Press of Atlantic City archive 2011
Brigantine City Manager Jim Barber will officially retire this weekend after more than seven years on the job — but five months before his contract actually expires and after having signed a severance agreement in which he promises never to sue.
In return, Barber will be paid the equivalent of his salary for those last five months in a lump sum of about $50,000, in addition to the contractual lump sum payouts of about $54,000 in unused vacation days and about $62,000 in unused sick days.
Barber’s retirement comes after a contentious year in which he was criticized for his handling of the sexual harassment investigation into former Police Chief Jim Frugoli — leading to intense, closed-door discussions over exactly when and how he informed council of the matter, as well as a resolution introduced (and withdrawn) by council Democrats in May that would have removed Barber immediately.
In addition, a local group has requested an investigation into whether Barber was out of bounds by approving an agreement with Frugoli without getting approval by mayor and council.
Barber’s severance agreement was approved by council on June 15. Executive session minutes from that meeting show Mayor Philip Guenther said that “Jim (Barber) is leaving five months before his contract is ending and he didn’t want to leave.”
Barber, the minutes state, “reminded council that there have been some successful lawsuits by other city managers.”
City Solicitor Tim Maguire said Wednesday that the language in the agreement, in which Barber “releases, finally and forever … all legal claims in law or equity,” is not uncommon for such documents.
“I’ve seen some agreements with similar language in there,” Maguire said. “I’ve seen some agreements without that language.”
Democratic councilmen Frank Kern and Tony Pullella — who had introduced and seconded, respectively, the May resolution to remove Barber — differed on the severance agreement, with Pullella voting in favor and Kern opposed.
“(Barber) had told us last year, when his contract was renewed, that he felt he would be leaving as early as April and no later than July,” Pullella said Thursday. “But clearly, with the Frugoli incident coming up … it may have put pressure on (Barber). Frank and I tried to put a resolution in front of council to force him to leave, but we did withdraw it after executive session. When Jim approached council and said he’d like to leave and get a severance, Frank and I disagreed on whether or not to give him that five-month severance pay.”
Pullella added that even if their resolution was successful and Barber was removed, Barber would still have had one month to present his case to council and three months severance pay, so the five months’ salary “was only one month more than if we let him go.”
Kern could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The minutes also said that other council members “said they would be happy to have Mr. Barber finish out his contract.”
Barber said that the Frugoli matter “had absolutely nothing to do” with his decision to retire early.
“There was not any particular reason,” Barber said Wednesday. “They have an interest in finding a new city manager, and I just thought it was time.”
Guenther said Wednesday that Barber “had indicated several months ago that he was looking to leave at the end of his contract, and this is a situation where he was given the opportunity to leave a little bit before the end of his contract. It has no bearing on his performance as city manager. I believe he has done an excellent job and had the interest of the people ofBrigantine, residents and visitors, all the time.”
Although Barber officially retires on Sunday, some questions still remain in the matter of his handling of the Frugoli investigation and agreement. In March, when Barber was questioned by council, Barber stated in those executive session minutes as saying that “In this form of government, I hire, I fire and I inform council.”
Anne Phillips of the Brigantine Taxpayers Association, meanwhile, said that the group has asked the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate whether Barber had the authority to sign an agreement with Frugoli without the approval of council.
The city is organized under the Council-Manager system under the Faulkner Act, in which the manager has hiring and firing powers — but whether a manager can unilaterally approve a settlement agreement such as Frugoli’s is unclear.
“Generally speaking, agreements need to be approved by the governing body,” wrote Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, in an email. “Also, the City Solicitor would have to rule on the particular set of facts and circumstances. It is possible these circumstances could justify a manager’s action, but without knowing all the details of this particular matter, we cannot comment with any specificity.”
City officials are operating under a confidentiality clause in that agreement, but in the March executive session minutes, Barber said he fully informed council one week after the agreement was signed.
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor’s Office said that “It is the policy of this Office not to comment on the existence or not of an investigation unless there is conclusive evidence of criminality or charges have been filed.”
As to the next manager, Brigantine has hired a firm to direct its selection process, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.