More than a year after the city of Hoboken laid off 13 city workers in a well-publicized layoff plan, Mayor Dawn Zimmer and the city are spending hours fighting one employee’s appeal in the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) court in Newark. Testimony obtained exclusively by the Reporter shows that the laid-off employee’s attorney has sparred with Zimmer over many controversial political issues that have occurred in town over the last year, including raises for Zimmer’s two aides, and internet blogs that appear to favor Zimmer.
Zimmer recently testified for more than four hours in one day in the OAL court regarding the appeal of former city Public Information Officer Bill Campbell’s layoff.
Campbell was hired during the previous mayoral administration and was let go by Zimmer’s administration during the fall of 2010. The mayor had already hired a new city spokesman in May 2010.
While transcripts of the testimony are not expected to become public until later this week, video footage of the mayor’s testimony was obtained exclusively by The Reporter from a source not directly involved in the case.
Campbell served as the city’s assistant PIO from 2002 until 2010.
Campbell was not the only public information offer laid off during Zimmer’s administration. The city’s other former PIO was let go in March of 2010 and also filed suit against the city (see sidebar).
Zimmer said in the court hearing that she was looking to cut costs and create efficiencies in government through the layoff plan. The mayor and City Council had voted to authorize audits of the city government to find how to cut costs, as the city had suffered financial setbacks for years, including having to fill a large budget gap before Zimmer took office. Due to the layoff plan, the city was able to achieve a 10 percent tax reduction, Zimmer said.
Several other Hoboken officials will also be called to testify.
The mayor, when asked for comments on this story last week and was later e-mailed specific questions, said she could not respond to the questions by press time. The city usually has a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation.
The mayor did provide a “policy response” statement: “The filing of a lawsuit does not indicate that that it has merit, but is simply a personal decision by an individual and his or her lawyer. It is the city's policy not to encourage frivolous lawsuits by settling cases in which we believe the city has acted properly. This policy was validated recently when the city prevailed in a lawsuit brought by a group of employees in connection with the cancellation of the city's early retirement program that had not been properly approved.”
However, in the Campbell appeal, the mayor has been testifying for many hours, which is not an everyday event.
Let’s go to the videotape…
When Campbell’s attorney, Catherine Elston, questioned Zimmer during a court appearance earlier this month, Elston spoke about many of the controversial political topics that have arisen in Hoboken over the past 15 months.
For example, in March 2011, law enforcement tapes surfaced of current 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo – a Zimmer opponent – meeting with former FBI informant Solomon Dwek in 2009, discussing development projects and favors. Russo told the informant he could make a $5,000 check out to “Russo for Hoboken,” an amount higher than state law allows. The meeting was part of a government sting, but Russo ended up not taking any money or having any more meetings with Dwek, and he was not charged. However, the tapes were made public last year by two journalists who wrote a book about the corruption sting. During Russo’s re-election bid last spring, the city of Hoboken paid for transcripts of Russo and Dwek’s meeting to be made and put on the city website.
Elston mentioned the incident to try to make the point that the mayor is using the city website for political purposes. Elston’s intent was to prove that the tone of the city’s website has become partisan, and that Campbell wouldn’t play politics when he was in his post.
During the hearing, Elston asked the mayor why she had spent $1,000 of city money to transcribe the tapes.
“The people of Hoboken had the right to know what was said during [Russo’s] meeting with Solomon Dwek,” Zimmer responded. “Yes, the city of Hoboken paid for the transcript to be made of the video because it was difficult to hear everything…I thought I had an obligation to the people of Hoboken.”
Elston retorted by asking why the city never posted on its website a complaint made by a citizen against “Move Hoboken Ahead,” a political action committee that raised money for Zimmer’s council candidates in May 2011. In May 2011, City Council candidate Scott Delea, who was not allied with the mayor, held a press conference announcing he had filed a complaint with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) against Move Hoboken Ahead, alleging that it was founded unlawfully by several candidates for office.
Last week, Delea said that he was notified by ELEC on July 29 that an investigation was initiated, and he said due to conversations with ELEC, he believes the investigation is ongoing.
