In a shocking move its backers said was rooted in the budget and its opponents said reeked of politics, the Madison Borough Council on Monday night voted 4-2 to fire longtime Borough Administrator Ray Codey and consolidate his job responsibilities with Assistant Borough Administrator Jim Burnet.
The motion to remove Codey was made by Republican Council President Jeannie Tsukamoto and came near the end of the governing body’s budget work session at .
Republican Dr. Vincent Esposito and Carmela Vitale, the lone Democrat on the six-member Council, voted against the motion.
Codey, a borough resident and administrator since 2007, is the cousin of Democratic state senator and former New Jersey Gov. Dick Codey. The veteran Essex County legislator won a convincing victory this past November to represent the newly-configured 21st District, which includes portions of Morris County, including Madison.
After several hours of budget discussion that included, among other items, the addition of another police officer for $46,000 for the remainder of the year, and an additional $23,000 for Public Works salaries, Tsukamoto introduced her motion to remove Codey by saying the combined jobs would result in substantial savings for residents.
In 2011, Codey was the highest-paid borough employee, earning more than $154,000; Burnet earned $95,000.
Mayor Robert Conley, a Democrat, immediately objected, saying the move to remove Codey was a performance-related matter and had no place in the budget process, and that only he had the authority to appoint or remove Codey — to applause from the stunned audience of borough employees and residents.
But at Tsukamoto’s request, Borough Attorney Joseph Mezzacca confirmed that state statute allows for the removal of a municipal administrator by a two-thirds vote of the governing body.
Tsukamoto two weeks ago called for all municipal department heads to submit job descriptions to determine if the borough “was getting the most bang for its buck.”
Prior to Monday night’s vote, Vitale argued that removing Codey “was not in the best interests of the town.”
But Republican Bob Landrigan insisted that it was a personnel issue.
“Strictly looking at job descriptions, the borough administrator’s duties are covered by the assistant borough administrator, and then some.”
“It is far more than a budgeting move, and you won't convince me otherwise,” said an angry Conley, who defeated GOP incumbent Mary-Anna Holden in the mayoral race in November. “Rising property taxes are not a Madison problem, it’s a state of New Jersey problem.” He then asked Tsukamoto to withdraw her motion.
Esposito, who was attending his first meeting since being arrested on charges of prescription fraud and conspiracy Feb. 17, said the matter required further discussion. “I don’t agree with this at all,” he said.
Councilman Rob Catalanello argued that the move “greatly affects taxes. The tax burden on residents of this town are going to rise dramatically" if Codey was not removed.
Burnet told the meetings that “this is awkward for me, I was unaware of it, but I appreciate that the Council had faith in me.” He noted that he had worked closely with Codey over the past two years to bring the borough more than $2 million in savings.
A typically gracious Codey told the meeting that he did not know of the plans to replace him.
“This was my five-year anniversary here, but I didn’t expect this,” he said in an emotional voice. “Madison will be well served by Jim Burnet.” He thanked previous GOP mayors, and said it had been an honor to work for the governing body. He also thanked the town’s department heads in the audience and pledged an orderly transition period.
After the vote, Conley immediately re-appointed Codey as administrator, which was defeated by an identical 4-2 vote. The Council then confirmed Burnet as administrator, 4-2.
According to the statute, Codey is due three months’ salary, about $38,500.
In public comments, residents vented over what they said was shabby treatment of Codey.
“To save us $100,000, you vote to kick him out?” Tom Haralampoudis asked. “I am embarrassed. Don’t treat us like we don’t know what’s going on. That’s not the way to make decisions.”
“The way the meeting was handled was most inappropriate,” Tim Harrington said. “When the team is winning the coach doesn’t get fired. This was not the right way.”