Christopher Coke, the city’s public works director, has handed in his resignation letter and is stepping down from his post effective Friday.
“Yes, Friday, the 23rd,” said Charles Thomas, the city’s business administrator, when asked to confirm when the director was exiting.
Coke has been in charge of the Department of Public Works since Jeffery Jones, the city’s mayor, stepped into the city hall four years ago. Coke, whose base salary stands at $105,000, said his four-year at the helm of the department was eventful with some challenges here and there.
“Every year I’ve been under budget,” said Coke citing one of his accomplishments. “Maybe this year with the snow I may not, but every previous years I been here I’ve been under budget.”
Indeed, city records show in 2012 and 2013 Coke reduced the department’s budget by more than a million dollar.
“Director Coke has always taken that position, but there’s a lot of a variables that go into budget,” commented Kenneth Morris, chairman of the city council’s finance committee. “I think it’s a fair statement.”
Coke cited his conservative handling of the budget as one of his major accomplishments as director of the department. Coke also mentioned the city having saved some $200,000 after switching electricity provider.
“We increased revenue in the department: we saved money on garbage with recycling, we reduced our electricity cost by going to a third party vendor,” said Coke. The director also mentioned the recent salary increases granted to low-paid department employees through an union contract.
“One of the biggest accomplishment, this is really the mayor’s accomplishment, we were able to increase the minimum salary in the department by $4,000,” said Coke. Earlier in the year, the city increased starting salaries for department employees to $25,000.
With approximately 240 department employees, Coke said he has had to deal with some tough equipment and tough guys. “They’ve never been challenged the way I challenged them,” said Coke. “Many of the guys stepped up to the challenge and we have some really really good guys that work in the department.”
However, not all was sound during the director’s four year reign. In February, the council held a hearing over a snow storm debacle that left the city’s streets covered in thick ice, rendering them impassable to vehicular and pedestrian traffic for days, following a powerful blizzard that swept across the state.
Coke during the hearing passed out a document showing the antiquated equipment at the department with some trucks as old as three decades. The director said he managed with what he was given.
The director was also embroiled in an overtime scandal following Hurricane Irene when he along with other department heads received improper overtime payments. The administration has several times cited that Coke’s incidents follows a precedent set by Manual Ojeda, his predecessor, who received overtime payments during emergencies.
It is unclear whether Coke repaid the $18,450 improper overtime payment he received following the hurricane.
Despite the controversies, Coke said he was happy with what he has got done in the department. When asked, where he intends to move next, the director would not say. “Somewhere else, I’m not going to put that in the paper,” responded Coke.
It is speculated that Coke plans to work in the East Orange Public Works Department. That city has recently advertised a directorship position at its department.
“He hasn’t said officially where he is going,” answered Thomas, when asked if he knew where Coke plans to go next.
With little more than a month to go before a new mayor takes office, it remains unclear who will fill-in for Coke.
The director suggested, Steven Howe, assistant director of the department, as the best person after he leaves. “This Friday should be my last day,” said Coke. “I’m recommending the assistant director Steve Howe.”
Howe currently makes over $84,176, according to city’s payroll data. “I think he’ll be the best to take over the department,” stated Coke.
“I love this city which is why I took this position,” said Coke. “Overall, I enjoyed the time here.”
Jones could not be reached for comments to determine who would fill the vacant position left behind by Coke’s early departure.