The Ridgewood News

By Kelly Ebbels

Against strong opposition from Councilman Paul Aronsohn and some residents, the Village Council agreed in a 4-1 vote to increase Village Manager Ken Gabbert’s salary to $185,000.

Ken Gabbert

Gabbert was hired in November 2009 at a salary of $165,000, and one year later his salary was raised to $173,000 following closed meetings. The new raise reflects a 12 percent increase over 14 months, as it will apply retroactively to Jan. 1 of this year.

Aronsohn called the raise “surreal.” The heated meeting pitted his protests, and then residents’ disapproval of the decision based on what they saw as fiscal irresponsibility during difficult times, against the support of other members, who argued that the manager had earned a raise by beginning to reel in the village’s finances over his short tenure.

Several residents came to the microphone to protest the decision following the vote.

Richie Herink suggested that the village undertake a recall election to get council members “the hell out of there.”

“I think by approving this increase, you people on the board are certainly not doing your job,” Herink said. “You’re giving the town’s money away, which is not warranted at this time in this economic environment.”

At the outset, Aronsohn argued to pull the resolution from the meeting’s agenda, since it was added on short notice and, in his view, warranted a more thorough public discussion.

Other council members expressed justification for taking responsibility for salary decisions. Councilwoman Bernadette Walsh said the council is charged with the power to decide salary increases for the manager, “so I don’t know that the public, with their input, would need to be waited for at this point.”

Councilman Stephen Wellinghorst said he viewed the council as a “board of directors” of the village and that “the people of the town have recourse at the ballot box, which you can exercise every few years.” He said Gabbert’s salary had been discussed “ad nauseum” in closed sessions over recent months and was a “sound, reasonable conclusion.”

Walsh said she was impressed by Gabbert’s competency in reigning in the village’s finances, and further argued that village employees should have an incentive to work toward a managerial position.

“The lifeblood of our town comes from employees working here and then striving to be management in the village,” she said. “It is important for us, and for the village manager, not to create a disincentive of unionized labor to accept advancement opportunities into management that’s not unionized.”

Wellinghorst said that Gabbert’s approach fit with his own principles of fiscal conservatism.

“After being here six months, I’ve seen what Dr. Gabbert has done both in terms of how he does it and in terms of the numbers, and I’ve seen this village move in a better fiscal direction than how it’s been going for quite some time,” he said.

Mayor Keith Killion said that, while in principle he was “in favor of zero percent raises for everyone,” recently negotiated union contracts still afforded village employees various fixed percentage raises – a point which, he pointed out, was opposed by no council member.

“I’m just confused that no council person here ever argued that these are tough times, for the union,” Killion said. “Why doesn’t the union take a zero percent raise?”

Killion also supported Gabbert’s raise, he said, because he “inherited a lot of financial difficulties.” When former Village James Ten Hoeve retired, he left the village with a salary of $191,260 plus bonuses.

Aronsohn was vocal in his opposition, saying that, despite good work, a 12 percent raise over 14 months was “surreal.”

“[Gabbert] has done very well on many things, but that’s his job…. and we’re all expected to work hard,” Aronsohn said. “People throughout our community in Ridgewood are working longer hours and not seeing a salary increase, or they’re underemployed or they’re unemployed.”

Following the meeting, when asked whether receiving the raise was out-of-touch with other citizens who may be underemployed, Gabbert replied, “Residents are always out of work. Residents’ families are always having a difficult time.”

Other residents spoke in support of Aronsohn’s stance. Roger Wiegand argued against some council members’ decision not to consider residents’ thoughts on the raise.

“You’re not thinking of the taxpayer,” he said. “I think we really made a big mistake. I’m sorry to hear you do this tonight.”

Jim Bombace, former chief of the fire department, argued that an exceptional manager might be deserving of such a raise, but, in his opinion, “Dr. Gabbert is not an exceptional manager.”

He noted that village taxes increased by 7 percent this year and said that, by his observations, Gabbert has taken longer to make decisions and also “ignores some things” in the village.

Gabbert later said that actions sometimes take longer because he follows a step-by-step method for making decisions. He argued for a salary commensurate with his responsibilities – handling a $52 million budget and more than 300 employees – and his track record, which included guiding the village through lawsuits and union negotiations, as well as taking “aggressive action – in my case, reducing staffing, major structural changes to departments, and making changes long term for the better.”

E-mail: Ebbels@northjersey.com