WEST NEW YORK – Dr. Felix Roque is ramping up his 2011 challenge against Mayor Sal Vega in court over a questionable payout made to Vega’s former confidential aide.
Roque and a small group of local taxpayers filed a lawsuit this week over a post-employment payout of more than $300,000 to confidential aide Janet Passante, which was approved by Vega and the board of commissioners.
“This is a freebie,” Roque said today. “She didn’t work for that money.”
Passante was a non-contracted, non-civil service employee making $125,000 in her confidential aide position. She served at the will of the mayor and filled several administrative positions dating back to 1973 before retiring this year.
The board passed a compensation package in May that paid Passante for 172 unused vacation days, 300.5 unused sick days, and 1,366 compensatory hours dating all the way back to 1973.
“The town did everything absolutely right,” town attorney Dan Horgan said. “This is a ridiculous effort to get attention. They have no understanding of how municipal government works.”
He said there was a 45-day window to challenge the resolution in May, if they thought there was a problem. “We’re six months past that,” Horgan said.
Roque and his team filed several rounds of information requests since May to better understand why and how the payments were necessitated.
“We addressed the mayor and asked him,” Roque said.
They were only given limited information, most of which were time sheets signed by Passante containing no supervisor approval.
“(We received) hand-written notes apparently maintained by Mrs. Passante,” Roque’s lawyer, Julio Morejon, told a crowd of supporters and reporters today at Las Palmas Restaurant on bustling Bergenline Ave.
Horgan told PolitickerNJ the town stands by the documents. “We’re not going to engage in any silly witch hunt,” he said. “(The time sheets were) prepared by the town as an official town record.”
Further OPRA requests seeking the origin of the payout agreement – some sort of employment agreement or other document providing a basis for the compensation – were fruitless.
“There was never any legal obligation to do what they did,” Morejon said. “(She’s) one of them, and they want to protect one of them.”
Horgan contests, “Not everyone has a signed contract. We’ve changed the practices. Now every employee has limits (on outgoing compensation).”
Morejon said the contract also includes an interesting clause that allows Passante to opt out of her $10,000 monthly payment next year, an election year, and take the remainder of her compensation in one lode.
This is a failsafe, Morejon said, so that if Vega loses the election, Passante can collect before a new administration takes over.
Also, by not allowing Passante to collect in this budget year – no appropriations were made in the budget for the payments – the city avoids having to eat a lump sum in one year, especially since the town is currently in a six-month transition budget as it moves from a fiscal year to calendar year budget cycle.
The lawsuit seeks that the resolution approving the payout be voided; all moneys be repaid to the city; and that the commissioners, Vega, and Passante – all named in the suit – be personably responsible for legal costs incurred by the city and for the defense.
Passante has already received five $10,201 payments totaling $51,009. The next payment is due in December.
Roque told the crowd he left Cuba at 11 years old to escape corrupt regimes, now he said he finds himself in a similar situation.
“I will not put up with this nonsense,” Roque said. “(Vega) spends money like it’s his own. It’s not his money.”
The administration has maintained that these sort of compensation packages are routine past practices, but Morejon said a records request only turned up one similar situation for one-third the amount that included no comp time.
The details of the Passante agreement are important, Morejon said, for instance what was the base salary used for the payments that date back to 1973. Was her most recent salary used?
Roque said this payout is indicative of other actions of this administration, like proposing 20 police layoffs last year while increasing the police chief’s salary from $96,000 to $190,000.
Roque and other concerned taxpayers successfully fought Vega’s layoff plan last year, only to see six police promotions approved since.