Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2011

PMUA: Still no explanation for ex-execs' $$$ demands"

Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority (PMUA) officials were less well prepared for last evening's questions from the public than they have been for a long time. And that leaves ratepayers still without an answer as to the basis for former executives Watson's and Ervin's severance pay claims.

Newly appointed commissioner (and former Ward 3 Councilor) Malcolm R. Dunn and alternate Cecil Sanders arrived a few minutes after chairperson Harold Mitchell (also a former Councilor and Mayor) opened the meeting. Commissioners Carol Brokaw and Alex Tolliver were also present; Tracey Brown was absent.

Leslie London, Esq., counsel to the PMUA, acknowledged that the only item of business to be taken up in the executive session would be a proposal from the attorney for former executives Eric Watson and David Ervin to settle the disputed severance pay issue.

The half dozen or so members of the public were invited to raise questions or make comments before the commissioners went into executive session. These broke down mainly into questions about continuing to pay Watson and Ervin past their final work day and getting a clear statement of the basis for the dispute that is in arbitration.

For the first time Ms. London, who is always meticulously prepared, seemed to falter, with her answers clearly leaving the questioners unsatisfied.

Philip Charles, founder of DumpPMUA (see their website here), noted that the agency's resolution 48-2011 of June 14 setting out the pair's last work day as June 30 (see resolution here), did not make any reference to an accrued vacation/sick days payout.

However, he said he had been provided just yesterday afternoon with copies of two agreements between the former executives and the agency (subsequent to the 48-2011 resolution) stipulating they would remain on the rolls until accrued vacation/sick days had been paid out.

Charles did not seem to find Ms. London's explanation that the payout was covered by resolution 48-2011 satisfactory.

In fact, there does not appear to be any impropriety, though the agency could have done a far better job explaining the process. What I have been told is that it is PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) that stipulates an employee remains 'on the books' until all accrued vacation and sick days have been paid out in anticipation of retirement/severance.

Here is my personal experience: When I prepared to retire in 2006, the city's Personnel Division calculated my accrued and unused vacation and sick days. PERS then 'backed into' my FINAL WORK DAY based on the date I became eligible for my pension. The period between my final work day and my termination date (the day before my retirement took effect) was known as my TERMINAL LEAVE. I was still an employee, still receiving benefits, but forbidden from performing any work for the City between those two dates.

Although Mr. Watson, who is in his early 50s, is not eligible to COLLECT his retirement benefits, the process would be similar, calculating forward from his FINAL WORK DAY to the date his accrued vacation and sick days were used up.

It is a process of many decades standing, not a secret, but one to which Gov. Christie objects and on which he intends to put limits.
A Woodland Avenue ratepayer, as well as fellow blogger Bernice Paglia spoke to the related matter of whether two employees could hold the same title at the same time.

This arose because the PMUA commissioners appointed Duane Young executive director as of July 1, 2010.

Bernice rightly noted that Fire Chief Tidwell, who was recently promoted to the position, could not take the title until recently retired chief Cecil Allen had used up his accrued vacation and sick days. (This was true of my position as well when I retired.)

If indeed the Commissioners named Mr. Young as 'executive director' instead of 'interim' or 'acting', this protocol would have been violated. Though it may have been an impropriety, it hardly rises to the level of other improprieties the agency is accused of or suspected of.
By far the most troublesome question to Ms. London appeared to be disclosing to the public the basis for the former executives' claim, a question posed by ratepayer Bill Kruse.

Ms. London began to answer the question about the basis for the claim by saying that the agency found itself in an 'awkward' position with a 'disagreement between the parties' and that the matter was still in arbitration, adding 'I guess about half-way through'.

Mr. Kruse then asked if the matter was in 'mediation' or 'arbitration', to which Ms. London answered 'arbitration'.

She looked taken aback when Kruse then identified himself as an arbitrator, with more than 30 years experience in the field, and flatly said that the basis of the claim was not privileged information and could not be kept from the public.

He then charged that the commissioners could not give anything away without revealing to the ratepayers the basis for settling.

He ended his remarks with a jibe at the agency, saying that if he encountered a young person intent on a life of crime he would advise public service as a safer and more profitable route.

