Council Addresses Resolution Of Lawsuits

By on November 11, 2020

Verona Town CouncilIn October, the insurance fund that represents Verona settled lawsuits brought by two township employees. At its Monday, November 9 meeting, the Town Council spoke about those settlements, often acrimoniously.

In separate lawsuits, Township Clerk Jennifer Kiernan and Municipal Court Clerk Erika Varela had alleged that they were paid less than their male peers, and Varela’s suit had also alleged gender discrimination by Township Manager Matthew Cavallo. The township manager was dismissed from the Varela suit before its settlement. Both suits were filed before New Jersey enacted the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act.

Under the settlement, the New Jersey Intergovernmental Insurance Fund (NJIIF), not Verona’s municipal budget, will pay about $500,000 to Varela and Kiernan. NJIIF, referred to in the meeting video below as “the JIF,” is one of two dozen insurance pools that provide coverage to municipalities and counties. Each JIF contains multiple members, and premiums for a member do not increase if that member has a claim.

The township increased the salaries of both women as a result of the settlement. The Council approved an ordinance in October that made the municipal clerk’s salary $93,000 for 2019 and $95,000 for 2020. A second ordinance set the salary of the court administrator at $94,000 for 2019 and $96,000 for 2020. Prior to the settlement, Verona ordinance 2018-35 had set the clerk salary at $73,451 and that of the court administrator at $78,810. Kiernan started as a typist in the clerk’s office in 2011, earned her certificate as a registered town clerk in 2013 and was hired as the clerk in 2014. Varela has been enrolled in the state pension system since 2012.

Township Attorney Brian Aloia said Monday that, under the terms of the settlement, there was no admission of wrong-doing by any party and all parties agreed to non-disparagement clauses. But there was still plenty of finger-pointing at the Council meeting.

“This situation was created entirely by the majority members of Verona Council in 2017, led by Mayor Kevin Ryan and Deputy Mayor Michael Nochimson,” said Councilman Ted Giblin. The Council at that time, which also included Bob Manley, Jay Sniatkowski and current Councilman Alex Roman, discussed the municipal clerk’s salary but did not vote on it before the 2017 election, which brought both Giblin and the current mayor, Jack McEvoy, to the body. “This [the settlement] could have easily been avoided in 2016 if we had just paid the clerk fairly,” said Sniatkowski on Tuesday.

Giblin said at Monday’s meeting that he had participated in an executive session on the municipal clerk’s compensation with the outgoing Council in 2017 and had seen a “significant amount of harassment and bullying” of the clerk  by Nochimson. While executive sessions are supposed to be private, Giblin said that information from the meeting later appeared in a email sent out by a Verona resident. In each of the past two Council meetings, Giblin had attempted to make a statement about the settlement but had been cautioned against doing so by Aloia and McEvoy because the settlement was not final. 

When it was his turn to speak, Councilman Ryan rebutted Giblin’s assertions that he had done nothing to address the information that had been leaked from the 2017 executive session, and expressed frustration that the settlement work had taken as long as it had. “I don’t know why it took the Joint Insurance Fund three years to come up with a recommendation,” Ryan said, adding that no member of the Council had been included in any of the negotiating sessions between the attorneys. He also explained that this was why he abstained from the Council’s vote last month to approve the settlement. The process, he said, “is heavily weighted in favor of the litigants.” Ryan said he would be in favor of finding a different JIF to represent Verona when the NJIIF contract is up.

McEvoy was visibly frustrated by the commenting by Giblin, Ryan and Councilwoman Christine McGrath. “You are all putting the town at risk of another lawsuit,” he said. “Air your feelings, shake your heads, you are putting the town at risk.” McEvoy also noted that the Council that was seated in the 2017 election had attempted to adjust the clerk’s salary. “Four that are on this council right now all agreed that the salary was underpaid for that job,” he said. “And we made an effort to correct that.” McGrath was elected to the Council in 2019.

The current Council has repeatedly praised Kiernan for what has become her signature project: Completely updating Verona’s voluminous town code. At the most recent meeting, the Council also thanked her for her work on the November 3 elections. 

Verona has taken several steps to clarify employee responsibilities and salaries since Cavallo became the town manager in 2015. The most significant was Ordinance 2018-05 in 2018, which set out the structure and duties of a series of departments–administration and economic development, building and inspections, community services, finance, public works, tax assessor, police, fire and municipal court. 

MyVeronaNJ reached out to Nochimson for comment about the settlement. During his time on the Council, he was a frequent opponent of salary increases for town employees. “For the record, I was opposed to paying the clerk a salary that was not warranted based on the scale of statutory years of service or even what the position supported,” he said. “And furthermore, the allegation of a hostile work environment has no factual basis and is far from reality. The reality is that working for the Township of Verona provides pristine backdrops, great opportunities, well-paid salaries, and healthcare and this is the reality. This was no legal victory, it was a fraud on our township.”

Nochimson also took issue with Giblin’s representation of the executive session. “The promotion of this false narrative by Ted Giblin reminds us that he is unfit to serve Verona with integrity,” Nochimson said. “As in life, facts, judgement and integrity do matter.”

You can watch the meeting in full here:

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