Despite the fact that Zimmer held a fundraiser at her house for the PAC last year, she responded to Elston’s questions by saying that she wasn’t sure who was behind “Move Hoboken Ahead.” She then reiterated that the Russo situation was a matter of public trust.
Elston also pointed out that when the layoff plan went through in 2010, the city had a large budget surplus. According to documents filed by Elston’s firm, a layoff in Allamuchy Township was successfully challenged because of the existence of a $1 million surplus. When Campbell was laid off, Hoboken had an approximately $12 million unrestricted surplus.
Zimmer’s aides got raises
Zimmer and Elston sparred on personnel issues as well. Elston noted that he mayor’s two aides, Daniel Bryan and city spokesman Juan Melli, who were hired after she took office, both received significant pay bumps that were announced in July 2010 – during the same time that layoffs in the Police Department and City Hall were also being announced.
Zimmer contended in her testimony that the pay bumps were “salary adjustments.” Even though the salaries went up, with Bryan’s rising by approximately $12,000 and Melli’s by $15,000, she would not call them raises.
“[The salaries] went up?” Elston asked the mayor. “It was a raise.”
“It was a salary adjustment,” Zimmer responded.
“[Their salaries] wound up being higher than what they started at,” Elston responded.
The argument continued later in the testimony: “So you decided shortly before the layoff plan to give [Melli and Bryan] a raise?” Elston asked the mayor.
The mayor nodded and said, “salary adjustment.”
“That went up,” Elston said in response.
At the time of his layoff, Campbell was protected by the civil service program, which makes it difficult to terminate employees. The program is established to stop employees from being fired for political purposes.
Elston said the ideal situation for her and her client would be for Campbell to be reinstated with back pay and back seniority, and for him to also receive attorney’s fees.
Asking about blogs
Elston also asked the mayor about the world of blogs in Hoboken. Within the city are several websites that often either favor the mayor or are highly critical of her policies. Elston asked the mayor who blogs on her behalf.
“There’s no one that blogs on my behalf,” Zimmer said in her testimony. “People in Hoboken state their opinions. Sometimes they agree with me and sometimes they don’t. There’s no one that blogs on my behalf…they’re a very active, engaged community in Hoboken and they’re often stating their opinions, strongly…they’re not doing it for me.”
Zimmer’s attorney often objected to questions on this topic, asking what the relevance was to Campbell’s case. Elston intended to show that the city has been using the web for partisan purposes, as with the city’s website.
Elston acknowledged last week that the mayor has been on the stand “for a long time” compared to other cases. She plans to also question Business Administrator Arch Liston, Juan Melli, and Daniel Bryan, she said in an interview.
“The mayor was really the first substantial witness,” Elston said. “She’s not done yet. She’s scheduled [to come back] on Feb. 9.”
The first day the mayor was questioned in November, she had to return to City Hall because it was the day city information technology director Patrick Ricciardi was arrested by the FBI for allegedly leaking e-mails meant for the mayor to other sources. Rumors had said that the leaked e-mails were given to the mayor’s political opponents, but recent information about another suit makes it seem as though at least one Zimmer sympathizer also may have leaked information onto the web in a different case (see sidebar).
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com
Other layoff also spurs suit
The Bill Campbell appeal is not the only litigation that the city has been facing due to City Hall layoffs.
A lawsuit by a different former employee who had served as a public information officer until he was terminated during Zimmer’s administration alleges that on the day he was fired by the city, a portion of his social security number was anonymously posted on an internet message board about Hoboken issues, along with a taunting message, according to court documents.
This message was apparently unrelated to the arrest last year of Information Technology Director Patrick Ricciardi, who, according to the FBI, allegedly leaked e-mails meant for Zimmer to several people. While rumors at the time of the Ricciardi arrest said that perhaps the e-mails were leaked to Zimmer’s political opponents, this case is different, as it may have been a Zimmer insider who posted confidential information about an employee just as that employee was being laid off. Zimmer was asked via e-mail if she planned to investigate to find the person who may have leaked the information. However, she said she could not respond in time for this story.
Meanwhile, when reached last month, the employee who filed that lawsuit says that he has since stopped pursuing it and did not wish to comment further.