Town Council Meeting Turns Contentious Over Email, Fields

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MyVeronaNJ-Gavel-TrialMonday night’s Town Council turned into a shouting match over a Council member’s access to email and the town’s plans to redevelop the Hilltop into two multi-purpose sports fields.

Council member Michael Nochimson disclosed that he had been having difficulty getting emails sent to his Council address for the last two years, and had been told repeatedly by Verona’s tech department that it was not possible for the Council emails to be forwarded to his home or business email address or cell phone. He learned recently that other Council members were having their emails forwarded.

“I don’t understand why, as a Council member, I have had to ask for something so basic as asking for emails to be distributed to me,” said Nochimson, with his voice rising, adding that it was affecting his ability to respond to citizens. He called for Verona’s tech services to be turned over to the Police Department, which manages other IT-related assets. Martin dismissed that request, told Nochimson that he had not been singled out and promised that the Council would talk about the email situation in private session. “We do our best to treat all Council members equally,” he said.

Mayor Bob Manley and Deputy Mayor Jay Sniatkowski both confirmed today that they had been getting emails forwarded to them for several months this year. Some time back, in the name of security, every Council had been issued a notebook computer so they could have access to their Council emails, but it proved cumbersome for some members.

Sniatkowski got his emails forwarded about six months ago and Manley about five months ago, and Council member Kevin Ryan was allowed to access emails from his home computer. Only Council member Frank Sapienza said he used the notebook computer. Manley said he got the emails forwarded after agreeing to set up a separate Yahoo email address that would be used solely for Council mail. He also said that the Council emails had been down for almost a month earlier this fall.

That may have been what prompted the recent conversion of the town’s entire email system to Google’s Web-based email hosting, completed on October 17. But Town manager Joe Martin did not return two calls for comment today.

Nochimson confirmed that he is now receiving emails from the new Web-based mail system. But he raised the issue last night because he was riled that he had been denied the forwarding before. “Everyone should be treated equality, that’s all I’m asking for” said Nochimson today. At the meeting, Ryan echoed some of Nochimson’s frustration. “We shouldn’t have gotten to this point,” he said. “If a little better judgement was exercised, I don’t think we’d be sitting here talking about this.”

Nochimson then continued to press his assertion that more companies should have been asked to bid on the construction of the two multi-purpose sports fields planned for the Hilltop. The field area had been declared an area in need of redevelopment by Essex County before the land was turned over to Verona, so the township did not have to follow normal bidding procedures. Instead of soliciting bids through a legal notice, the township was able to give the specs to three companies. (Cedar Grove recently entertained 15 bids on a project that was not governed by a redevelopment declaration.) Council members were told they could view the specs at the office of town engineer Jim Helb, but only Sapienza said he had done so. “I’m not an expert in specs,” Sniatkowski told Nochimson on Monday. “I don’t feel that this is such a Draconian situation as you do. I have talked to people on the [field] committee, they are satisfied with the process. I’m just trying to get this field done.”

As Nochimson spoke, he was repeatedly admonished by Martin, Sniatkowski and town attorney Michael Gannaio that the matter was a contract issue and needed to be discussed in closed session. Voices rose and Council members cut each other’s comments short before Manley ended the Council’s discussion. But tempers and discussion flared again when Mike Passero, the president of the board of the Verona Eagles, stood up in the public comment portion of the meeting and asked why LandTek, a maker of artificial turf a field construction company, was not involved in the field project. He said that the company built turf fields in Fairfield, Cedar Grove, Nutley and Bloomfield. Passero was also cautioned to not name companies in public, which could create the basis for a lawsuit against Verona down the road.

Two other points of interest from last night’s meeting. While the salaries of the police and most municipal employees are covered by multi-year contracts, the Council must publicly approve their raises, and does so almost at the end of the calendar year. The police increases last night mean that 27 of the 28 officers on the force now make more than $100,000 a year. Police officers and town employees covered by the Office and Professional Employees International Union all received 3% raises called for by the last year of their contracts. Police Chief Doug Huber and 10 town employees not covered by OPEIU received 2.5% increases. These raises were not based on performance reviews, which would be standard in the private sector.

Ryan asked for non-covered employees to be addressed in a separate ordinance in the future, saying he their raises should be performance based. There seemed to be a consensus on the council that this was a good idea, and Martin it would happen next year.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected to reflect the line of business for LandTek, which is the construction of natural grass and synthetic fields. It also was corrected to reflect that police and unionized municipal employees got a 3% raise for 2013. Non-unionized supervisors got 2.5%.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected].

3 COMMENTS

  1. Lots of information in this report. Just wanted to ask a question / clarification about the details on the police officers: The police increases last night mean that 27 of the 28 officers on the force now make more than $100,000 a year.

    Are the police officers paid separately for their work monitoring traffic when they are involved with PSE&G and other utilities working along Verona’s streets?

    Thanks,

  2. Mark, the increases are what was mandated by the third year of the contract. We now have 17 officers at the patrolman level making $105,217 a year, five sergeants making $117,001 a year, three lieutenants at $128,700 apiece, one captain at $144,659 and the chief at $158,076. There is one other patrolman at $72,694.

    Yes, officers who monitor traffic for a company like PSEG are paid separately–but not by Verona taxpayers. Town Hall bills the companies and passes it along to the officers.

  3. Regarding the problem with township email, I am planning to forward a recommendation to our council which will solve their email problems. I would recommend Gmail. They provide Google Apps for Government:

    http://www.google.com/enterprise/apps/government/

    I believe it would also be a good solution for our schools, of which I hear them talking about building out a costly technology infrastructure. Gmail has already figured that out very well and offers free Google Apps for education:

    http://www.google.com/enterprise/apps/education/

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