Olivieri's charges were met with a stiff rebuke from Human Services Director Bob Drasheff, Olivieri's supervisor. For 15 minutes, Drasheff and Olivieri went toe to toe, arguing over the way that the city responds to tenants complaints, with Olivieri charging that "there is a disparity of justice" and Drasheff countering that the charges were "overblown."
Later, Olivieri said that there are at least 30 tenants who have no recourse to get repairs in their units because the city does not have enough inspectors to investigate complaints.
Throughout the exchange, Drasheff said that he wanted to address the problem, but that it was Olivieri who was sitting on the complaints, making it nearly impossible for him to figure out how the city could best respond.
This April 29, Olivieri, a city employee for 29 years, will retire. While many longtime city employees might be tempted to spend their last few months in City Hall tidying up their offices or plotting upcoming golf vacations, Olivieri is not like most people.
To hear Olivieri tell it, trouble began last October, when administrators eliminated the city's five-man housing inspection team in order to save money. The workers, some of whom had been on the job for more than 20 years, were replaced by a state-funded and state-operated team of inspectors, netting city taxpayers a savings of approximately $200,000 a year.
Housing inspectors are charged with ensuring that buildings in town meet the state uniform construction code. They have the authority to cite landlords for infractions such as leaking roofs, broken windows and improperly functioning heat.
At the time the city's team was eliminated, the inspectors themselves came before the council and made impassioned pleas that they be allowed to keep their office open. Without it, they warned, work would fall between the cracks.
Particularly vocal were Jude Fitzgibbons, the head of the department, and Joe Grossi, an inspector and the head of the municipal employees' union. In addition to arguing for their office on its merits, they also charged that the drive to eliminate it was politically motivated since Grossi, as a union rep, had often butted heads with Mayor Anthony Russo. So had Jude Fitzgibbons' brother, Maurice, a county freeholder.
Administration officials denied the charge at the time. The move was made simply to save money, they said. Thursday, Russo offered to open the file to reporters to prove that the city had communicated with the state for years about the potential cost savings. "There is not a hint of politics in this," he said.
Wednesday night, Olivieri told the council that the elimination of the office had made it nearly impossible to get some of their lesser complaints investigated. The problem, he said, is that the state is equipped to inspect emergency complaints, such as a lack of heat, in a timely fashion - but less dire circumstances oftentimes are left unchecked for months at a time.
"Everything is not an emergency to them," he said. "To me if there is water coming through the ceiling that's an emergency. But to them it is not an emergency. It has to be next to a light fixture."
"There is a disparity of justice here," Olivieri continued. "There are people who are not being served." When people have a problem, they are to call the state at the former city housing inspection number: (201) 420-2041. But some residents who haven't gotten quick action from the state, have subsequently called Olivieri to complain.
The solution, Olivieri argued, would be for the city to hire a full-time inspector to handle these sorts of problems.
Drasheff was not opposed to devoting city resources to inspections of this type. But he argued that Olivieri had been sitting on the complaints since October, making it difficult for him to know how best to handle the situation.
"I'm a little concerned because in October, when the inspectors were eliminated, we created an intake form," Drasheff said. "Under the system, you were supposed to send complaints down to my office. In the three months since then, I have only received three complaints."
The day after that meeting, Olivieri sent approximately a dozen complaints down to the director's office. While Drasheff called the character of the complaints "minor," Olivieri wondered how many more might be out there and unreported. "These are only the ones I know about," he said. "Other people may have problems but they may not know to bring them to me."
A part-time city housing inspector is likely to be hired to help fill the gap. In the meantime, the mayor's political opponents appear poised to push the issue.
"Please don't tell us that this office was eliminated for efficiency," said Councilman Dave Roberts, a Russo foe who is likely to run for mayor, after the meeting. "This is a serious problem that ought to be taken care of."
More to Olivieri's pleas than meets the eye?
For nearly 15 minutes Wednesday night, Tom Olivieri, a city employee, and Bob Drasheff, his supervisor, argued in front of the City Council about the way the city handles complaints by tenants lodged against landlords.
Throughout it all, there was a lot of finger pointing and raised voices. Olivieri charged that the city had turned its back on tenants, and Drasheff said that the city was keen to help.
But just before the two men sat down, a strange exchange took place that may shed some light on why the relationship between the two men is so strained.
Olivieri has two roles: tenant-landlord advocate and Hispanic and minority affairs director. He was talking about the lack of help in his overworked one-man office after the 15-minute exchange. Drasheff replied by saying he would "get [Olivieri] all the help you need."
"Don't threaten me," said Olivieri, jabbing his finger in Drasheff's direction.
After the meeting, Olivieri said that the administration hoped to move him from the cozy first floor office he currently works in up to the third floor before he retires on April 29, after 29 years of working for the city. Worse still, from Olivieri's perspective, the office of Hispanic and Minority Affairs would be co-manned by mayoral aide Robert Crespo, a close ally of Mayor Anthony Russo.
"I have nothing against Robert Crespo, but a move such as this may give the office a political atmosphere that I want to avoid," Olivieri said Thursday. "I have kept politics outside of this office for 29 years. I don't want anybody to think that this has anything to do with politics."
Unlike some officials in town, Olivieri is rarely, if ever, vocal on political issues.
Administration officials charged that Olivieri was so opposed to the relocation that he had brought up the tenant issue in an effort to gain leverage.
"I think this whole thing is a ploy to stop the office from being relocated," said Drasheff after the meeting. "It concerns me very much that he would be playing politics with something like this."
Drasheff also pointed out that if the problems that the tenants were facing were so significant, Olivieri could have brought them up earlier and in a less public forum. Some of the complaints date back to October.
Mayor Anthony Russo said that the way that Olivieri went about drawing attention to the complaints was inappropriate and a "little bit fuzzy."
"I can't say what his motives were; only he knows that," said the mayor. "And I am not an attorney or a labor person, but he may have broached the line of being insubordinate for confronting a superior that way. The forum is not before the City Council. That is a no-no."
When told of Drasheff's and the mayor's remarks, Olivieri just grunted and said, "I don't want an open war, but if that is what they want, that is what they will get."