Thursday, August 14, 2014

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Former City Clerk Files Suit

A former employee is suing the city and the sitting council members, saying, among other things, that they created hostile, unconscionable, and intolerable working conditions.  Ousted Interim City Manager Anthony Rottino, who is also suing the city, is named as a defendant for allegedly conspiring with the sitting council to create such intolerable working conditions.

In an 80 page complaint filed yesterday in the United States District Court, District of New Jersey, Debra Heck (the former City Clerk), says that she was retaliated against for her perceived political affiliations due to a romantic relationship with local political heavyweight Richard Salkin.


This suit is the fifth in a string of claims of retaliation by this new council.  Preceding this suit were complaints filed by Anthony Rottino, Nancy Weuste, Moise Flanagan, and a complaint which Earl Warden a former recreation department employee won last week for compensatory, vacation, and sick time that was improperly withheld after his leaving Hackensack's employ.

The complaint, which reads like a soap opera, outlines in great detail the events leading up to the City Council's alleged attempts to unlawfully dismiss Heck from her position as the City Clerk.

Heck's attorney, Jason Nunnermacker, said "After 28 years of service to the City of Hackensack, it is sad that Ms. Heck's career was brought to such an unceremonious end.  The actions of this council were unconscionable and they must be held accountable." On a more personal note, Nunnermacker as a resident of the City of Hackensack said, "This council took office under the guise of reform and change.  They promised to put an end to the costly lawsuits that are bankrupting our city.  It is discouraging to see that in their short time in office they have opened the flood gates to a new wave of lawsuits for the very same political retributions they once so vehemently condemned."

Council expresses their pleasure with Heck's job performance

Heck asserts that in her eleven years as City Clerk she had served for four different councils and had never received one reprimand as to her job performance.  For the first two and a half months of their term in office, the defendants (the sitting council) too expressed their satisfaction with Heck's job performance--Mayor Labrosse even hand delivered flowers to Heck as a token of his appreciation.

During this time, Heck "cashed in" her accrued vacation days that she was unable to use because her work load was too great.  Councilwoman Canestrino allegedly acknowledged Heck's workload and indicated that the council was going to authorize the hire of additional staff to assist Heck so that she could use her earned vacation time.  Councilwoman Greenman sent an email on August 14, 2013 confirming same, "if [plaintiff] needs help, she should get it."

Council makes known their intention to retaliate against perceived political adversaries

On August 14, 2013, the council's chief political advisor, Thom Ammirato, sent an email to Councilwoman Greenman indicating that the council's "...job is to broaden our base...get a real political operation going that further marginalizes these people [political foes].  That should be our goal."  To this email, Greenman replied "Thom, [y]ou know that I agree with you in this respect." 



Council learns of Heck's relationship with Salkin

According to the suit, Salkin has held the most highly sought after and lucrative legal positions within the City of Hackensack.  It is well known that Salkin "significantly assists" in local elections on behalf of the defendants' opposition.  The defendants did not reappoint Salkin to his position when they took office.  On September 2, 2013, Heck and Salkin began living together and their relationship became publicly known in the City of Hackensack.  

Immediately after Heck and Salkin's cohabitation became known, the city council set out on a witch hunt in an attempt to remove Heck from her position.  

On September 11, 2013, Greenman sent an email to Anthony Rottino (Director of Economic Redevelopment) and Thom Ammirato (public relations) regarding Heck.  Greenman references Heck's engagement to Salkin in this email and references a recent absence of Heck's.  Greenman accuses Heck of being with Salkin during her absence, "I'm right yet again! She was with him!" 

Neither Ammirato nor Rottino held any position in the City of Hackensack which would encompass personnel matters.  However, again on October 11, 2013, Greenman shares her paranoia and sentiments regarding Heck with Ammirato and Rottino.  In criticizing an official letter that Heck wrote regarding city business, Greenman states, "[this document] has Salkin's paw prints all over it...[Heck] is brazen and stupid: an irresistible combo for someone serving the Council..."  Greenman's paranoia goes on, "[Heck and LoIacono] are compiling their own dossiers on us.  This is just another reminder. Both of them are political operatives-it's plain as day."  Greenman refers to Heck and LoIacono (the former City Manager) as "coiled snakes." 

Greenman and Canestrino commence witch hunt 

Heck alleges that on September 16, 2013 Greenman hostilely confronted her regarding her approved use of vacation time.   Greenman ended her scolding with the threat, "I will deal with you later."  Heck complained to Mayor Labrosse who according to the complaint, "laughed it off." 

