The City Council authorized Mayor Dawn Zimmer on Wednesday to pay an undisclosed amount of money to settle a suit brought by the city’s former Environmental Services Director Jennifer Maier, who alleged that she was wrongfully terminated in 2011. The resolution passed with five affirmative votes and one abstention from Councilwoman Theresa Castellano. Council members Tim Occhipinti and Beth Mason were not present for the vote.
Zimmer’s administration has already settled another case with an employee who was terminated when she took office, and has to pay $1 million to a third, although the city is appealing the latter case. The former case was a small five-figure payout.
City spokesman Juan Melli would not comment last week on the size of the settlement or anything else related to the case. br>
“If that’s what it took to help those people, then that’s what it took.” – Theresa Castellano
Before voting on Wednesday, the council discussed the case in closed session with attorney Gerald Krovatin, who represents the city in the case. According to the resolution granting Zimmer settlement authority, the amount was suggested by Krovatin during the closed session.
City attorney Mellissa Longo said the amount of the settlement will remain confidential until the case is officially settled.
Maier declined to comment on the case on the advice of her lawyer, Louis Zayas of North Bergen. Zayas’ receptionist said he was out of the office and unavailable for comment until Aug. 10.
Relationship gone sour?
When Zimmer hired Maier in February 2010 from Central Jersey, the city touted her resume as a public works manager, certified planner, and architect, even posting a copy of it on the city website.
“Given the city’s urgent task of building a new municipal garage, Ms. Maier brings an array of expertise that Hoboken needs for this position,” said Zimmer at the time.
Just 16 months later, however, the city announced that Maier would no longer serve as environmental services director. At the time, it would not say if Maier had resigned or been asked to leave.
In the complaint filed with her lawsuit against Hoboken, Maier alleges she was fired after Zimmer learned of a dinner Maier had with former Public Safety Director Angel Alicea. (Alicea is the one who won the $1 million judgment that the city is appealing.)
At the dinner, according to paperwork, Alicea allegedly told Maier he had been forced to resign after complaining about illegal activities committed by the city. Maier said in the complaint that she told Alicea “to do whatever he felt was necessary to clear your name, and to go ahead against Zimmer by filing the lawsuit.”
Following the meal, Maier said she was accused of trying to “sabotage” Zimmer. She said the city subsequently limited her responsibilities and fired her. Since 2012, Maier has served as the borough administrator in Union Beach, N.J., where she has been cited in newspaper articles as helping the area recover from Hurricane Sandy.
Zayas also represents Carmelo Garcia, who was fired from his role as Hoboken Housing Authority executive director last week (see cover story), in his ongoing litigation against the city. Zayas often represents former government workers who allege they were discriminated against.
City seeking settlement
According to court documents, Zayas sought many answers from the city during the case’s pre-trial proceedings. The information sought included the role Zimmer’s husband Stan Grossbard allegedly plays in running the city, and detailed information about any and all instances of alleged discrimination involving the city or any city employee.
In May, Kimberley Wilson, the city’s former affirmative action officer, wrote to the court expressing concerns that answering Zayas’ questions would, among other things, violate the city’s affirmative action/anti-harassment policy by causing the disclosure of information that individuals had been told would remain confidential.
This rationale appeared to be unpersuasive to Superior Court judge Barry Sarkisian. On June 10, he granted limitations on the scope of some questions and struck others, but ordered that Zimmer and the city provide answers to the majority of them within 10 days.
Eight days later, Krovatin sent a letter to the court stating that Hoboken and Zimmer had reached a settlement with Maier.
On June 26, Judge Mary Costello filed an order of dismissal, closing the court docket. It could not be ascertained if answers to the questions were ever provided.
Timing of Housing Authority grant questioned
Also at Wednesday’s council meeting, the council voted to permit Zimmer to write a Letter of Need in support of the Hoboken Housing Authority’s application for a $10 million infrastructure rehabilitation grant from the state.
If secured, the funds will be focused specifically on fixing damages caused by Superstorm Sandy. At Wednesday’s council meeting, HHA Board Chair Dana Wefer said the money could potentially fund new boilers, plumbing, sidewalks, roofs, elevators and other physical improvements.
The letter of need received unanimous support from the council and mayor. However, some council members and residents questioned why the council waited to approve such a request until the housing board’s firing of housing director Carmelo Garcia (see cover story), who has engaged in a very public feud with Zimmer and her allies on the board.
Castellano had some of the strongest criticism of the timing.
“It’s always been most of our goals to improve living at the Housing Authority,” she said. “It didn’t seem that way until the termination of the executive director, and that’s exactly what this is all about.”
“If that’s what it took to help those people, then that’s what it took,” said Castellano of Garcia’s firing, adding that she hoped the situation could be a “new start” for the Housing Authority despite the “despicable” circumstances surrounding it.
Wefer called placement of the letter resolution on the council’s agenda the same week as Garcia’s termination “unfortunate timing,” but maintained that they were not related. Wednesday’s council meeting was the last before the grant committee’s Aug. 14 deadline (which has since been pushed back to September) and Wefer said the Housing Authority’s application was only recently completed.
Workers’ comp claims
The council granted Zimmer the authority to settle city-related workers’ compensation matters valuing $21,500 or less for the rest of the year, by a vote of 5-3. Settlements are only eligible if Hoboken’s corporation counsel, business administrator, and mayor agree in writing that they are in the best interest of the city.
Prior to the change, all workers’ compensation settlements had to be approved by the council.
The original resolution requested by the Zimmer administration asked for the power to settle any pending litigation in an amount equal to or lower than $21,500 without council consent, but it was amended in response to the concerns of council members.
Still, some remained suspicious of the change.
“I don’t know why this dais would want to give away its authority over settlement matters,” said Councilman Occhipinti.
“The council is the board that’s responsible for the city’s finances,” he added, “and it should know about every dime to know about of the taxpayers’ money.”
Ultimately, the measure passed with the five Zimmer allies in support and council members Occhipinti, Russo, and Castellano in opposition.
In addition, four mayoral appointees to the Hoboken Rent Leveling and Stabilization Board were approved by a vote of 6-1. Eileen Lynch and Jason Mauer will be regular members, while Dennis Stefanitsis and Eric Osborn-Focht will serve as first and second alternates respectively. All will serve through the end of 2017.
Questions about appointees to rent board
The single dissenting vote, Bhalla, said Zimmer appeared to be seeking a “balanced board” by appointing equal numbers of rent control tenants and landlords. Based on his prior experience as a rent board attorney, Bhalla argued that the city should instead select “disinterested members of our community” who can look at the issues without bias. Rent board members, he said, should “represent Hoboken, not landlords or tenants.”
Council President Jen Giattino said she didn’t see why a landlord couldn’t make an unbiased decision. “If there’s a law, you can follow the law,” she said.