Court voids Vernon bonuses but doesn't require payback

Court rules that board didn't properly pass payouts, but no punishment handed out


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VERNON — A State Superior Court judge has ruled that Vernon Township acted improperly when Mayor Victor Marotta awarded more than $130,000 in raises to town employees in 2012 and 2013.

The order does not specify if or how the money should be returned to the town.

Judge Thomas Weisenbeck ruled this month that the council did not pass an ordinance or formal resolutions, as required by state law, when the mayor approved the bonuses and the council gave the Mayor the authority to do so.

Weisenbeck ruled that the raises are void but stated that a separate claim needed to be made to recover the money from the council, which did not occur in time.

Sally Rinker, former Vernon mayor who lost an election to Marotta in 2011, and Lynn Van Gorder, filed a lawsuit seeking to have Marotta and the council pay back the town the amount in raises they gave out.

Weisenbeck said a notice of claim had to be filed within 90 days of the action if they wanted to seek such a remedy.

Rinker said that means that no money will have to be returned.

"How do the taxpayers get compensated now?" she asked.

Asked if any bonuses will need to be returned to the town, Marotta replied "no" by telephone on Monday. Marotta said he had "no comment" on the lawsuit.

In his decision, Weisenbeck concluded "plaintiffs' notion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part, and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part."

Rinker said she didn't want to make the town employees return the money. Rinker said she didn't blame the employees for taking the bonuses. Rinker said she earned a $4,000 stipend when she was mayor.

The town had defended itself in court by stating that the bonuses were not salaries or wages and thus did not require a public vote. The Township Council also defended itself from the lawsuit by arguing the mayor had authority to dole out the bonuses on his own. Weisenbeck said the township acted improperly and that an ordinance and resolution needed to be approved by the board before the bonuses could take effect.

However, Rinker and Van Gorder alleged that Marotta did in fact dole out retroactive raises in September 2013 for the township clerk, assessor, tax collector, chief financial officer and business administrator dating back to 2010. Weisenbeck agreed that only the council could have approved such raises based on New Jersey statute.

In 2013, 19 employees received bonuses totalling $43,000 which were approve by Marotta but not voted on by the board. The council defended itself in court by stating there was money set aside for raises in its budget.

In 2012, the mayor awarded $66,000 in bonuses to 20 town employees without a vote by the council.

Weisenbeck ruled that all the bonuses and raises were void but never explicitly states that they need to be returned to the town.

Citizens were successful in pushing for a referendum that froze an increase in pay that Marotta had sought for himself and the council in 2012. That year, the Township Council had voted to raise the pay of Marotta from $30,000 to $50,000 and the council members from $3,000 to $6,000 along with salary increases for other employees. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the raises in a November 2013 vote.

Following that vote, Marotta informed the council through a memorandum that there will no longer be resolutions for paying bills on the town council's agenda. A month later, $66,000 in raises were given to 20 employees, including 15 who had their salary increases rejected in the referendum.

Rinker said Marotta had acted "in defiance of the vote." Rinker said all the bonuses and raises were done privately.

"Nothing was discussed publicly," she said. "He just went ahead and did his thing."

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