Mayor Russell Felter was not in attendance at the town council meeting on October 17 at the municipal building. Township clerk Michele Reilly filled in and administered the fireman’s oath to two new candidates for Fire Company #1: John Napolitano and Guiseppe Santillo.
Resident Donna Vander Ploeg addressed the town council regarding retirement separation agreements, which she described as “golden parachutes.” She referenced a previous separation agreement, which prompted the council to close discussion on this portion of the conversation. Council president Debi Merz explained that no “Rice notice” was issued. Named for a plaintiff in a legal case, a Rice notice is a notification from a public entity advising that an individual’s employment will be discussed in closed session. Because employees are not permitted to attend closed sessions, Rice notices provide them an opportunity to request discussion in public session, where they can be in attendance.
Vander Ploeg was permitted to continue speaking in generality. “Separation agreements would not be needed if the personnel manual listed all the formulas needed when a person retires,” she said. “It should also state that comp time should be used in the pay period earned, or at least not be carried over into the next year. Wait, it does say this, but we are not following it!”
Payroll increases were also addressed by Vander Ploeg. “The residents of this town need to know about the PAF (Personnel Action Form) and how it works. They need to know that if the PAF doesn’t exceed the salary range, the council doesn’t need to vote on it – meaning, the mayor can give out raises to whoever without any reason.”
She added, “I believe the town administrator can do the same for those who report to him. Also, those raises can be retroactive!” Vander Ploeg then asked if a separation agreement had been received by the council for business administrator James Leach. Merz replied that the council had not received a separation agreement for Leach.
Regarding salary, Merz stated that if there are sufficient funds in the salary account and if the requested salary is within the parameters, increases are governed by the mayor and administrator. Merz confirmed that PAFs are received by the council prior to implementation, but the council does not vote on them if they are within guidelines.
Vander Ploeg said that she has examples of an employee’s salary being above the allowed amount in the ordinance, and claimed that the law was broken. Township attorney Lawrence Cohen would not comment on the matter, noting that it could not be discussed due the lack of a Rice notification.
Council vice president Jay Dunham interjected, “There is nothing being hidden here. Jefferson has a ‘Faulkner’ form of government in which the mayor handles the day-to-day business of the town. He is like the king, like it or not. The council’s authority is to define the budget, ordinances, and contracts.” His reference was to the Faulkner Act, which established optional forms of government originally introduced in 1950. There are four basic plan types: mayor-council, council-manager, small municipality, and mayor-council-administrator. Jefferson governs by the mayor-council system.
According to the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, under this form of government: “Mayor exercises executive power of the municipality. Up to 10 departments under Mayor’s direction. Business Administrator assists Mayor in budget preparation and administers purchasing and personnel systems. By ordinance, Business Administrator may supervise administration of departments, subject to Mayor’s direction.”
To learn about the mayor-council as well as the other three optional forms government under the Falkner Act, visit https://www.njslom.org/Faq.aspx?QID=178.
Other Residents’ Concerns
Resident Phil Doyle addressed concerns about the intersection of Berkshire Valley Road and Route 15 South. He believes there should be two left-turn lanes onto Route 15 South. Leach advised that the state has already established that the road is not wide enough for two left-turn lanes. The town has notified the state Department of Transportation (DOT), county freeholders, and state legislature about its concerns with this intersection. Leach explained that because Route 15 is a state highway, the town can offer suggestions, but the final decision is made by the DOT.
Doyle also complained about the lack of visibility due to parking at Lindeken Farms. He observed that employees park at the very edge of their lot, which is right on the border of Berkshire Valley Road with no barrier in between, noting that it is difficult to see around these trucks when trying to cross from Route 15 North over to Lower Berkshire Valley Road. Merz stated that the council will reach out to the new owners of Lindeken, who “may not be aware of requirements.” Doyle also mentioned a concern about foliage on Berkshire Valley Road; Leach stated that he would contact the county or have the township crew cut it back.
Council member Robert Birmingham said that a sample resolution was sent to the council based on pending legislation allowing towns in the New Jersey Highlands region that meet certain criteria to develop economic zones. This could result in a 50% reduction in sales tax within the township. If passed, said Birmingham, this would help with business development in Jefferson. Since the council had just received the resolution, members did not have time to review it prior to the meeting. Merz said she had met with Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce, who noted that details are forthcoming in regard to the Highlands.
Birmingham had attended bidding on open road paving projects and, for the fourth time, there was a decrease in bid. Apparently, the cost of oil and asphalt had gone down, which resulted in a $126,265 savings for the township.
Council member Ron Smith had attended the Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting on Monday, October 15. He reported that the commission found approximately 55 docks requiring repair, as boards falling into the lake are a hazard to boaters. Leach stated that Jefferson will ensure that repairs are completed, and requested identification of the docks’ respective owners. Smith told The Jefferson Chronicle, “The Lake Hopatcong Commission identified these properties, but it is up to the township to enforce repair.”
Council member Kim Finnegan and Merz both praised the recent Hope Heals event held at Camp Jefferson and look forward to Fall Fest on Saturday.
Leach said that the cost to repair the White Rock Clubhouse furnace is $8,500. Several bids were requested. Removal of the oil tank is required as well, and the total cost for both projects will be less than $12,000. The council agreed with the expenditure.
Leach also mentioned that both the current mayor and the mayor-elect want to revise the town’s website, and two vendors will make presentations soon. He stated that each vendor has the capability to monitor the vacant home program.
No new business was on the agenda.