000 for legal costs.
Another Dec. 7 resolution, number 380-10, tacked on $101,000 for legal services, with an additional $14,500 designated for the category of legal/city attorney. Hackensack's city attorney is Joseph Zisa, the cousin of Chief Zisa.
Combined, the three resolutions passed by the Hackensack City Council in November and December resulted in $360,500 being added to the city's original legal services appropriation for the year.
The costs of the four separate police administrative disciplinary hearings in which the city required legal representation are also well documented. The hearings, which began last year and concluded a few weeks ago, involved four members of the Hackensack police force: Police Officers Joseph Al-Ayoubi, Anthony Ferraioli and Alessandra Viola, as well as Sgt. Vincent Riotto.
All four officers were suspended with pay for protracted periods of time because of the administrative charges filed against them: Al-Ayoubi for 18 months, Ferraioli for 10 months, Viola for 18 months, and Riotto for 19 months. Chief Zisa, who is now suspended without pay from his over $190,000-per-year job, filed the charges against all four officers.
Public records compiled by DataUniverse, an open search source for public employees' salaries found at, indicate that as of Dec. 2009, Al-Ayoubi was paid $86,892 annually; Ferraioli was paid $119,312 per year; Viola received $124,720 in annual pay; Riotto was paid $138,037 per year.
Multiplying the four officers' salaries by the number of months that they were suspended with pay shows that Hackensack taxpayers paid out a total of approximately $635,362 in police officer salaries to members of the city force who were not out on the streets protecting and serving citizens because of their suspensions.
The $860,500 appropriated by the City Council for legal fees added to the $635,362 in police salaries paid out to the four suspended officers totals approximately $1,495,862 in costs to Hackensack taxpayers with no clear end in sight.
The fiscal aftershocks of the police administrative hearings have yet to be completely tabulated. Ferraioli and Riotto are both appealing the guilty verdicts that they each received. A decision in the Viola case had not been rendered as of press deadline. (The administrative charges against Al-Ayoubi were ultimately dismissed.) All four officers are also among the 22 current and retired Hackensack Police Department members who have filed lawsuits since June 2009 in state and federal court against Chief Zisa and the city, the outcomes of which have yet to be determined.
The Hackensack Chronicle filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with the Hackensack clerk's office on Dec. 3 for records of the city's complete costs for the lawsuits and the police administrative disciplinary hearings. The OPRA request covered legal costs incurred by the city both this year and in 2009, when the lawsuits were initially filed and the police hearings began, and specified information on bills accrued for outside legal counsel.
According to the OPRA law, the City of Hackensack was required to answer The Chronicle's request for these records in seven business days, which would have been Dec. 14. The Chronicle did not receive a reply from the city clerk's office until an email was sent to the Chronicle's editor on Dec. 16, stating that the city government was unable to immediately comply with the OPRA request. As of press deadline, The Chronicle had yet to receive the legal bill records it was entitled to under OPRA.
Numbers don't lie, and they do add up. With or without city confirmation, the escalating cost to the city government of the police department crisis is apparent and a cause for concern. Conversations held with city and state officials, and, more importantly, with Hackensack taxpayers tell a sobering, sometimes contradictory, story.
City manager, council members, state senator address unrest's cost
Hackensack City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono addressed the fiscal issues created by the turmoil in the city's police department.
"Unfortunately, we've been hit with a number of suits and a number of situations, and we only have one choice - defend ourselves," said Lo Iacono, who noted that not all of all the funds appropriated by the city for legal services to date went to issues tied to police department problems. "That takes attorneys, and that creates legal fees."
Hackensack Mayor Karen Sasso added that she believes that moves have been made by the City Council to lessen the city's financial load regarding potential legal fees yet to come.
"None of us enjoy the position that we're in, but we've already taken steps to consolidate all of these cases and have tighter control," said Sasso, who was elected to the City Council in 2005, re-elected in 2009 and became mayor again this year as part of the city's one-year rotating mayoral system. "I think we will see great improvement moving forward."
