Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ new finance director appointment came under intense scrutiny from the city council on Wednesday evening.
Council members questioned Fabiana Mello’s qualifications while expressing doubts about her readiness to handle the finances of a chronically distressed municipality with just one-year of public sector experience.
“This particular position is probably one of the most critical positions for the city of Paterson given the financial challenges that we currently face and we’re looking to face in the future,” said Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. “I would have liked to have seen someone with a little more experience within municipal government who dealt with some of the fiscal challenges that urban communities face.”
Mello, who worked as assistant treasurer for the city during the past year, spent half-decade working in various private sector accountancies after obtaining an accounting degree from Montclair State University.
Torres appointed Mello as acting finance director on July 1st, 2016. She has to be confirmed by the city council.
Morris said the city faces an overburden tax base and potential cut in state financial assistance both of which require an experienced finance director to sort out.
“You don’t put someone into that shark infested water who is just learning how to swim,” said Morris.
“I don’t believe that’s who you have in front of you,” responded business administrator Nellie Pou.
“That’s exactly what I have in front of me,” said Morris pointing to Mello’s resume.
Mello is a certified public accountant (CPA) and has certified financial forensics (CFF) credential. She does not have a certified municipal finance officer (CMFO) credential which she intends to obtain in December.
Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, asked whether other candidates had CMFO credential. Pou responded in the affirmative.
Pou said state law allows a finance director to obtain CMFO credential within a year of appointment.
The business administrator said Mello has worked closely with Ten Hoeve over the past year. She expressed confidence in Mello to manage city finances.
“This is the third largest city in the state. We have some fiscal challenges. We have some particular level of expertise that’s needed in that position. I’m not hearing how it is that your prior experience positions or equips you to deal with the heavy lifting associated with running the show for our city,” said council president William McKoy after Mello provided a catalog of her experiences working at the city during the past year.
Mello said she conducted audits, assisted in preparing the city budget, periodically reviewed financial statements, prepared financial reports, and reconciled bank accounts. She also said she has been successful in transforming the city’s treasury department for the better by monitoring cash flow on a weekly basis and effecting other changes.
McKoy said the two previous finance directors Anthony Zambrano and Ten Hoeve had decades of experience when the city brought them on.
The council president asked the business administrator the process that was used to settle on Mello. She said 3 resumes were received after the job was advertised. Candidates were interviewed by Ten Hoeve, Pou, and the city’s fiscal monitor from the state, said the business administrator.
McKoy asked whether a document was generated after each interview.
Pou responded in the negative.
“That’s very troubling and very perplexing,” said McKoy. It’s common practice to keep documents that contain the interview questions, individuals present at the meeting, and other particular information, he said.
Maritza Davila, councilwoman at-large, agreed with McKoy. She cited examples from Passaic County Community College.
Davila said she has been on numerous search committees that interview candidates and produce rating sheets.
“That’s just to make sure it’s a clear process,” said Davila.
“We’ve never done that here,” said Pou. She said the three-person team evaluated candidates based on education, experience, and response to scenarios.
Council members suggested the city start generating a report each time an interview is conducted.
Mello began working for the city in June 2015. She was elevated to the finance director post by Torres this month at a $120,000 salary.
The salary of the previous finance director, Ten Hoeve, was $140,000.