Ms. London did not give way, however, and the Commissioners shortly adjourned to an upstairs room, leaving the public in the boardroom. 'It's cold outside and we don't want to inconvenience the public', chairperson Mitchell said as they departed.
As the attendees, left behind with several PMUA employees who also were excluded from the executive session, began to chat among themselves, one proferred a story which could possibly explain the claims -- or at least that of Mr. Watson.

According to this individual, they encountered a commissioner while walking down the street one day after Watson and Ervin had left the agency, and the commissioner volunteered that Mr. Watson said he had received death threats [in connection with a workforce reduction] and was very upset about it. Further, a doctor who examined him was said to have been alarmed about his blood pressure and wanted him hospitalized. The commissioner opined that Mr. Watson stepped down because of this 'health emergency' and considered it 'work-related'.

If true, one can wonder if this is the 'just cause' contemplated by the [conveniently inserted] additional clause in the 2010 contract.

But what about Mr. Ervin?
At any rate, the Commissioners arrived at no decision Wednesday evening and may be divided about whether to give in to the offer by Watson's and Ervin's attorney (see my previous post that outlined rumored settlement terms here) or to continue to pursue arbitration in hopes of a better deal for the ratepayers.

The ratepayers?! Now there's a novel consideration!

-- Dan Damon [follow]

View today's CLIPS here. Not getting your own CLIPS email daily? Click here to subscribe.


Closely Watching said...

Bottom Line: The partial settlement executed after the resignations/separations does not appear to have been approved by the entire board at a public meeting and formalized as a resolution. Whether that is a mere oversight or a purposeful attempt by the PMUA to hide the details and not have them questioned remains to be seen. The only other way a settlement should have happened is through a court order after a formal filing by the employees. There is an absolute responsibility on the part of the PMUA board, attorneys, and executives to act within the parameters of the law. The problem has been that for so long no one knew or cared what was required and was more concerned with hooking up their friends. Even now that they know we are closely watching, they are careless with our money. They seem to have forgotten that a private corporation can hook up whoever they want, but a governmental agency should not be acting like a private corporation with the public's money. It is my suspicion that because they are all friends they are just trying to figure out how to give Watson and Ervins one final hook up to carry them over. If the rumor of Watson's health is true, I wish him well but isn't it ironic that the very same second chance citizens he bragged about are now part of an implication of death threats. I don't believe the rumor of death threats for a second. After all Watson took credit for helping the employees of the PMUA turn their lives around. Surely the wonderful Watson's community service to the employees was not for naught!

Anonymous said...

The Commissioners went into private session to determine whether they would agree to a proposed settlement in the order of $700,000 for Watson and Ervin. When asked the nature of the claim which is being Arbitrated they refused to identify it. Why? They wee not asked to detail their defense. They were not asked to reveal Watson and Ervin's arguments..only to advise the public as to the nature of the complaint.The PMUA attorney Miss London stated that to do so would compromise the PMUA. This is preposterous. The only reason which this writer can deduce is that the claim is so specious, and the desire of the Commissioners so strong to award a settlement, that the Commissioners want the award chiseled in stone before they face possible intervention from an outraged public. There does not appear to be any restraint on the conduct of this body. They can pay executives any amount they deem appropriate, give them a benefit package that the CEO of a major corporation does not enjoy, and tell the public to sit down after 2 minutes of comment at monthly meetings. This is not government by the people, this is Disneyland, or perhaps the Third Reich.

Dan said...

Now, now, 8:34.

Be careful with comparisons to Der Dritte Reich -- remember it got Dan into hot water before.

Maybe 'Animal Farm' or '1984'?

Dan said...

That's DAS Dritte Reich.

My German was never as good as my Greek!!

Anonymous said...

Regardless of the settlment already received or still to come, these men resigned on their own power. It wasn't mutual, forceful or any of that. They QUIT, QUIT, QUIT. They didn't read their contract that simply says that if they QUIT, they get NOTHING. NOW THEY REGRET IT so they conjured up garbage about being forced out. Eric has health issues because HE CAN'T STOP DRINKING!!!!!!!