Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A single, nasty lawsuit won't derail reform in Hackensack

Hackensack residents lining up to question city officials during the public-comment portion of Tuesday night's City Council meeting.


On Tuesday night, more North Jersey Media Group staffers gathered in one place in Hackensack than at any time since 2009, when the Borg family's flagship newspaper abruptly abandoned the city.

Four reporters and a photographer covered the City Council, which met on the third floor of City Hall, several blocks from The Record's old headquarters at 150 River Street.


The day before, acting City Manager Anthony Rottino hit city officials with "a bombshell lawsuit alleging that he was the target of a smear campaign designed to run him out of his $176,000 position," according to The Record's lead Page 1 story today.

Rottino, of Franklin Lakes, actually holds two positions, acting city manager and economic development director.

That "bombshell" is getting blanket coverage in The Record, unlike the "bombshell" decision to pull out of Hackensack, where the Borg family prospered for more than 110 years, about a year after the biggest downsizing in the company's history.

The negative impact on Hackensack's downtown was ignored as the Borgs shifted coverage to big mall retailers, whose advertising revenue keeps the Woodland Park daily afloat.

Reforms advance

Despite major missteps by the Citizens for Change slate that was swept into office in 2013, the Rottino suit is not expected to stop the drive to reform a city that withered and nearly died under decades of rule by the Zisa family.

In fact, as shown by the $94.46 million budget approved on Tuesday night, CFO Jim Mangin has earned praise for cleaning up the financial mess left by the previous administration.

Of course, the four reporters from The Record and Hackensack Chronicle weren't there on Tuesday night to report positive news.

Today's paper leads with the firing of former campaign official Thom Ammirato, a Rottino ally, from his $78,000-a-year position as city spokesman, but says nothing about the new spending plan (A-1).

Staff Writer Hannan Adely also reported the council summoned Rottino to "a hearing about his job" on Thursday morning. 

Word pushers

Columnist Mike Kelly, the burned-out reporter who helped cover the official corruption and insurance fraud trial of former Police Chief Ken Zisa in 2012, smelled blood, prompting him to make a rare trip to the city.

Don't look for any insights. Kelly is probably writing his column today and filling it with the same tired phrases he has used hundreds of times before.

The first paragraph of a second story on A-1 today, under the rare byline of veteran reporter Jean Rimbach, refers incorrectly to Rottino as "Hackensack's city manager."

Legal lesson

Rimbach reports "whistle-blower actions" like the suit filed by Rottino "are tough to win" (A-1).

The complaint claims Rottino opposed raising police salaries more than 2%, tried to protect Ammirato's job and raised questions about the allegedly "widespread use of steroids by members of the Police Department" (A-6).

Rottino also claims city officials violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by "choosing a white candidate for a municipal judgeship over a qualified black candidate."

Acting City Manager Anthony Rottino didn't attend Tuesday night's City Council meeting. Sitting in was Art Koster, executive assistant to the city manager and city personnel director, left front. CFO Jim Mangin is seated at right. Mayor John Labrosse is seated on the dais flanked on each side by the four other members of the City Council.

'Costly legal disputes'

The Record's lead front-page story on Tuesday reported the Rottino suit and seemed to blame the City Council for failing in its goal of putting an "end to costly legal disputes."

Of course, this is the kind of simplistic nonsense reporters try to peddle all the time.

To put an end to "costly" legal disputes, you'd have to upend the entire system of lawyers charging whatever the traffic will bear, backed up by judges, who were, after all, onetime lawyers who tested the limits on hourly rates.

A lawyer who charges $400 to $500 an hour effectively denies many people access to the courts.

Still, this is a system supported by many, including The Record and Jennifer A. Borg, NJMG's vice president and general counsel, because it limits the ability of employees to file suits over working conditions, age discrimination, severance and other issues.

Second look

On Monday, the lead story in Local on the proposed county budget contained several reporting and editing problems, as listed by a reader of Eye on The Record:

"Today's L-1 article on [Bergen County Executive Kathleen] Donovan and the budget contains very confusing and mistaken information.
In the 2nd paragraph, it states:

The budget "will deliver real relief in the form of a slightly less than zero tax increase."
If the net difference is slightly "less" than zero, it is a tax decrease. It would have to be slightly "more" than zero, for it to be tax increase.

In the 4th paragraph, it states:

"Donovan, a Republican running for a second term, contends that in order to slice $6.8 million from the budget she proposed in March, the freeholders are tapping into funds that can't be replenished next year."

Based on further details in the article, they would not slice [cut] the budget by $6.8 million. They would increase the funding for the proposed budget based on using $6.8 million from motor vehicle fines instead of Donovan's proposed $4.8 million.

In subsequent paragraphs, it states:

"They're raiding all the funds and taking the money out, which is very imprudent because next year, even if you've got the money in, you can't spend it," Donovan said during a Record Talk Radio interview on Friday."
"She said she proposed spending $4.8 million from a fund for motor vehicle fines, about the same amount the county has spent in previous years. But Donovan said the freeholders have called for spending $6.8 million of that revenue, leaving about $450,000 in the fund."
"Donovan said state spending rules require local governments to anticipate receiving no more than they already have in the fund. Even if the fund took in $2 million in fines in 2015, the county would be able to spend only $450,000 of that amount, she said."
"So you've got a built-in, we think, over $3 million deficit on Day One in January 2015. That's totally irresponsible of them to do that, she added."
"The last paragraph is in the wrong order since it makes no sense on how there can be a $3 million deficit based on not being able to spend the freeholder's proposed $6.8 million vs. Donovan's proposed $4.8 million, which is only a net difference of $2 million.  
"It should have followed the first paragraph." 

Eye on The Record will return
 after the Fourth of July

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