Monday’s vote to authorize the study of six potential redevelopment areas drew the biggest crowd to a City Council meeting in recent memory as well as the biggest split among the governing body and administration in several years.
Although results nationwide were not yet decisive, Democrat Hillary Clinton easily and not surprisingly carried most of Rahway, losing only one voting district to Republican Donald Trump.
The City Council last night night unanimously (9-0) approved a salary ordinance (0-38-11) that will slash the mayor’s pay by 68 percent, effective Jan. 1, 2012. Entering the second year of a four-year term, Mayor Rick Proctor will see the salary for his part-time post reduced from $65,000 to $20,809.
As he has maintained for weeks, the mayor said the move by City Council is “political payback” for seeking accountability. “I refused to go along with business as usual approach to management. And now I am paying the price,” he wrote in a three-page memo to Council President David Brown dated yesterday. Accompanying the memo was a bar graph indicating the percentage increase in salary ranges for management personnel under the proposed ordinance, most of which were 0 to 4 percent — except for the mayor’s position.
“Passage of this ordinance is fiscally irresponsible and totally unnecessary given that a valid ordinance is in effect. If passed, your actions will make it clear that the only purpose is to attack the mayor’s salary,” Proctor wrote. He claimed the governing body is purposely deviating from past practice that has been in effect for 20 years, where the council adopts the municipal budget, and then, based on available funding, passes a salary ordinance for management personnel.
“No one in this city is foolish enough to believe that you take this action pursuant to a reasoned, thoughtful consideration of its consequences,” Proctor wrote. “This council acts now based on politics, in an arbitrary and capricious manner. You have allowed this legislative body to be coerced by a small but threatening minority whose political rewards have been threatened by me as mayor.” (All nine council members and the mayor are Democrats.)
The few residents who were in attendance Monday night spoke at the public meeting. Scott Caffee of West Scott Avenue, a frequent attendee at City Council meetings in recent months, agreed that the mayor’s pay cut was a “personal, calculated” move by the governing body and suggested reducing everyone’s salary. Frequent council critic Patrick Cassio, the local Republican chairman and a candidate against Proctor last year, questioned why the council did not act in January when Proctor took office and what happened between now and the last election season cycle when other council members campaigned for the mayor.
Sixth Ward Councilman Samson Steinman, who worked on Proctor’s mayoral campaign last fall, conceded the pay cut should have been done a year ago, making the point that department heads who replaced longtime directors in recent years also were brought in at lower salaries. He continued to reject claims that the pay cut was a personal slight against the mayor.
Floren Robinson of Essex Street feared that cutting the salary will discourage qualified people who might want to run and not incentivize people to work to better the city or deal with all that it takes to be mayor. “Fighting over a few thousand dollars is not going to help the city,” she said. Her husband, Michael Pressman, a compensation consultant by trade, told the council that compensation can “serve as a powerful performance motivator” and in any situation where a person is replacing an incumbent, they’re aware of the terms prior to their new role. He said the city needs a cooperative government and an engaged mayor, emphasizing his concerns that the ordinance will have a negative impact.
Steinman countered that the mayor’s position is not a job as much as it is public service. “To look at the mayor’s job as a job is totally wrong,” he said. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier suggested that some highly qualified mayors in other Union County towns make $1 in their positions, such as Fanwood’s Colleen Mahr. Council members earn $8,043 and also are considered part-time posts.
Other council members didn’t speak on the salary ordinance directly, alluding to it and other critiques in their public comments. Councilman At Large James Baker called some of the criticisms of the council “out of line, not based on any sound perspective.” He said the accomplishments by this council and mayor are often “overlooked or oversimplified. We make difficult decisions in a proactive and positive way and the public is not necessarily aware of these things.”
Brown, the council president and representative to the Fourth Ward, suggested that when the current council majority took control of the governing body in 1996, “downtown was a ghost town.” Some of those same council members, he added, have been responsible for bringing millions of dollars into the city.
The City Council last month approved the proposed Meridia Water’s Edge project for inclusion in the Lower Main Street Redevelopment Plan, paving the way for an application to be heard by the Planning Board later this month.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier was the lone dissenter during a special meeting Oct. 24 when the council adopted the ordinance (O-26-11) by an 8-1 vote. An ordinance (O-29-11) regarding a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) for the Water’s Edge project is scheduled to be introduced at Monday’s regular meeting of the City Council.
Capodagli Property Company has proposed 108 units adjacent to the city library and The Center Circle. The Planning Board is scheduled to take up the application at its Nov. 29 meeting and a redevelopment agreement is expected before the Redevelopment Agency at its Dec. 7 meeting.
Wenson-Maier was among the council members who raised concerns in September about density and size of units, pushing to have the ordinance tabled. While there may be a trend for smaller units in new developments, she said she didn’t like the room sizes but understood the concept. The proximity of Water’s Edge to the library, recreation center and downtown restaurants could address locally some of the amenities offered at similar projects around the country, such as lounges, pools and party rooms, she said.
“What was unacceptable for me as a registered architect and liaison to the Environmental Commission was that the developer refused to obtain a silver LEED rating,” which she said is very attainable. “LEED eventually will become a requirement of the international building code,” Wenson-Mailer, who sites on the Environmental Commission, said via email. The sustainablilty element of the city’s master plan, adopted by the Planning Board in spring 2010, encourages LEED building elements.
Redevelopment Agency attorney Frank Regan said the developer has a loan commitment and is trying to close by the end of the year. “Weather permitting, he’s anxious to get into the ground,” Regan said. The Redevelopment Agency last month extended its memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Water’s Edge project.
