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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Fairfield ordered to pay $93,570.57 in unpaid compensation to former employee.

In a June 30, 2016 opinion, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Geiger found that Fairfield Township failed to establish good cause for terminating its former Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer and was liable to the same employee for $93,570.57 in unpaid compensation, unused vacation and sick days and for fourteen hours of lunch time.

In a written decision that followed a one-day bench trial held on June 27, 2016, Judge Geiger found that Robert R. Hulitt, Sr., who worked for the Township from March 2006 until he was terminated on March 12, 2014, was not properly compensated for having worked as temporary Township Administrator from July 1, 2009 until Joseph Veight replaced him on January 1, 2011.  The court also noted that the Township violated state law by appointing Hulitt informally instead of by an appropriate authorizing resolution.

Judge Geiger found that Hulitt, who had no prior experience as an administrator, should be paid $35,000 per year for 549 days plus an additional 90 days as required by statute.  He found that since Hulitt had "no formal training or certifications for the position of municipal clerk" and could not prove that he carried out the role of the clerk, he was not entitled to additional compensation for any clerk duties performed.

The next issue the court decided was whether Hulitt was properly terminated from his position as Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer for having issued an allegedly unauthorized $508.16 check to Edward Kimley for reimbursement of an escrow deposit relating to a land use application.

Judge Geiger found that the Township failed to establish good cause for Hulitt's firing.  Therefore, since he was typically appointed as Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer for one year terms, the Township was ordered to pay him from the the date of his firing--March 13, 2014--through to December 31, 2014.

Finally, Judge Geiger found that Hulitt was entitled to be paid $19.55 per hour for 204 hours of unused vacation and sick time and for 14 hours that the court found were docked against Hulitt without justification.

Hulitt's lawsuit was filed in October 2014.

On July 7, 2016, in response to an OPRA Request, the Trico JIF (Fairfield's insurer) stated: "We have no information on any settlement.  Coverage was declined under the GL policy and also declined by Summit Risk.  The town may have handled this themselves, and you may go directly to them for any possible information."  Accordingly, the $93,570.57 appears to have been paid entirely by Fairfield Township taxpayers.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Much of taxpayers' shouldering of Sharp's $75,000 settlement was avoidable.

Had Fairfield Township been compliant with its insurer's "Plan of Risk Management" requirements at the time of the acts that led to former Mayor Michael Sharp's lawsuit, a $20,000--rather than a $100,000--deductible would have applied.  With the lower deductible, Fairfield taxpayers would have paid $31,000 (i.e. $20,000 plus 20% coinsurance on the remaining $55,000) toward the Sharp settlement rather than shouldering the entire $75,000. 

As I wrote in an August 30, 2015 article, Fairfield (along with Elk and Upper Pittsgrove) were penalized by the Municipal Excess Liability Fund (MEL) with a higher deductible and larger coinsurance requirement due to the Township's failure have current policies on the books governing matters such as sexual harassment, employee complaint investigations and conflicts of interest and for not making claim-avoidance training available for Township officials and employees. 

As shown by the Township Committee's March 15, 2016 closed meeting minutes, the Township taxpayers had to shoulder the entire $75,000 settlement because of the $100,000 deductible and Robert A. Baxter, the Township's lawyer, warned that if the Township didn't settle, the amount could have "turn[ed] into $100,000 dollars or more."

While the wisdom of the Township's decision to settle for $75,000 is debatable, Mayor Byrd's and the Committee's need to get in the insurance carrier's good graces and lower the Township's $100,000 deductible to $20,000 is a no-brainer.

I wrote to the Township about this issue on August 31, 2015.  The last time I checked with the Township's insurer on January 5, 2016,  I learned that Paul Forlenza, the Trico JIF's Deputy Executive Director, "has had several telephone conversations with Fairfield’s Solicitor, John Carr, in regards to the necessary steps to bring Fairfield into compliance with the MEL’s Program."  But, as of June 7, 2016, Fairfield still is being penalized with the $100,000 deductible and more costly coinsurance requirements.