By Josh LaBella
The recurring dispute over vacation buy-backs was on the front burner this week, with both the mayor and corporation counsel weighing in defending the practice. Meanwhile, at least one member of the City Council thinks the practice illegal.
Mayor Rossi and Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan each released a statement this week regarding vacation buybacks. And, in their opinion, the issue is a closed case (See page 6). Some, especially 8th District Councilwoman Tracey Morrissey, fervently disagree.
For several years, some members of the City Council, spearheaded by Morrissey, have pushed for Mayor Rossi and former Mayor Ed O’Brien, to pay back the $3,346.70 and $4,685.38 they received, respectively. Both mayors got clearance from Human Resources and Corporation Counsel before doing so.
In a release to the Voice, Mayor Rossi said the debate is politically motivated and that when she took the buybacks she went through all the proper channels to approve it.
“Prior to requesting a vacation buyback, I consulted the commissioner of human resources and the city’s Corporation Counsel and was assured that the practice pertained to the mayor’s position,” said Rossi. “The vacation buyback was not only legal, but had been a common practice with the prior mayor as well.”
Rossi also went on to say that she rarely uses the city car, does not take city health insurance or have a city credit card, and works well over the 35 hours she is mandated to. She said when it came to vacation buybacks she went as far as to get a legal opinion from corporation council.
In his legal opinion, which he wrote to the mayor and City Council Chairman Ron Quagliani, Tiernan wrote he thought the issue was resolved but would make one last attempt to clarify. He referenced a city council resolution defining employee benefits for non-union employees.
“Although the resolution clearly provides for a “vacation” benefit for appointed officials, it is silent concerning vacation pay regarding elected officials,” said Tiernan. “Notwithstanding, it would appear that the Council wanted appointed officials to receive vacation pay benefits pursuant to the 1103 union contract, but not elected officials.”
Tiernan said because the resolution was silent on elected official it was not illegal for the mayor to take the buyback. Now that they have voiced their disapproval for the practice, Tiernan has said he notified Rossi that she cannot receive the vacation benefit as of Dec. 11, 2018.
Tiernan added that it may have been illegal to not pay them the benefits and that attempting to get the money back could prove risky.
“To those who seek to legally recover ‘vacation pay’ from the previous mayor and the current mayor, be advised that any legal recovery would require paying for city lawyers, lawyers for the respective mayors (again pursuant to state law) and indeed the city has no guarantee of success. I would further point out that the failure to pay an employee an “accrued benefit” can lead to double and triple damages,” said Tiernan.
Tracey Morrissey, on the other hand, does not think the issue is close to resolved. She said she wants to see both O’Brien and Rossi pay back the money and that they should not have to go to court for it.
Morrissey cited examples from when Rossi was on the City Council and led the charge for Mayor John Picard to pay back educational reimbursement money he had used to take classes while in office.
“She knows the resolution better than anyone,” said Morrissey. “If it was right, why didn’t John Picard do it? Why didn’t Ed O’Brien do it [until the end of his term]?”
She also said that because Tiernan was appointed by Rossi, his legal opinion might not be trustworthy. She also disagreed with Rossi’s notion that the issue is politically motivated.
“It’s not politically motivated because I’ve been doing this since 2016 when Ed was in office,” said Morrissey. “I’m the one that changed the resolution. I’m the one that’s been fighting it.”
Morrissey said both mayors receive a salary which gives them unlimited vacation and sick time. She also said they are not required to punch in a clock.
“They get paid no matter what,” said Morrissey, “and to turn around and buy additional vacation time is mind boggling.”