Wednesday, January 14, 2009
BY JOSEPH AX
TEANECK — The Township Council fired Township Manager Helene Fall in a surprise move Tuesday, faulting her leadership style and reluctance to listen to other viewpoints.
The vote to fire Fall came at 11:29 p.m., after a lengthy closed- session discussion.
Fall took part in some of that discussion about her job, but left the building before the vote was taken without commenting.
Mayor Kevie Feit, Deputy Mayor Lizette Parker, Councilwoman Barbara Toffler, Councilman Mohammed Hameeduddin and Councilman Elie Katz voted to fire Fall. Councilman Adam Gussen and Councilwoman Monica Honis voted against the move.
The resolution to fire her stated that the council had “lost confidence” in Fall, who “has been unwilling” to try new ideas.
Municipal Clerk Lissette Aportela will serve as acting manager until the council hires Fall’s replacement.
Fall will be suspended with pay for 30 days until the effective date of her dismissal. After that she will be paid three months’ salary.
The decision comes just weeks after the town was hit with a $4.1 million jury verdict in the latest of a string of harassment lawsuits in recent years. It also comes just two days before the town’s first public meeting on the 2009 budget, which Fall put together.
Mayor Kevie Feit said the decision was a difficult but necessary for the future of the town.
“From my perspective, it’s definitely been something that’s been brewing,” he said. “It goes to the issue of, are we going to keep doing things the same way and expect different results?”
Gussen criticized the majority of the council for letting Fall go just as the budget season begins.
“To take this action leaves us without the person that put together the budget, and that troubles me,” he said.
But Feit said the council could attend to the budget without Fall.
“It’s never the right time,” he said of the decision to fire a manager. “But we can handle it.”
Three weeks ago, John Shouldis, a former police officer, won a $4.1 million judgment in a 2006 lawsuit that alleged he had been harassed after he testified for a fellow officer in her own harassment suit.
That officer was Diane Mancini, who eventually received a $1.1 million settlement in 2004 after years of legal wrangling.
The Shouldis verdict led the town to establish an investigative committee last week with subpoena power to examine potential ongoing discrimination and harassment issues.
The committee, the second in three years tasked with looking into the town’s employment practices, consists of Feit, Parker and Katz.
Other recent cases include a series of lawsuits from firefighter Bill Brennan, who agreed to an $800,000 settlement in 2005, and a racial discrimination lawsuit from former firefighter Harold Harmon, who received a $750,000 settlement in 2007.
Last week, former firefighter Matthew Vogelman claimed to be the victim of a hostile work environment and anti-Semitic remarks as a result of his support for Brennan in a federal lawsuit filed in Newark.
While noting that he is legally barred from discussing the specific reasons for Fall’s firing, Feit said that the lawsuits were part of the discussion.
Fall, the town’s first female manager, was born and raised in Hackensack. She first worked in Teaneck in the 1980s as an assistant to the longtime manager Werner Schmid.
She returned in 1998 after stints in Bernards Township in Somerset County and in Montvale and served as the deputy manager under Gary Saage for two years before taking over the town’s day-to-day operations. The council did not interview other candidates and praised Fall for her professionalism.
“What I’ve been most impressed with is her level of integrity and knowledge that the town will be hard-pressed to replace,” Gussen said Tuesday.
Fall has said that she hoped to finish her career in Teaneck, where she lives with her husband.
In her early years as manager, she clashed repeatedly with the police and fire unions, leading the council in 2006 to appoint an investigative committee to look into accusations of retaliation and harassment.
Fall received support from a number of supervisors and department heads, who defended her job performance. The committee made some recommendations but did not fund all of them.
Fall and Tiernan said they were never told of the specific allegations against them nor given an opportunity to defend themselves.
Tuesday’s resolution was not part of the agenda but was added by special vote at the end of the meeting’s regular agenda.
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