Possible conflict stirs concern; New N.J. councilman is also a firefighter

By Ashley Kindergan
Herald News (Passaic County, N.J.) 
Copyright 2006 North Jersey Media Group Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Four City Council incumbents who lost their bid for re-election have said their goodbyes and vowed to stay active in the community, but uncertainty dogs a newly elected member.

Councilman-elect Antonio Latona, who will be sworn in on July 1, has been in discussions with city officials who say they are concerned that holding positions as a city firefighter and city councilman simultaneously may present a conflict of interest, since Latona would be both a subordinate to and supervisor of City Manager Al Greco.

A state statute would allow Latona to take an unpaid leave of absence for up to six years while serving, Greco said. Latona could also seek a legal ruling from a judge in state Superior Court on whether his dual positions presented a conflict of interest, said David Fox, Latona's attorney.

Latona, a firefighter for six years and an Iraqi war veteran, said Wednesday that he is not planning to take either route, though he said those options remain open. Latona said he thinks he can eliminate a conflict of interest by abstaining on votes affecting the Fire Department.

"I expect that I can serve, and continue to do my job, and abstain where I need to abstain, and address the platform I ran on — the quality of life issues," Latona said in a telephone interview.

Latona has said that he sought advice from the firefighters union, the attorney general and the state and local ethics boards before the election on whether he could serve, and did not hear any reason he could not. There is no state statute barring municipal employees from serving in municipal government, but courts have ruled in Belleville and Union City that under their forms of government, which are different from Clifton's, an elected commissioner could not hold salaried city jobs at the same time. Clifton has a city manager form of government. Council members receive a nominal salary.

The city gave Latona an opinion before the election written by former city attorney Gerald Friend saying that the city felt municipal employees serving in city government represented a conflict of interest, Latona said.

"'I tried to find this out beforehand because it's not fair for anyone. It's not fair for me, and it's not fair for my supporters," Latona said.

Greco said that any potential conflict would not occur until Latona is sworn in. At that time, the incoming council would have to consider whether and what action to take.

Meanwhile, Councilmen Frank Gaccione, Donald Kowal, Stefan Tatarenko and Edward Welsh attended their last meeting Tuesday. Welsh had to leave before the public portion of the meeting because of a family emergency, council members said. Audience members and council colleagues thanked the men for their service and wished them well in the future, and the council members returned the sentiments with thanks and vows to stay active in the community.

"I'm truly content and happy to be part of that change and progress that I think is good for the city of Clifton," Kowal said. "This is not goodbye. I will be here for the city of Clifton."

"We've had some differences, but those are part of the game," Gaccione said.

"We've worked very diligently, and I think we've gotten a lot accomplished in my four short years on the council."

Tatarenko thanked a litany of residents and city employees for their assistance and then gave some advice to the newcomers.

"You've got four tough years ahead of you," Tatarenko said, adding that he and the other three council members would still be active. "We'll come, we'll talk, we'll give advice ... We're in this together because we love Clifton."

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