Garwood Clerk and Borough Administrator Christina Ariemma has filed a lawsuit against the borough and its officials, alleging harassment, intimidation and illegal salary cuts.
The suit, filed with NJ Superior Court on Jan. 31, specifically targets Councilman Jim Mathieu. The suit states Mathieu led an effort to "get rid of" Ariemma, and “prompted” and “promoted” borough salary changes that would affect her. (Read the full PDF of the suit in our gallery, right.)
Mathieu, who was reached by phone Wednesday evening, says he received the suit on Tuesday and a majority of the allegations against him are untrue.
"We believe certain actions the councilman has taken violate the law," Ariemma's attorney, Daniel Antonelli told Patch. "There's a state statute that protects salaries for statutory employees including the clerk, tax collector, tax assessor and Chief Financial Officer.”
That statute, N.J.S.A. 40a:9-165, states that "no such ordinance shall reduce the salary of, or deny without good cause an increase in salary given to all other municipal officers and employees to, any tax assessor, chief financial officer, tax collector or municipal clerk during the term for which he or she shall have been appointed."
“By repealing certain ordinances, they have violated the very same statute that prohibits reduction,” Antonelli continued, referring to the “Best of the Best” ordinance and longevity pay.
"Best of the Best" was an ordinance that existed since 1978 guaranteeing non-union municipal employees, like Ariemma and other front-office borough employees, the same benefits and raises as that of police officers and employees of the Department of Public Works. In April, however, that ordinance was repealed as part of a larger effort to save costs and revise employee policies. Antonelli says certain protected employees like Ariemma (plus the borough tax assessor, tax collector and CFO) are entitled to those raises and it’s illegal for the borough to eliminate them.
Similarly, longevity pay – – gave non-union municipal employees automatic raises after five years of service. Ariemma was receiving 6 percent of her base salary in longevity pay, having served as borough clerk since 1999.
Ariemma's current salary of $78,393 has remained the same since 2010, according to the suit.
“Basically, we are seeking a declaration that the borough has violated the law by failing to give her the proper salary increase,” Antonelli said.
The suit contains nine counts against the borough and its officials.
- The first three counts deal with the borough’s repeal of "Best of the Best" and allege that Ariemma is entitled to the same raises that were given to the police department in 2011 (3.9 percent) and the Department of Public Works in 2012 (3.75 percent).
- Count 4 states that Ariemma’s salary was reduced by council’s repeal of longevity pay, because although the longevity pay she currently receives will be folded into her salary, she will no longer be entitled to the raises she would have received at 20 years of service (7 percent) and 23 years of service (8 percent).
- Counts 5 and 6 say Ariemma is owed a salary increase to offset legislation Governor Christie signed in March 2010 and June 2011 increasing employee contributions to their pension and health benefits.
- Count 7 alleges violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act and that Ariemma’s actions as a “whistleblower” resulted in further harassment and intimidation.
- Count 8 alleges violation of the New Jersey Equal Pay Act and compares Ariemma’s raises and benefits to former police chief William Legg. The suit alleges that Legg received the 3.9 percent police department increase in 2011 and was not required to contribute 1.5 percent of his salary toward his heath insurance. The suit states that Ariemma should have had the same raise and also not be required to contribute the 1.5 percent to her benefits.
- The final count claims sex discrimination because of the differences in Legg and Ariemma’s raises and health insurance contributions.
"[Mathieu] is the named defendant for purposes of all the counts, but obviously he didn’t adopt them himself," said Antonelli. "That’s where you get into mayor and council."
The allegations against Mathieu extend further than the salary cuts, and he is being sued "in his official capacity as a councilman...and in his individual capacity," according to the suit.
The suit alleges that Mathieu made campaign promises to get rid of Ariemma and to not increase taxes that he realized he could not keep after he was elected.
The suit states that "upon realizing this and his promise to get rid of Plaintiff Ariemma, Councilman Mathieu started a new campaign of harassing and intimidating Plaintiff Ariemma and other higher salaried employees in an effort to get them to resign."
The beginning of trouble between Ariemma and Mathieu appears to have begun during the 2011 budget process, which Councilman Mathieu led as chair of the borough’s finance committee. The suit alleges that at a budget committee meeting on Feb. 17, 2011, Mathieu became "angry, accusatory, excessively authoritative" and removed Ariemma from the meeting (thereby preventing her from performing her duties as clerk) after Ariemma notified him that he could not underfund the budget.
Because Ariemma complained about the incident to the borough attorney, mayor and other members of the finance committee, the suit alleges that Mathieu came to Ariemma's office on March 4, 2011 yelling, screaming, threatening and harassing her.
In the suit, Ariemma alleges that Mathieu told her “there is a s*** storm coming and you’re going down in it” and that when she said she was afraid to go to the supermarket in her own town because of him, he replied with “Good, you’d better be afraid.” It lists further allegations of their argument including that Mathieu called Ariemma a “rat” for making complaints to the mayor and that he claimed he would be “posting everything she does on the forum at nj.com.” The suit also alleges that Mathieu pointed in Ariemma’s face and told her “I’m a lawyer from Brooklyn and I’m smarter than you.”
The suit continues, mentioning two incidents where Mathieu allegedly brought Ariemma's garbage cans from her curb to the back of her residence. (The two live doors down from one another on Hazel Avenue.) The suit claims that after the first incident, the mayor and borough attorney met with Mathieu and told him not to remove Ariemma's garbage cans and to stop intimidating and harassing her, and yet Mathieu again moved the cans in May. The suit continues with allegations that Mathieu also sought to reduce Ariemma’s pay for serving as Shade Tree officer and that he challenged her handling of an Open Public Records request.
"She can have whatever opinions she wants about me or my agenda but the majority of the things she said about me are just not true," Mathieu told Patch. "I can’t comment on any pending litigation other than to say I disagree with the allegations against me."
Mathieu added that his promoting of budget cuts is a necessary part of the process of staying under the governor's two-percent tax cap. "This is the price you pay for furthering the agenda of the Christie administration," he said.
Garwood Mayor Patricia Quattrocchi and other councilmembers were also tight-lipped about the suit. "I'm not going to comment," said the mayor. "I haven’t had an opportunity to speak to the attorney as he’s away, and so it's best that I not say anything now."
"Any lawsuit that we have to face is disappointing," said Councilwoman Sara Todisco in a phone interview on Wednesday. "This is something that just hit, so I don’t want to get into specifics at this time."
Mathieu and the governing body will have 35 days to file an answer to the suit. Borough attorney Joseph Triarsi was away from his office and not available to comment on the matter at this time.