City council members Michael Melfi, Jorge Meneses and Marlin Townes, who were all elected to the council in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, could not be immediately reached for comment.
However, Councilman John Labrosse is not so sure that Hackensack taxpayers will see real relief from mounting legal costs arising from trouble within the police department any time soon.
"The better that the city did during the administrative hearings. . . they think helps them in the federal lawsuits. But, it also can hurt them," said Labrosse, who was sworn into office in 2009 shortly after the first wave of police lawsuits were filed. "It's very, very disheartening to see this keep going. It's like getting on board the ride to Hell."
Labrosse also expressed worry that the bills generated by legal fees will hit Hackensack residents even harder with the advent of the 2 percent municipal property tax hike cap in 2011.
"As a Hackensack citizen and as a councilman, I want closure. I want this over with," said Labrosse. "When is this going to end? What is this going to cost us? If we can't raise the taxes, the money has to come from somewhere, so city services could suffer. The sooner this is all done, the sooner the city can heal."
From her office in Trenton, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) also cast a concerned eye on the largest city in her home district, knowing full well that all New Jersey municipalities can expect considerably less state aid in light of the state's serious financial predicament.
"The state is not in the business of defraying legal costs that arise out of management problems in a given community," said Weinberg. "I think that Hackensack residents should be asking their leaders a question: why did this happen?"
Community feels the sting of police turmoil's cost
Bobby Egan is well known in Hackensack for asking questions.
The owner of Cubby's Restaurant on South River Street, Egan, 52, has been a regular presence at City Council meetings over the years, voicing his opinions about how the city is governed clearly, loudly and bluntly.
Egan is also recognized for a rather interesting side job. He has been an unofficial American ambassador to North Korea, a country considered by many to be one of the most inscrutable, least transparent and potentially dangerous in the world.
When expressing his view of the cause of Hackensack's continuing police unrest, Egan felt a certain sense of déjà vu.
"Ken Zisa is the Kim Jong Il of Hackensack," said Egan, making a direct reference to the North Korean dictator. "This whole thing has cost us so much. But we get what we deserve by voting these people in."
"It's not just the chief of police. There has been a rotten regime in office since Jack Zisa was mayor," added Egan, referring to the former mayor, who is Chief Zisa's brother and who was in office when the suspended chief was appointed the city's top cop in 1995. "This town has been on a downhill cycle ever since."
Other city residents who rarely, if ever, go to City Council meetings also expressed their dismay about what the problems in the city police department is doing to Hackensack.
For Joseph Cicchelli, principal of Hackensack's Fairmount Elementary School, the idea that $1.5 million of taxpayer money could be better spent led to a teachable moment.
"We could buy independent libraries for every child that we teach with that money," said Cicchelli, 57, a city native who has spent his adult life educating his hometown's children. "In these times of austerity, it's hard to fathom what you could do with that kind of money, and where else the community could benefit from it."
"We in Hackensack are a proud people," added Cicchelli. "We stand up for each other, and we defend each other. But when one does something that isn't deemed to be socially acceptable, we all feel it. It's a black eye for all of us."
At his popular Cuban restaurant on Main Street in downtown Hackensack, owner and city resident Benito Rivero looked to his family's past when questioning the city's future.
"I come from an immigrant family where we were taught to go lean and spend what you have. Don't over spend," said Rivero, 40. "Let's figure out a way to spend less. From the perspective of a business owner, I'm against any kind of waste."
Down the block on Main Street, barbershop owner and city resident Ray Reed, 51, was smoothly plying his trade when asked about the cost to Hackensack residents of many months of police department uproar.
Speaking quietly over the buzz of his clippers, Reed cut right to the quick about what he believes needs to be done in Hackensack.
He called for a change to be made in Hackensack. Reed wants that change made not by any means necessary, but by one all residents can easily participate in: a trip to the voting booth during the next municipal election in 2013.
"The chickens have come home to roost. The bill has come due," said Reed. "Taxpayers here are getting a raw deal, but things will get worse before they can get better. And until we get this government out of office, nothing is going to change. We've got to start all fresh."