The $1.2 million request, which covers city employees' salaries and overtime requests for a two-week period, failed on a 3-3 vote. Third Ward Councilwoman Roseanne Andreula abstained from voting and council representatives Nellie Moyeno and Stephen Hudock were absent.
It was the first time that the payroll request of any administration has ever been rejected, city officials said. But the move appeared to be largely symbolic. Employees will be paid as usual and another vote on that pay period will be scheduled for the council's next meeting, said Business Administrator George Crimmins.
Ninety hours of overtime
It became apparent that something was up when Councilman David Roberts questioned the fact that a city employee, whom he only identified as "a director," had asked for 90 hours of overtime in two weeks.
"Ninety hours is excessive," he said, asking the other city council people if they agreed with him that it was an "abuse."
Roberts statements initially led to confusion as Crimmins, who sits directly across from Roberts on the dais, said that no director had received 90 hours of overtime. Councilman Richard Del Boccio quickly stepped in to explain that the person in question was actually a "coordinator" who "had to do with cultural affairs."
That explanation set off a storm of protest as a number of council people who are allied with Mayor Anthony Russo rushed to the defense of Geri Fallo, the city's director of cultural affairs.
"There is only one person who handles all the cultural activities in this town," Councilwoman Teresa Castellano told Roberts. "Sometimes she gets some part-time help from a high school student, but that's it. If you think that it is improper, maybe you should spend a week with her, councilman. This individual works till 11 p.m. every night."
"This is not an abuse; it's just hard work," added Councilman Michael Cricco.
Soon Fallo was summoned from her second-floor office to sit in the back of the room and listen to the debate. As she entered the room, Human Services Director Bob Drasheff had just finished explaining to the council that her office actually brings in more funds through grants and corporate sponsorships than it spends.
Struggling to regain the floor, Roberts tried to explain that he had raised the issue of Fallo's overtime - without overtly mentioning her name - to try and prod the council to look at the larger issue of how much overtime is routinely approved by the administration.
For the last several months, Roberts has been requesting the overtime time sheets that service directors have to submit to the payroll department. These timesheets show as many as 40 employees receive overtime during a pay period, but what concerns the councilman is that while some names change, the same eight to 10 individuals, who ask for as much as 45 hours a week, seem to show up on them every time.
"My concerns are not limited to one employee," he said. "They are also not limited to one pay period, or even a number of pay periods, but a number of years. The same people have been receiving overtime over and over again for a number of years. Naming them would embarrass them publicly...but if my assertions are correct, you would have to agree with me that there is a problem."
Roberts said he will continue looking into the issue.
Not about one person
After the meeting, Roberts' political allies put the point in even stronger terms. "This is not about the cultural affairs director; its about the way overtime is doled out in the city," said Councilman Tony Soares, who voted with Roberts. "There is not even a general store in Altoona, Pennsylvania that would pay out 90 hours of overtime to someone over two weeks without asking questions."
Not surprisingly, Russo had an entirely different view of what had happened and why.
"[Roberts] has become destructive rather than constructive," he said after the meeting. "This is political. He needs something like this to put him in the arena [for the mayoral race]. This is like a giant advertisement for him. That's all it is."
George Crimmins said that there are times when paying overtime sometimes is good fiscal policy since it can be cheaper than hiring an additional worker.
This was not the first time that Roberts, Soares and Councilman Ruben Ramos Jr., also an ally on the council, have raised pointed questions about the payroll and overtime.
What was different this time is they seemed to win the tentative support of Andreula, although Andreula said when she abstained that her vote did not have to do with Fallo. Instead, her concern focused on an Italian festival that took place last month along Sinatra Drive. Even though the festival was a major event drawing thousands of people, Andreula said, "Councilman Del Boccio and I looked for a [police] officer for 45 minutes and there was no one."
The issue was important enough to her to summon Police Chief Carmen LaBruno to the front of the room to respond. The chief said that there were a pair of plainclothes officers who were at the festival but that he would have to check his records to see which uniformed officers were on duty then.
Roberts attempted to tie Andreula's question together with his questioning of the payroll when he pointed out that the police department had collected about $36,000 in "outside employment" fees for the pay period. Police officers regularly work as flagmen at worksites around town during their off-hours.
"You as chief must insist that their posts are covered first," Roberts told LaBruno.
Although Crimmins immediately rebutted Roberts' remarks, explaining that "officers can't just decide to go and do other outside work," the festival experience seemed to raise serious doubts in Andreula's mind. When it was time to vote, she said, "I'm abstaining for the reason that during the Italian Festival, where there were thousands of people, there were no police officers."
As is frequently the case when the council grapples with contentious issues, the discussion melted down into a shouting match pitching the pro and anti-Russo groups against each other.
Tempers flared particularly high after Soares suggested that perhaps the city ought to look into modernizing the time clock and accounting measures that city employees use. After the meeting, Soares compared the system, which has supervisors like Fallo monitoring their own time, to something "Fred Flinstone used down in the quarry."
"I'm questioning the system," Soares told the council people during the meeting. "Maybe if you ever worked outside the city you would understand."
Soon he and 5th Ward Councilman Michael Cricco exchanged fire. "You sicken me," said Cricco. "Why don't you look for something good in the city for a change?" Soares shot back, "I do. I do."
"I find the comment about working other places outside the city to be offensive," continued Cricco as Soares kept trying to explain himself. "Shut up!" said Cricco to Soares, exasperated that he could not make his point even though Del Boccio, who was chairing the meeting in Moyeno's place, had recognized him. Later, Cricco said that he hoped that all future discussions about overtime would take place behind closed doors.
"If we are going to have these discussions about overtime," said the 5th Ward councilman after the meeting, "mentioning names and possibly slandering people, it would be better to do it in subcommittee. To go and mention names of people in public is ludicrous and not fair."
Throughout the entire proceeding, Fallo sat in the back of the room, clearly shaken to have the spotlight turned on her. Though Roberts said over and over again that he did not want to name names, the cultural affairs coordinator said that she felt "justified" in being upset with him.
Fallo said that she thought Roberts had "targeted" her because she had decided to arrange a special screening this year of "Delivered Vacant," a documentary about landlord-tenant issues in Hoboken that Roberts has said depicts him unfairly. Roberts called the charge "too ridiculous to even respond to."
"If he is going to pick on someone, why doesn't he pick on someone who does not do anything," Fallo said, sitting in her office during a break in the meeting. "But I feel like I am one of the hardest working people in City Hall. If we want to do these events, they cannot get done any other way. I'm not happy about being picked on."