On this same day, Greenman and Canestrino allegedly unlawfully discussed Heck's job performance during the closed session of the council meeting.  According to the complaint, Greenman sarcastically referred to the clerk's position as a "no show job" and Canestrino criticized Heck for her use of vacation time remarking "saved it all for when we took office?"  

Conversation allegedly commenced regarding Heck's duties and responsibilities.  Canestrino allegedly accused Heck of failing to remove a specific bill from the agenda of the previous meeting.  According to the suit, the City Manager was instructed to remove the bill and it would be customary for the City Manager to relay those instructions to the Chief Financial Officer and the appropriate city department. 

Heck asserts that her job performance should not have been discussed without her having been served the legally required Rice Notice.  Heck alleges that these conversations were accurately reflected in the minutes of the executive session and were later forcibly removed by the defendants.

On September 17, 2013 Greenman and Canestrino visited Heck in her office while then Personnel Director (now Interim City Manager) Art Koster "stood guard" at the main door to Heck's office, allegedly telling visitors to "take a walk." 


During this session where Heck felt imprisoned, isolated, and intimidated, Greenman allegedly accused Heck of falsifying government records (the OPRA log book).  Canestrino allegedly demeaned Heck accusing her of never being at work and threatening that the city will no longer compensate Heck for her lunch break.  Canestrino then demanded that Heck keep detailed time sheets accounting for her every hour of work.  Canestrino also indicated that she had kept her own logs of Heck's working hours and they were inconsistent with the time sheets that Heck had been keeping.  Despite repeated requests for these "time sheets," Canestrino has yet to produce them.

Council issues ultimatum

On November 25, 2013, the City Attorney and City Labor Attorney demanded to see Heck prior to the City Council meeting.  The attorneys represented to Heck that if she did not tender her immediate resignation, she would be suspended and termination proceedings would commence.  Heck alleges that she was again not issued a Rice Notice regarding a discussion of these adverse employment actions.  On that evening, the council passed a resolution: "the City Council has determined that it is necessary, desirable and in the best interests of the City of Hackensack that the Municipal Clerk of the City of Hackensack, Debra Heck, be removed from the position of Municipal Clerk...for failure to perform the duties of her office."

It is alleged that former City Manager Stephen LoIacono's resignation was under similar circumstance. LoIacono declined the opportunity to comment to The Scoop.  Did LoIacono have cause for a suit against the city as well?  LoIacono, in his separation agreement, did agree to not comment as to matters pertaining to the city and waived any claims he may have against the city.  Call me a conspiracy theorist but a few months of severance pay and a new job in North Arlington (which so happens to be the sitting council's Chief Political Advisor's other stomping ground) seem like relatively inexpensive consideration for such an insurance policy for the council.   

Heck demands damages in excess of $2,000,000

Heck earned $125,000 per year with health benefits, compensatory time, over time, and pension benefits.  Heck cites that as a women in her mid-50's with no college education, she has had difficulty finding comparable work to the position she was unlawfully forced to resign.  

Having been forced to resign 11 years before her planned retirement, Heck has suffered a loss of $1,375,000 in income.  In addition, Heck's pension benefits are currently $60,000; she estimates that those benefits would have been $85,000 per year at age 65.  This represents a loss of $25,000 per year in benefits for the rest of Heck's life.

Heck also cites damages of emotional distress and defamation having been publicly ridiculed and referred to as a "coiled snake." The suit also references the continued public ridicule by the sitting council.  Councilwoman Greenman's made comments at the public meeting where Heck's replacement Deborah Karlsson was hired referring to Karlsson as "the good Debbie."

Is this change?

The sitting council ran on a platform of putting an end to costly litigation and civil suits which are crippling this city.  Under their short tenure however, political patronage and reports of harassment, intimidation, and bullying seem to have done nothing but become more prevalent as a new wave of lawsuits surfaced.    

When will the hard working employees of the City of Hackensack be able to work for the betterment of the city and not fear retribution for not serving as political pawns?  When will the residents and tax payers of Hackensack get a break?



5 comments:

  1. "brazen and stupid" (the adjectives Ms. Greenman is quoted to have used to describe Ms Heck seem to be applicable to quite a few folks in this city's government. How on earth does the people's business get taken care of with all of this childishness going on? Another good piece of reporting Scoop!

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