A group of Saddle Brook residents pushing for a public vote on health benefit entitlements for elected township officials have retained an attorney and will take the issue to court, according to a statement released Friday by one of the group's leaders.
Last week, township council .
The council-added amendments, however, specify that the law applies only to officials hired or elected after Jan. 1, 2011, meaning that neither the mayor nor any of the current council members would be required to give up their benefits.
Councilman Andrew Cimiluca said last week that council president Anthony Halko and Mayor Karen Chamberlain are the only elected officials who do not currently take health benefits from the town.
Resident group members who had gathered the requisite number of signatures to have the original ordinances placed on the November ballot expressed outrage at what they felt the council had done to intentionally hijack their cause.
"The governing body of Saddle Brook has not followed the will of the voters," said Omar Rodriguez, the group's spokesman and a council candidate. In a statement released Friday, Rodriguez said the council's vote would end up "costing the residents, taxpayers and working families of Saddle Brook hundreds of thousands of dollars per each of their terms."
The group has retained the legal counsel of Union City attorney Wilfredo Ortiz and will appeal in Superior Court the residents' rights to vote on the benefits issue.
"It will be a very strong message to the governing body and mayor that we are vigilant of their actions and when we get together as people of the community, we have a voice," Rodriguez said Friday.
When Rodriguez questioned the legality of the council's amendments at last week's meeting, the township's special labor counsel, Raymond Wiss, said that because the resident-proposed ordinances did not specify an effective date after which health benefits would be eliminated, they invited litigation.
"There are individuals who have already met the length of service requirements for being eligible for [lifetime] benefits and who are receiving those benefits," Wiss said. "So right now we have a class of individuals who may well be deemed vested, in that they are receiving those benefits, who would be divested unless there was an effective date in the ordinance."
Wiss concluded that the council's amendments were both appropriate and permissible because they proved consistent with the historic practice of the township -- which has offered benefits to elected and appointed officials for decades -- and removed the possibility that any contractual or vested rights litigation might be provoked.
"I think we’ve got a balance between the sentiment expressed in the petition and the protection of legal rights," he said.
Rodriguez and his fellow petitioners argue that the sentiment expressed in the council's amendments differ substantially from the original resident-proposed ordinances, putting them in violation of state law.
According to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-191, a council has 20 days after residents submit a certified petition to either pass the proposed ordinance in substantially the form requested or put it on the ballot for voters to decide.
"By trying to grandfather in the local elected officials, this, I believe, is a substantial change," said Rodriguez, whose group's court order states that, "the scheme of the Township Council members was to preclude their own benefits from being the subject of the ordinances proposed by intitiative, which is exactly what the voters of the Township had wanted all along."
In addition to arguing that the council's amendments constituted a "substantial change" to the requested ordinance, the group's order also states that the amended versions of the ordinances should have been published in a paper of record prior to the meeting and should not have been combined into a single ordinance because they represent two distinct issues.
Rodriguez said he expects to have a court date scheduled within the next few days.
"At the end of the day, we, the little people, will prevail in court and a superior court judge will side with us based on the merits," he said. "We are not trying to take the benefits away from [the mayor and council]. What we are trying to push is to allow the voters to make the decision on Nov. 6."