Buried in the consent agenda for the Princeton Council meeting last week was a so-called routine item that was not routine at all.
A consent agenda groups together the routine, procedural, informational and self-explanatory non-controversial items typically found in an agenda like resolutions, bills, minutes and claims, in order to save time. The items are voted on as a block. In many towns the list is read aloud before the vote.
Included in the Princeton governing body’s agenda last week was the hiring of a special attorney to conduct personnel investigations.
Local officials clammed up when asked about the hiring of the special lawyer, and the town’s municipal attorney did not respond to an email about the issue.
A memo about the position that was included in the agenda packet says the hiring is a routine matter for the future just in case the town needs a lawyer for a personnel investigation. Yet sources say the lawyer was hired to handle an employee complaint regarding the town’s new administrator.
At a private meeting with Princeton merchants about six weeks ago to discuss a proposal to require employers to offer earned sick leave to employees in Princeton, the town’s recreation director allegedly expressed concerns about how such a policy would affect the department, which employs numerous part-time seasonal workers, said sources familiar with the gathering.
After the meeting, sources claim that Administrator Marc Dashield allegedly grabbed Recreation Director Ben Stentz by the back of the shirt and told him he embarrassed Mayor Liz Lempert by raising questions about the issue. Stentz allegedly filed a grievance, and officials allegedly have hired the special lawyer to handle personnel investigations because of the issue.
Joseph M. Wenzel, a Clifton-based lawyer whose specialty is local government law, including employment issues, was hired for special legal services for personnel investigations as needed during calendar year 2015 at a rate of $150 per hour, not to exceed $7,500 total. The contract, effective July 1, was approved July 27.
“As you know, municipalities from time to time require the services of a neutral third party to assist with the conduct of personnel investigations,” wrote town lawyer Trishka Cecil in a memo to the governing body about the contract. “Because it is difficult to predict when such need will arise, the members of the legal subcommittee and I recommend that Princeton proactively retain special counsel to provide such services on an as-needed basis.”
Cecil has not responded to an email sent by Planet Princeton last Monday, July 27, asking her whether an outside lawyer was being hired because it would be a conflict of interest for her firm to be involved in a personnel matter related to the administrator when her firm deals with the administrator on a regular basis.
The move to hire a special attorney for employment issues is unusual in Princeton. Normally such issued are handled by the governing body and the municipal lawyer.
According to the town’s personnel manual, “every employee, at all times, should be treated fairly, courteously, with respect and in a non-discriminatory manner.” The following are the grievance procedures for employee complaints:
Step One: Any employee with a grievance may verbally communicate or submit a written grievance to the supervisor or department head who will discuss the matter with
the administrator. The supervisor or department head will communicate the decision to the employee within two working days.
Step Two: If the employee is not satisfied with the decision, the employee must submit a written grievance to the administrator detailing the facts and the relief requested. The decision in step one will be deemed final if the employee fails to submit a written grievance within five working days of the step one decision. After consulting with department head, human resources manager, and the employment attorney as appropriate, the administrator will render a written decision to the employee within five working days after receipt of the written grievance.
Step Three: If the employee is not satisfied with the decision, the employee must submit a written grievance to the Personnel Committee of the Mayor and Council detailing the facts and the relief requested. The Mayor shall acknowledge receipt of the complaint, within five working days after the grievance is filed. The Personnel Committee, after review of all related documents to this said grievance and upon discussion with the Administrator, municipal attorney or other staff as necessary, shall have the discretion to uphold the prior decisions or to hold a hearing. If the Personnel Committee decides that the prior decision shall stand, the Mayor or Council will notify the employee within ten working days of their decision. The Personnel Committee’s decision shall be binding.
“If the Personnel Committee determines that the subject matter can better be addressed by the full Mayor and Council then they may remand the matter to them,’ reads the manual.
Mayor and Council may then make a determination to hold a hearing. The hearing will be scheduled within 30 working days. The Mayor and Council at said hearing shall hear evidence presented by the complainant, the person allegedly responsible for the action which is the subject matter of the grievance and by any witnesses called to testify. After hearing all of the evidence and arguments, the Mayor and Council will prepare a written decision within 10 working days of the hearing that will be based solely on the evidence presented at the hearing. The written decision will be made known to all parties and final resolution made note.
Departments heads or management staff may file a grievance with the personnel committee regarding a decision of the administrator affecting their terms and conditions, including disciplinary actions. All grievances from non-union employees must be presented within five working days after the incident in question. Failure to report a grievance within such time shall be deemed as a waiver of the grievance. The personnel committee also has the option of bringing the matter before the full Mayor and Council.