The City Council on Monday tabled an ordinance (0-26-11) that would amend a redevelopment plan to include a 108-unit, five-story rental complex proposed near the library. Concerns were raised about the size of apartments and the density of units as proposed.
The governing body will take up the ordinance to amend the Lower Main Street Urban Renewal Plan at its meeting on Oct. 11 but some council members had concerns about the density and overall plans for the surrounding area.
|The day after Hurricane Irene. (By D. Palmer)|
Representatives of Capodagli Property Company appeared before the council during its pre-meeting conference last week to present their plan, which includes a request for a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) for the project.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier said Monday night that she thought the units seem too small and the density of the project too high for the three-quarter-acre site. The 56 two-bedroom units would be 816 square feet as currently proposed, with 14 one-bedroom units of 672 square feet, and another 42 one-bedrooms of 720 square feet since they feature an office area.
There’s no master plan for that parcel or the three acres around it, Wenson-Maier said, adding that she’d like to aim for a “better product” and a more complete plan for the area, even if it means delaying the project. In addition to density, Councilman At-large James Baker raised concerns about potential future flooding, and also preferred to include some retail and commercial components, as was the case with the Town Center project. (The photo of the site above was taken the day after Hurricane Irene).
The Water’s Edge application was to go before the Planning Board on Sept. 27 but now will be delayed until the ordinance is approved by City Council.
It would appear that the main/center stairs on the inbound platform are almost completely rebuilt — after being closed for more than 18 months. The Rahway Chamber of Commerce had an attorney send a letter to NJ Transit this week about the deplorable conditions and glacial pace of repairs to the inbound main stairs and the outbound elevator.
The mayor had sought a full-time executive secretary with a salary range of $45,000-$55,000 and a part-time chief of staff with a salary of $45,000. The two positions were removed from the salary ordinance (which sets the range for a variety of titles within the city) during the governing body’s pre-meeting conference and later voted unanimously to introduce the measure at its regular meeting. A public hearing and final approval will be held during the council’s Sept. 12 regular meeting.
City Administrator and Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier told council members Monday night that he was not in favor of the two positions “in light of the fact that we’re trying to control taxes and spending.” He did not understand the need for a chief of staff, though he “understood somewhat” the secretary’s position, adding that the mayor could be accommodate with existing staff. “It’s not in our best interest to move a secretary from another department to the mayor’s office,” Pelissier said.
If $100,000 is added to the city budget, Pelissier said it would be better spent hiring firefighters and making promotions, as has been debated in the past, though there’s a question whether even that is sustainable. Last month, representatives of Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association (FMBA) Local 33 appeared before the City Council to increase staffing levels. Several council members expressed a desire to hire two firefighters over two administrative posts.
Whether there is $100,000 available in the budget remains to be seen, as planning on the 2012 budget moves ahead this fall. City Attorney Louis Rainone reminded council members that the ordinance merely authorizes the city to pay these salaries. Whether there are funds available, that decision comes when the budget is deliberated.
The executive secretary post has been vacant for five or six years and Proctor said the previous mayor at one time or another had a chief of staff or executive secretary during his tenure. A chief of staff is a more of a policy aide and with all that’s going on with economic development and the Arts District, “there’s a lot to get a handle on,” he said, adding that there have been a few items he hasn’t been able to implement since taking office. Existing staff could be moved from another office to fill the executive secretary post, so it’s not necessarily adding a position but just result in some bumping, he said.
The chief of staff would be new but Proctor said he has the duty to spend money responsibly, and as needs of the city evolve, he must respond appropriately. A chief of staff would help to move the city forward more effectively. The position more focused on policy development and planning while a city administrator handles day-to-day operations and assists in the planning the budget and other business functions.
There were no objections raised, according to Proctor, when he discussed it with the administrator on Friday. He was “very disappointed that City Council members did not seek additional information” on the positions before removing them from the ordinance. “It felt like the whole thing was a little orchestrated,” Proctor said in a telephone interview Tuesday. The mayor said he’s been evaluating city operations and has attempted to change the “business as usual attitude,” but when he tries to implement changes, he gets “a lot of pushback.”
Second Ward Councilman Michael Cox asked what impact there might be if the measure was tabled. Pelissier said most management employees are expecting a 2-percent salary increase (unless it’s been adjusted for specific reasons), and if the ordinance were table, approval would not come until October, with payment retroactive to July.
The motion to remove the positions and vote on the ordinance was made by 6th Ward Councilman Samson Steinman and seconded by 5th Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier. The ordinance was introduced unanimously. The ordinance set a rate of $65,000 for the mayor; $110,000-$163,344 for the city administrator, and $8,043 for council members ($9,676 for council president). The council’s rate represents an increase from $7,740 ($303, or 4 percent).
During the public portion of the meeting, representatives of FMBA Local 33 lobbied for hiring three firefighters and promoting two others.
Proctor said the need exists and he will continue to press to improve outreach, and though he wasn’t sure what form it would take, he would continue to push for the position. “Hopefully with the business administrator and City Council’s cooperation.”
In general, it’s uncommon for an administration to disagree so publicly, especially when they’re all from the same party (in this case, Democrats). Even for the City Council, it’s been rare to see members break from the administration or voice much dissent on most issues in recent years.
Asked how he would describe his relationship with the city administrator, Proctor said: “Developing.” Proctor took office in January, reappointing Pelissier to another four-year term following many years as administrator to former Mayor James Kennedy, who did not seek re-election last year.