Mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration issued a questionable severance check to outgoing controversial personnel director Michele Ralph-Rawls, municipal officials revealed on Tuesday night.
Part of the “substantial” payment includes a retroactive longevity payment, according to council members.
Ralph-Rawls had tried to give herself a six-percent longevity pay increase less than a month after Sayegh hired her. Her request in October 2018 was later scrapped by business administrator Vaughn McKoy after news stories questioned the raise.
Paterson discontinued longevity pay at the behest of the state government years ago. Employees who had been receiving longevity before the discontinuation were grandfathered in.
McKoy’s successor, business administrator Kathleen Long, allowed the latest payment to go through.
Long came under attack from City Council members on Tuesday night.
“This person already got her check with longevity and everything,” said councilman Flavio Rivera.
“How?” asked a visibly disturbed council president Maritza Davila. Council members never approved the payment for Rawls.
“This is a payment that should have come before the council,” said councilman Michael Jackson.
Long claimed the city followed the usual process to cut the check for Rawls. She justified her actions by citing a memorandum written by municipal lawyer Ben-David Seligman. That memo is from 2018, officials said.
“It was legal,” said Long. She said the payment is approximately $12,000. Long did not respond to an email seeking the memo on Wednesday morning.
Rivera pointed out that memo existed when the former business administrator scrapped Rawl’s longevity raise request.
“This payment could have waited,” said Rivera. He said the administration rushed to issue the check to Rawls. Usually, a manual check has to be cleared through the chairman of the finance committee, a process put in place following a scandal involving offline checks, but that didn’t happen in this case.
Rivera, chairman of the finance committee, said he was never asked by Sayegh administration officials to approve the check.
“We demand every director in this city to do the right thing. Why are you guys are doing the wrong thing and doing it backwards?” remarked councilman Luis Velez.
“I do take personal affront to this, to saying aloud that we’re doing something wrong because we are not,” said Long.
Velez said she failed obtain approval from the council before issuing the check.
Rivera said the administration’s move, giving longevity pay to people who served time at government entities elsewhere, will create a bad precedent. He said this could open the door for other employees, who have worked elsewhere, to request longevity pay.
Councilman Al Abdelaziz requested a closed-door meeting to discussion the Rawls severance pay situation.
Rawls spent time in East Orange and Newark. She spent less than two years working in Paterson. She had been out on workers’ compensation leave for months after suffering a fall at City Hall. She resigned earlier in the month.
Sayegh did not respond to a message seeking an explanation for Rawls’ longevity pay. He was on the City Council when the state ended longevity. He publicly criticized his predecessor, mayor Jose “Joey” Torres, after the Paterson Times found the former mayor was receiving longevity pay.
Torres later returned the amount he received in longevity pay. Sayegh, who was grandfathered in for longevity pay, voluntarily gave up the little over $800 he received in longevity every year by stating Paterson was a “cash-strapped city” suffering from financial difficulties.
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