Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Public rages at council over HPD turmoil
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Hackensack Chronicle
Managing Editor
HACKENSACK - If the Jan. 4 city council meeting was a sign of troubled times, then the sign says this: people are mad as hell, and they are not going to take it anymore.

Hackensack resident and taxpayer Gail Fitzgibbons confronts the city council about its budgetary policies at the Jan. 4 council meeting. During the public comments segment, the 20 or so Hackensack citizens present at this meeting rose up one by one, and did what members of a democratic society do; they asked questions of their leaders.

Pointedly, residents of Hackensack raised questions about the city government's spending and budgetary moves in the wake of legal issues involving the Hackensack Police Department, issues generated by the alleged actions of suspended Police Chief Charles "Ken" Zisa.

They also asked why the billing records tied to these legal issues have not yet been made public in a timely fashion, a violation of the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA), a law meant to ensure government transparency.

After a year and a half of problems stemming from unrest in the city police force, the answers provided by the city manager, city attorney and some members of the council only stoked the anger of the residents present, who along with other taxpayers, will ultimately have to pay the $1.5 million in known costs generated by the police department turmoil, a number that continues to climb. At the meeting, rising outrage in the crowd led to shouts of defiance against the city government, and loud demands for solutions.

In the face of this fury, the elected representatives of the people of Hackensack simply, abruptly ended the meeting. With one exception, they filed into the back room behind the council chamber, literally turning their backs on the people they serve.

$1.97 million in budget transfers approved by 3-1 margin

The first serious public confrontation with the council concerned the Jan. 4 passage of resolution 14-11, which authorized the transfer of almost $1.97 million in municipal funds from budgetary reserves to pay bills not covered during the 2010 budget.

These transfers included almost $1.75 million from the funds allotted for Hackensack Fire Department salaries. These funds were shifted to what was labeled group insurance/hospitalization in the resolution.

The sum transferred from city fire department salaries on Jan. 4 followed an approximately $246,000 transfer from fire department salaries authorized by a majority council vote for resolution 405-10 at the Dec. 21 council meeting. As a result, nearly $2 million has been transferred from fire department salaries for other municipal purposes since Dec. 21.

The Jan. 4 transfers also included $45,000 for legal costs. This transfer came from $220,000 allotted for Hackensack Police Department salaries.

As previously reported by the Hackensack Chronicle, the governing body had already appropriated $860,500 for legal fees as of the Dec. 7 council meeting, $360,500 of which was appropriated in the last two months of 2010. With this latest transfer, the total appropriation for legal fees is now $905,500, far above the original $500,000 budgeted for municipal legal services and costs.

City taxpayers will also have to foot the bill for approximately $635,362 in police officer salaries for four officers who were suspended with pay for protracted periods of time because of administrative charges filed against them by Chief Zisa.

Chief Zisa was suspended without pay after he was arrested and criminally charged, first with insurance fraud in April last year, then with official misconduct in May. The chief was subsequently indicted and arraigned on these criminal charges, and is presently awaiting trial in Bergen County Superior Court.

The city government has been compelled to raise funds to meet the legal costs stemming from Chief Zisa's and the city's legal defense, as well as the four separate administrative trials involving the police officers administratively charged by Zisa, which began in 2009.

The legal bills being generated by the turmoil consuming the Hackensack Police Department show no sign of slackening. The four officers administratively charged by Zisa are also among the 22 current and retired city police officers who have filed lawsuits since June 2009 in state and federal court against the chief and the city, the outcomes of which have yet to be determined.

Resolution 14-11 was approved by a 3-to-1 vote by the council. Mayor Karen Sasso, along with council members Michael Melfi and Marlin Townes, all of whom were first elected in 2005 then re-elected in 2009, voted in favor of the almost $1.97 million transfer of municipal funds for the purposes listed in the resolution. Councilman Jorge Meneses, who was also first elected in 2005 then re-elected four years later, was not present for the vote.

Councilman John Labrosse, who was sworn into office in 2009 shortly after the first wave of police lawsuits were filed, registered the lone dissenting vote against the resolution.

"Moving around tremendous amounts of money at the end of the year... it just doesn't fly with me," Labrosse said.

City manager, council members, citizens clash

Kathy Canestrino, a frequent critic of the city's fiscal management, pointed to both the $2 million shifted from the fire department salary account, as well as the now over $900,000 appropriated for legal fees, to make a broader point.

