Cape May City has had its share of embarrassing problems of late. City residents had to watch a former governing body member ride in the Christmas parade as though he had not just recently pleaded guilty to two felonies involving the sexual harassment of women he once dated.
In that case, the wheels of justice did catch up with Councilman Christopher Bezaire, but only after he was afforded a plea agreement that knocked seven charges, including one that would have barred him from office, down to two fourth degree crimes that will carry a very limited period of incarceration when he is sentenced in January.
Now, the city must deal with the fallout from the misuse of Affordable Housing Trust Fund monies by a previous city manager who rewarded himself and six other employees for work that should fall within the duties of their offices. He did so through bonuses awarded over and above their normal salaries. The amount received by six of the seven was $16,314. The seventh individual received a bonus of $2,910. This all comes from a fund that is fed by a housing developer’s tax with the monies intended to help the city meet its constitutional obligations for low- and moderate-income housing.
New Jersey officials at the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) took months to review the situation after the new city administration alerted them to it. They found that the actions constituted a violation of a court-approved spending plan. Then, County Prosecutor Jeffery Sutherland’s office took an additional three months to investigate, concluding that no criminal charges will be forthcoming. The fact that the state said the actions violated a spending plan that had been approved by the Superior Court apparently made no difference in the prosecutor’s decision.
Let’s understand that the former city manager approved the bonus amounts and included himself in the distribution. The city’s chief financial officer (CFO) approved the disbursements as though his only task is to ensure the fund had the available dollars. We are to believe that the CFO has no responsibility to ensure that the disbursements are legitimate and that they had the required approval of the city’s governing body, which they lacked. This from a CFO who served as city manager.
We are also left to accept that no laws were broken when six of the seven individuals were each given a bonus for administrative work related to the city’s affordable housing efforts, where each was awarded the exact same bonus amount regardless of their positions or standard salaries.
A clerical person, a technology assistant, a tax assessor, a purchasing agent, and a CFO, along with the sitting city manager, all did work that merits the exact same dollar amount, payable on the exact same day from the same normally restricted fund. To push credulity even further, the final $2,910 bonus was awarded Dec. 31, hours before the city manager was to leave his position.
The city is left to make the fund whole by either clawing back all the disbursed funds or saddling the taxpayers with the expense of the inappropriate bonus monies it failed to win back.
No one who received a bonus apparently in any position high or low thought the elected officials of the city needed to be informed. The matter was discovered by the new city manager, but not because any individual who received a bonus brought it to the city’s attention.
When do we begin to hold municipal officials to a high ethics standard? When is this type of behavior enough to question an individual’s continued employment? Two individuals, including the previous city manager who rewarded himself as he went out the door, have left city employment. The previous city purchasing agent, who was one of the six to receive a bonus, now works for the county. The other individuals remain employees of the city.
The city has demanded a return of the funds but has otherwise taken no action to-date with respect to their continued employment. One has even been promoted. It may be convenient for the city administration to place all the blame on the previous city manager, but taxpayers must ask if that is where it all belongs.
The DCA says there was a violation of a court-approved plan and then claims no jurisdiction in the matter. Prosecutor Sutherland says no crimes were committed and has felt no need to explain his decision. The Fair Share Housing Center, in a statement, calls the bonuses an “illegal diversion of funds.” The city is left to deal with the smelly mess.
Prior to Bezaire's resignation, each member of the city’s governing body had taken the position that they had done what they could do with respect to Bezaire’s guilty plea. Mayor Zack Mullock, in a statement last week, said the “council took the only action it had available by removing Bezaire from his committee positions.” He went on to say that the citizens have every expectation that their elected officials be “rightfully held to a higher standard.”
Mr. Mayor, that sentiment should hold for appointed officials, as well, especially for those in leadership positions in the city administration. The public has a right to know what actions the city is taking and intends to take with respect to the misappropriated funds.
The current administration is not culpable for the actions that took place before it took office. They do bear the burden of how the matter is resolved.
From the Bible:
There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness. Proverbs 30:12