Council president William McKoy called for a no confidence vote on indicted mayor Jose “Joey” Torres on Thursday evening.
McKoy instructed corporation counsel Domenick Stampone to bring forth a resolution for next week’s workshop session for a no confidence vote on the mayor.
“We have to ensure our government represents accountability, honesty, and integrity on the highest level,” said McKoy. “We do not make any statements in regards to innocence or guilt that is not our function. As a body, we cannot avoid addressing this matter.”
Torres declined to comment on the possible no confidence vote against him on Friday morning.
Torres and three public works supervisors were charged with official misconduct, theft, and falsifying records in a six-count indictment unsealed by New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino last week.
Torres is accused of using Department of Public Works (DPW) workers to renovate a warehouse leased by his daughter Clarissa Torres and nephew Manuel Torres at taxpayers’ expense. The three indicted supervisors allegedly supervised other workers doing work at the East 15th Street warehouse.
The three supervisors billed the city overtime for hours spent working at the warehouse, according to authorities.
The three employees — Joseph Mania, 51, of Randolph; Imad Mowaswes, 52, of Clifton; Timothy Hanlon, 30, of Woodland Park – have been suspended without pay effective Monday pending the outcome of the charges.
Some council members thought it unfair to suspend the workers without pay while the mayor continues to collect his $119,000 salary.
McKoy said the council has no authority to suspend or to remove the mayor.
“I have a problem. When I’m with a group of guys and we commit a problem at work we all get punished or dismissed from work. In this case, we said we can’t mandate the mayor to step down, but the three employees get reprimanded and suspended without pay,” said Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman.
Velez suggested allowing the workers continue to report to work and earn their pay. “If the mayor is getting his salary, why not those three employees?” he asked.
Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman, also wondered why the three indicted workers are not being granted the same privilege as the mayor to remain active employees of the city.
Stampone told Velez elected officials are not subjected to the same New Jersey Civil Service Commission rules.
“We have absolutely no authority to act against any elected official,” said Stampone. He said the employees are not allowed to work for the city while charges are pending under civil service rules.
Jackson asked whether suspending the three supervisors will create future legal liabilities for the city if they are exonerated. “If in fact these allegations are accurate, these employees were following the instruction of the highest seat holder in the city,” he said.
“I do not think we are exposed because we are following the guidelines,” said Stampone. He said the exposure is limited to backpay for the workers.
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, suggested if the mayor was in the same class as the three supervisors he would be suspended. “If the mayor had a different role other than being an elected official those guidelines would apply to him. Because he’s an elected official those guidelines do not apply to him,” he said.
The call for the no confidence was warmly received by a small group of residents in the council chambers.
“How are we going to trust someone who turned himself in for a theft crime?” asked Haytham Younes, a former at-large council candidate. “How are we going to trust him?” He at one point accused business administrator Nellie Pou of being involved in the scandal for signing off on overtime approvals.
The business administrator has to sign off on overtime paperwork for all city employees, she explained. She called his allegation “inappropriate.” She explained her job in the long chain of approvals is to ensure proper procedures are followed.
Younes appeared to assign blame where none can be assigned. The business administrator is too far removed from the daily operations of a given department, according to officials.
Public works director Manuel Ojeda signed off on at least two of the allegedly fraudulent overtime authorization forms submitted by Mania and Hanlon. It’s not clear whether he knew the forms were fraudulent.
Ojeda, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, has not responded to numerous calls seeking an explanation for his signatures on the overtime authorization forms.
“We have to get to the root of how overtime was abused,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman. He said he wants a committee of the whole to investigate and recommend fixes to avoid similar occurrences in the future.
“This city will suffer until this thing is over,” said city activist Ernest Rucker. “The stain, the shadow, and the cloud that hangs over the city right now is devastating. No one will come into this city to do business; they don’t want to attach themselves to a controversy.”
Rucker wants the council to go a step further. He suggested the council pass an unanimous resolution to urge the mayor to step down for the good of the city. He hearkened back to 15 years ago when his longtime friend mayor Martin Barnes was indicted on corruption charges. He and a close group of the then-mayor’s friends urged Barnes to resign for the good of the city.
Rucker said he worked in Barnes’ election campaign. He said the close circle privately advised Barnes to step down. Barnes was defiant. He did not resign. He was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence.
Torres similarly has been defiant; he has indicated he has no plans on resigning.
Rucker pushed for a no confidence vote against Torres last year, but the council decided against it. Council members cited the investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office to put off the measure.
“For the sake of this city he should do the right thing and resign,” said Rucker.