Twp. Council removes administrator

| 20 Dec 2018 | 01:14

By Charles Kim
WEST MILFORD – Township Administrator Antoinette Battaglia is out following Wednesday night’s somewhat contentious Township Council meeting.
The governing body voted 5-1 to, first craft a resolution in executive session, and then voted 5-1 in public session to remove Battaglia from the position of administrator effective immediately.
“This is a direct political sabotage of our new, incoming mayor (Michele Dale), and her right hand position, Antoinette Battaglia, her administrator,” Township Councilman Michael Hensley, the only dissenting vote, said. “What you’re seeing here is politics, it’s politics of the worst form.”
Battaglia was appointed by former Democratic Mayor Bettina Bieri in 2015 with a four-year contract to serve as both the township clerk and administrator, which was to run through the end of 2019.
She earns about $94,000 as clerk and another $38,000 as administrator, Dale said during the meeting.
Bieri resigned in August, however, and forced a special election for the last year of her unexpired term.
Dale, a Republican, beat out Democrat Chris Garcia and independent Tim Wagner, council president and a Republican, who lost in the primary election.
Republicans Ada Erik and Marilyn Lichtenberg won their race in November and will replace both Hensley, who did not seek re-election, and Wagner on Jan. 2.
Hensley, also a Republican, said that the move was done in an attempt to hurt Dale and perhaps make it easier for other Republicans on the council to challenge her in a primary as she runs again in 2019 for a full term as mayor.
Wednesday night’s decision came after Township Councilman Lou Signorino asked that Battaglia be given a “Rice” notice at the Dec. 5 meeting.
A “Rice” notice lets a public employee know that their position and performance would be discussed by the governing body.
Battaglia had the choice of holding the discussion in a private executive session, or in the public session of the meeting.
She chose to have the discussion in public.
Signorino said that he asked for the notice and discussion because he has felt that the position of administrator should be full time and not be combined with the clerk’s job due to the demands of the 82-square-mile township with a population of 27,000 people.
“It has been my belief for some time now that we need a full time administrator, not a split role,” Signorino said at the beginning of the discussion. “They deserve to have a full time township administrator.”
He said that the roles of administrator and clerk should now be split to make the township “better off.”
Council members Pete McGuinness and Andie Pegel agreed, saying that they each run their own business and it makes sense to have the roles separated from a business perspective.
Hensley, however, said that he has seen several administrators come and go during his six years on the council, and that Battaglia was doing a much better job in the position than they did.
“(Battaglia) could probably take on another position in the township and still do a better job than (our past) full time administrators,” Hensley said.
Mayor Dale said that she has only been in the job for three weeks, but had not heard of any issues with Battaglia’s performance since taking the oath of office in late November, or during the prior campaign.
“No one on the council reached out to me about a problem,” Dale said.
She also said that the township saves around $104,000 a year by having Battaglia in both positions as compared to hiring two different people.
When Battaglia had the opportunity to speak, she alleged that her removal was retribution for not going along with “unethical” and “fraudulent” behaviors by some council members.
She cited occasions where Signorino attempted to get her to intercede with police and the municipal court on behalf of his friends, in one case, to change a court appearance to a Monday despite it not being in session on that day.
She also produced an email exchange with Wagner and others regarding a training session that he was supposed to complete for the town’s insurance program, but showed up late for, and should not have been certified as completed.
Both Wagner and Signorino vehemently denied the allegations.
“I think the council should take a few moments to review the data I have provided, which will substantiate my comments,” she said. “If there is a preordained plan to remove me from office, so be it. Truly, regardless of how the elected officials conduct themselves tonight, I appreciate that the council had me ‘Riced.’ I never imagined that I would be given an opportunity to discuss the challenges I have faced in my attempt to serve West Milford residents with integrity.”
Despite losing the job as administrator, Battaglia will continue on as township clerk, officials said.