ORANGE, NJ — Superior Court Judge Christine Farrington ruled Thursday, Feb. 18, that former Orange Deputy Business Administrator Willis Edwards must repay the city of Orange Township the $268,750 he earned while working illegally as a city employee with that job title.
Farrington’s ruling should bring an end to the legal saga of the Orange City Council vs. Mayor Dwayne Warren and Willis Edwards regarding the mayor’s appointment of Edwards as deputy business administrator. A council majority had voted not to approve Edwards as the permanent full-time business administrator at the end of his 90-day appointment as acting business administrator in 2012, a decision the mayor flouted by appointing Edwards anyway. The case has taken many unexpected twists and turns since it began in 2013, when the council took Warren and Edwards to court.
“At issue is not a contract but an appointment, subject to the advice and consent of the City Council,” said Farrington in her 29-page ruling on the case. “It is important to consider the purposes of the requirement of advice and consent, which is to limit the mayor’s unilateral appointment power and constitute a structural safeguard based upon the separation of powers.
“The court finds the violations were intentional on the part of both Mayor Warren and Edwards. For reasons known to plaintiff, counsel advises the council is not seeking remuneration for salary paid to defendant under the title of chief of staff. Accordingly, the court will not order the same. All remuneration received by defendant for the position of deputy or assistant business administrator must be repaid to the city of Orange Township within 90 days of the date of this opinion.”
The council’s attorney, Robert Tarver, said Tuesday, Feb. 23, “It’s a 28-page decision, but it’s very scathing about the mayor’s behavior. The court has spoken and the council has been vindicated in its position that both Edwards and the mayor were illegal.”
Tarver said Farrington’s ruling is proof Warren and Edwards “cost the city unnecessary money when they knew what they were doing was illegal.” Attempts to obtain comments from the mayor and Edwards regarding the ruling were unsuccessful as the Record-Transcript went to press this week.
Current council members did comment on the conclusion of the case, which began years before most of them were elected to public office.
“The residents of Orange should hold Mayor Warren accountable,” said West Ward Councilman Harold J. Johnson Jr. on Tuesday, Feb. 23. “We could have ended this ordeal back in 2012.”
Farrington seemed to agree with Johnson in her written opinion about the case. She said the delaying tactics Warren and Edwards used in support of an obviously illegal action to allow the latter to continue working as the city’s de facto business administrator after the council majority voted against it was a travesty of state and local law.
“The real difficulty of this case is not the law, but the time which has elapsed between the order to show cause and verified complaint and this ruling,” said Farrington in her ruling. “The court is presented with circumstances which have continued in excess of two years together, with uncontroverted evidence that the city persists in engaging in unlawful practices, appointment to the non-existent chief of staff position as example which resulted in the instant litigation. The court finds defendant knew or should have known that his appointment to the position of deputy business administrator was ultra vires.”
“Ultra vires” is a Latin phrase that refers to actions that are “beyond powers” or legal authority.
Farrington said the parties involved in the case, including Warren and Edwards, “have been on notice since Judge Teare’s April 18, 2013, order that, as to the deputy business administrator position, there was a ‘clear violation of city code.’“ She said established state and municipal law clearly shows, “The position of deputy business administrator could lawfully exist within the city of Orange Township with the condition precedent of a properly elected director of administration.”
“The mayor has absolutely no authority to appoint a deputy business administrator, with or without a director,” said Farrington. “The power of appointment of the deputy is reserved to the director. However, there is more and that includes the willful, unlawful acts of Mayor Warren and defendant Edwards. The court finds they acted with knowledge and at their peril to circumvent the authority of the council. The court finds that the services rendered by Edwards in conjunction with both the deputy administrator and chief of staff positions were not rendered in good faith. They were rendered in clear contravention of state and local law and the order of the court.”
Farrington also singled out Edwards for his illegal behavior in accepting an appointed position as deputy business administrator when he and Warren knew there was no viable legal basis for it. She also said his performance on the witness stand during the case hearings was not convincing.
“He was not a credible witness. He was argumentative, combative and evasive. He testified he either did not read, or thought the statute, code and Judge Teare’s order were subject to interpretation based upon his discussions with the city attorney and his own counsel. He denied ever speaking to Mayor Warren, who is an attorney, about the lawfulness of his appointment at any time. … Judge Teare’s decision at which (Edwards) and his prior attorney were present clearly sets forth her reasoning and analysis of the law, which resulted in the order prohibiting him from acting as business administrator.
Farrington clarified that Judge Teare’s order, “which did not direct Edwards’ immediate removal, was not an endorsement of the occupancy of that position by Edwards; rather, it was an effort to afford Mayor Warren the opportunity to appoint another director. That Mayor Warren did not do so in contravention of Judge Teare’s order does not change Edwards’ status.”