"Salary accounts are the easiest thing in the world to budget, especially when you have salaries that are governed by union negotiations," said Canestrino, a retired aerospace engineer who used to negotiate contracts with the U.S. government. "To over-budget year after year by a couple of million dollars... I hate to use the words 'slush fund', but there is no other way to describe it."

"In this economy, you are really misrepresenting this budget to the public, and it's very unfair," Canestrino added. "And it's very unfair to the firemen... It's just mind-boggling to me... The whole reason for budgeting is to set guidelines and to fiscally manage the city... How do we have $2 million left over in the firemen's salary account at the end of the year?"

City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono defended the city's budgetary policy regarding fire department salaries.

"The budgeted number in salary and wages for the firemen was to the dollar for the number of firemen that were on the job according to what they were to be paid by contract," Lo Iacono said. "To even hint that there was an over-appropriation is absolutely untrue and absolutely wrong."

But by the time city resident and taxpayer Gail Fitzgibbons got to the podium, she was not seeing the city government's point of view.

"I don't come to the city council meetings very often, and the exchange that I just saw is why I don't," Fitzgibbons said. "I pay enormous taxes in this town, some of the highest in Bergen County. And for a fellow taxpayer to be talked to like that... I am so angry right now I can't tell you. Please try to explain yourselves. We elected you."

OPRA request for city's total legal costs raised

Deborah Labrosse, a teacher and the wife of Councilman Labrosse, then asked the city government to explain something else.

"I would like to know why an OPRA request from The Chronicle was not done in the [legal] time frame," Labrosse said.

Labrosse was referring to an OPRA request filed by the Hackensack Chronicle 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 e-mail was sent to The Chronicle's editor on Dec. 16, stating that the city government was unable to immediately comply with the OPRA request.

"You have a right to deny an OPRA request based on needing more time, but you don't have a right to just not give it to [The Chronicle]," Labrosse added. "You say that you want to minimize lawsuits. But every action you take encourages more lawsuits."

"The OPRA request is not something that my office handles, but I am aware that there was a response to that OPRA request," said Lo Iacono. "The finance officer has told me that she has responded, and is now waiting for a response from The Chronicle."

"My understanding is that it is a very, very onerous request that's going to take many, many hours to gather all that information," added Lo Iacono. "And so the finance department has put together an estimated cost for satisfying that request."

The Chronicle received a letter dated Dec. 30, 2010, and received via e-mail on Jan. 3, 2011, from the city government regarding the OPRA request.

"It has been estimated by the auditing department that the charge for labor for these requests would most likely exceed $1,500," wrote City Clerk Debra Heck.

Upon receipt, The Chronicle submitted the City of Hackensack's most recent reply to its OPRA request to the legal department of North Jersey Media Group, the parent company of The Chronicle, for further review and consideration.

Impromptu budgeting seminar by councilman sets crowd off

Later during public comments, city resident Mark Johnson offered the suggestion of broadcasting city council meetings on the local public access cable television channel, or on the Internet, so that more members of the taxpaying and voting public can see what goes on at the meetings.

Councilman Townes suggested to an increasingly vocal crowd that if the public wants to learn more about how municipal budgeting really works, they should go learn for themselves.

"If you're really serious about it, then go take the [municipal budgeting] courses... it will take you about three years to get into it," he said.

"You come up and you say you know, but you don't know. You have to go and learn," Townes added, referring to several members of the public who had commented about budgetary issues. "You can say 'slush fund', but that's all just words to inflame the situation. It has nothing to do with running this city or budgeting."

Soon after Townes' comment, several members of the crowd began to loudly protest, their voices rising from grumbles to yells and shouts. The city police officer present maintained order, but in the face of increasingly boisterous dissent, Mayor Sasso banged her gavel and declared the meeting adjourned. With that, City Manager Lo Iacono, City Attorney Joseph Zisa, and most of the city council shuffled into the back room behind the council chamber.

Councilman Labrosse, however, stepped off the council dais and waded into the crowd to talk to residents after the meeting, some of whom were still calling out in protest.

"They are holding the wool over the people's eyes in this town," shouted Canestrino. "This is a disgrace!"

Another voice, faceless amidst the confusion erupting at the meeting's end, was still heard clearly.

"Run!" the city resident yelled at the fleeing council. "And keep on running!"