At its Monday night meeting, the Town Council voted to have the township manager retain outside counsel to review a personnel matter involving the township clerk and to potentially recommend disciplinary action.
Mayor Alex Roman said that the personnel matter arose from the Council’s previous executive session. While he did not describe what had transpired, he said that “a number of Council members had some concerns regarding performance in that meeting and raised some issues.”
Roman said that the township clerk, Jennifer Kiernan, had been given a so-called Rice notice ahead of Monday’s meeting. A Rice notice is mandatory in New Jersey when the job performance of a public sector employee is being discussed. If the person agrees to the Rice notice, the matter involving him or her can be discussed in a confidential private session. But a person who has been “Riced” can also waive confidentiality. If that happens, their situation may be discussed in public. Roman said that Kiernan had notified the township that she wished her matter to be heard in open session. Kiernan did not speak about the matter in Monday’s public session.
Councilwoman Cynthia Holland sought to have the Council use an alternate approach. She asked that Council retain someone to do a comprehensive evaluation of Verona’s human resources policies to determine whether the town has “sufficient policies in place that govern these things before we take the step of considering any level of disciplinary action.” Holland said that she believes Verona’s policies and standards are not always clear. “So if one is being evaluated against a standard,” she said, “if it’s not clear what that standard is, I think that you put yourself at risk and this township is at risk.”
Mayor Roman asked Councilman Christopher Tamburro, who had made the motion to retain counsel, to explain the scope of the action. Tamburro said that the counsel would be evaluating whether any of Verona’s policies had been violated or any state statute, guideline, or township ordinance or resolution. Tamburro added that he would be in favor of doing an audit of Verona’s personnel policies, but said that he believed that that should be addressed separately.
Deputy Mayor Christine McGrath said that she wanted to get an outside opinion from “the JIF,” as the New Jersey Intergovernmental Insurance Fund (NJIIF) is known. But Mayor Roman said that that was not the role of the fund, which is one of two dozen insurance pools that provide coverage to municipalities and counties. In October 2020, the fund paid to settle lawsuits brought by two township employees, Kiernan and Municipal Court Clerk Erika Varela, who had alleged that they were paid less than their male peers.
After discussion of Tamburro’s motion, Mayor Roman, Councilman Tamburro and Councilman Jack McEvoy voted in favor of retaining counsel. Deputy Mayor McGrath and Councilwoman Holland voted against.
The Council then moved into private session to review two ordinances to set salaries for so-called exempt town employees—those not eligible for overtime. Both ordinances, a retroactive salary increase for 2021 and the 2022 increase, had been introduced for first reading.
If approved, the 2021 salary ordinance would bring the town clerk’s salary to $97,000 from $95,000, a 2.1% increase from the salary set under the NJIIF settlement. Prior to that settlement, her salary had been $74,920. The 2022 salary ordinance would increase the position to $100,000, a 3.1% increase from 2021.
The 2021 salary ordinance would raise the salary of the court clerk, now referred to as the municipal court administrator, to $97,920 from $96,000, a 2% increase from the salary set under the NJIIF settlement. Prior to that settlement, the salary for the clerk position had been $80,386. The 2022 salary ordinance would increase the position to $99,878, a 2% increase from 2021.
Most of the other salary increases proposed in the two measures would be 2%. But the confidential secretary to the township manager would get a 3.4% increase for 2021 and a further 9.8% increase for 2022, raising the pay for that position to $69,203. The pay for the director of administration and economic development would increase 2% for 2021 and 7.5% for 2022, raising it to $97,000. The second reading and vote on the salary ordinances will be at the next Council meeting, which is scheduled for Monday, January 24.
While the Council was in public session, Julius Coltre, Essex County’s liaison to the Town Council, was asked about the delays in getting COVID-19 test results from the county’s testing sites. He acknowledged that wait times for results had grown but had nothing to say about what the county was doing to reduce them. “That’s just the system because we have a tremendous amount of people coming to be tested,” Coltre said.
Township Manager Matthew Cavallo said that because COVID-19 cases are “skyrocketing” in Verona, the virus may start to affect some municipal operations this week. “We do have some employees that are out and some that are starting to report some symptoms,” Cavallo said, asking people to “be patient” and limit visits to municipal buildings. He also cautioned that spectators at Verona Recreation Department sports events must be masked or they will be asked to leave.
Cavallo also urged residents to participate in the Master Plan survey, which is gathering feedback on various questions about development. The survey will be online through mid-March and if residents can’t take it at home, Cavallo said they can make an appointment with the Verona Public Library to use one of its public computers.
The meeting, which was held via Zoom because of the increase in COVID-19 cases, can be viewed in full below: