Saturday, August 30, 2014

New Jersey Fire Districts are obscure and in need of more transparency.

There is presently a lawsuit pending in Ocean County Superior Court by a firefighter who claims he was improperly expelled by Silverton Volunteer Fire Department, which is within Toms River Fire District No. 2 in Ocean County.  In his lawsuit, which is on-line here, George Peters alleged that he was expelled by a 31 to 2 vote arrived at by a secret ballot cast at the July 14, 2011 Silverton Volunteer Fire Department meeting.

He claimed that the vote, which resulted from an expulsion motion being made by Ken Taylor, who was then served as a District No. 2 Fire Commissioner as well as a Silverton member, violated the Department's bylaws.  The lawsuit alleges that the motion and vote was in retaliation for Peters having raised the possibility that another firefighter, Gary Tattersall, lied on his membership application by falsely claiming that he was a United States citizen.

For readers who are not familiar, a Fire District is geographical area to which fire suppression services are provided.  The provision of these services is managed by board of five elected Fire Commissioners. Fire Districts have the power to levy a fire tax on  property owners in the district.  Districts use the tax money to provide for fire suppression services.  They may accomplish this by contracting with volunteer fire departments, paying career departments or a through a combination of volunteer and career firefighters.

On the third Saturday every February, there is a public election at which one or more Commissioners are elected and at which a budget is approved or defeated.  The Board of Fire Commissioners is a public body that periodically holds public meetings similarly to a town council.  

In New Jersey, Fire Districts often fly under the radar.  This is because relatively few people are aware that they reside within a fire district and know that they are able to participate in the fire elections.  In many cases, as in Toms River Fire District No. 2, the public polling places are the volunteer fire companies with which the Fire District contracts for fire services.  Accordingly, the members of the fire departments and their families are likely to be keenly aware of the elections while other citizens are not.

While it is admittedly a generalization, the present system often results in firefighters and their families, who attend the polls and Board meetings in a much greater proportion than average citizens, to be the main constituency to which the Board of Commissioners answers.  The relative obscurity of fire districts and their elections results in a cloistered environment where annual budgets in the millions of dollars (e.g. Toms River Fire District No. 2's 2014 budget is $3,256,082.75) are controlled by Commissioners who are elected by only a few hundred votes (e.g. approximately 440 ballots were cast in the Toms River Fire District No. 2's 2014 election.)

The net result is that fire districts are frequently run by people who are beholden to the interests of the fire service rather than to the community at large.  The insular nature of fire districts causes some commissioners and other district leaders to be referred to as "the good old boy network.”  See, e.g. "Lawsuit: Death threats made against secretary for reporting porn at fire district," Star Ledger, February 21, 2013 and "Ex-Franklin Twp. firefighter claims she was dismissed after sexual harassment complaint," Star Ledger, April 8, 2014.

Whether or not Toms River Fire District No. 2's leadership is a "good old boy network" or whether or not Mr. Peters' lawsuit is a manifistation of that type of network, is unclear.  What is clear is that the system needs to be amended so that those in charge of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money are more visible and thus more accountable to the voters and taxpayers.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Medford's denial of reports regarding "harassment" matter

This blog entry follows up on my August 23, 2014 entry (on-line here). In relevant part, that blog entry stated:
Regarding [Incident 2014-00006939 (Harassment)], [Township Clerk Katherine E.] Burger provided me only with the CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch Report).  That report shows only that a telephone call came into a police dispatcher at 1:38 p.m. on Friday, June 20, 2014.  According to my interpretation of the report, police unit 2502 (Police Lieutenant Arthur Waterman) responded to 91 Union St, Medford at 1:38 p.m. and cleared the scene at 1:38 p.m.  The CAD report shows the "nature of the call" as "harassment."  (I have placed a new OPRA request to Mrs. Burger for the police incident reports related to this incident.)
In her response to my request for the harassment case's police incident report, Mrs. Burger sent me a letter of denial, which is on-line here.  She claimed that the police incident reports were exempt from disclosure because of N.J.S.A. 2C:25-33 which makes confidential records created or maintained pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.

Thirteen recent ethics cases against Perth Amboy school board members

I have tracked down the following thirteen ethics matters that are pending or have recently closed against members of the Perth Amboy Board of Education. The New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, as a public service, has provided links to the source documents regarding each of these complaints.

Case No. ECC-13629-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Samuel Lebreault

Case No. ECC-13632-12
Status: Dismissed
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Milady Tejeda

Case No. ECC-13633-12
Status: Dismissed
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Samuel Lebreault

Case No. ECC-13635-12
Status: Dismissed
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Kenneth Puccio

Case No. ECC-13637-12
Status: Dismissed
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Obdulia Gonzalez

Case No. ECC-13638-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Israel Varela

Case No. ECC-13639-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Alvaro J. Cores
Respondents: Kenneth Puccio, Milady Tejada, Israel Varela and Samuel Lebreault

Case No. ECC-13642-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Israel Varela

Case No. ECC-13643-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Alvaro J. Cores
Respondent: Israel Varela

Case No. ECC-13644-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Janine Walker Caffrey
Respondent: Kenneth Puccio

Case No. ECC-13652-12
Status: Active
Complainant: Alvaro J. Cores
Respondents: Kenneth Puccio, Milady Tejada, Israel Varela and Samuel Lebreault

Case No. ECC-00806-14
I was informed that this matter was withdrawn by agreement of all parties in anticipation of settlement or mediation.  I have submitted an addition request for records on this matter and will post them as soon as available.)

Case No. ECC-11709-13
I was informed that this matter was withdrawn by agreement of all parties in anticipation of settlement or mediation.  I have submitted an addition request for records on this matter and will post them as soon as available.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My letter challenging the Manville juvenile curfew ordinance

Update: More documents regarding NJ juvenile curfew ordinances:

1. ACLU's lawsuit against Wanaque.
2. ACLU's brief in support of its lawsuit.
3. ACLU's opposition to Wanaque's Motion to Dismiss (part 1 and part 2)
4. Newspaper article regarding Wanaque's settlement with the ACLU.
5. Bill showing that Egg Harbor Township paid curfew challenger's attorney $10,000 in legal fees.
6. Settlement showing Wanaque paid $55,000 in attorney fees regarding the ACLU challenge.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
August 26, 2014

Councilman Richard Onderko
Borough of Manville
325 North Main St
Manville, NJ  08835

Dear Richard:

I stopped by Borough Hall today and received, via OPRA, three versions of Manville's juvenile curfew ordinance.  The three versions, from 1931, 1953 and 1981, are all on-line here.  I'm concerned that none of the ordinances are constitutional and that if the Borough is enforcing its juvenile curfew proscription, a person against whom enforcement is sought may have a viable lawsuit for a constitutional rights violation.

Using the 1981 version as an example, no person under 18 years of age may be in public between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.  The ordinances exempts minors who are accompanied by their parents or legal guardian, running an emergency errand at the behest of a parent or guardian or going back and forth between home, work, school or a sanctioned event.  Violation of the ordinance subjects both the minor and his parent or guardian to fines and possible incarceration.

On-line here is an April 3, 2012 preliminary decision by the Hon. William C. Todd, III, Presiding Judge of the New Jersey Superior Court, Atlantic County Chancery Division in the case of K.D. and C.D. etc, v. Egg Harbor Township, Docket No. ATL-C-19-12.  At issue in that case was the constitutionality of Egg Harbor Township's juvenile curfew ordinance.

Judge Todd found that he was "bound to follow the decision" in Betancourt v. Town of West New York, 338 N.J.Super. 415 (App. Div. 2001) which requires municipal juvenile curfew ordinances to be "'broad enough to to recognize the right of parents to permit their children to participate in many legitimate activities' including participating in sporting events, going to the movies or simply visiting friends or relatives."  As Judge Todd observed, Egg Harbor Township's ordinance was unconstitutional because
a parent would not appear to have the authority to simply permit his or her child to go to the movies or to visit with friends unaccompanied after 10:00 p.m.
Manville's juvenile curfew ordinances suffer from the same problem as Egg Harbor's and West New York's. And, while a trial level opinion from another county is not binding on a Somerset County court, the Appellate Division's published opinion in Betancourt is binding.  Thus, it appears to me that if a minor who had permission from his or her parent to be in public after 10 p.m. might have a viable claim under the federal and state constitutions if he or she was charged with violating the curfew ordinance by a Borough police officer.

On-line here is an interim order that Judge Todd entered on April 12, 2012.  I invite your attention to the third numbered paragraph in the order where Judge Todd strongly suggests that the plaintiff's attorney is entitled to recover his attorney's fees and costs from Egg Harbor Township.  I point this out because if Manville were to be sued by a person against whom the curfew ordinance was enforced, it is possible, even likely, that Manville taxpayers would have to pay for the attorney fees generated on both sides of the litigation.

In my view, I believe that the wisest course of action would be for the police to immediately suspend enforcement of the ordinances pending a review by the Borough Attorney and a discussion at the Council's September 8, 2014 meeting.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,

John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Preempted Ordinance Project
P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, NJ  08875
Phone 732-873-1251
e-mail: paff@pobox.com

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Some more information on Medford's "workplace investigation."

This blog entry follows up on my August 11, 2014 entry (on-line here) and reflects Medford Township's response to the Open Public Records Act request that is set forth in the August 11, 2014 entry.

EXECUTIVE SESSION MINUTES

Medford gave me more narrowly redacted versions of the Council's June 24, 2014 and July 22, 2014 minutes.  And, it provided redacted minutes from two other executive sessions held on July 1, 2014 and July 15, 2014.  The old version and new versions of the minutes Medford disclosed are on-line here and here.  Unfortunately, the newest version of the redacted minutes do not give any real sense of the nature of the incident under investigation.

One item of interest, however, is that Township Manager Christopher Schultz was not present at the June 24, 2014 and July 22, 2014 meetings and left the July 1, 2014 and July 15, 2014 meetings when this "workplace investigation" was discussed.  This suggests that Mr. Schultz is somehow conflicted from participating or observing this discussion.

Also, the July 15, 2014 minutes reflect that the investigative report was nearly complete and should be "delivered to Mrs. Burger by the end of this week." (i.e. July 18, 2014)  The July 22, 2014 appear to confirm that the report had been completed given that Labor Attorney Robert Merryman gave Council an "overview" of it.

POLICE REPORTS

The records that Township Clerk Katherine E. Burger reflect that the following three police incidents are germane to the "workplace investigation."  Each one is linked to the relevant CAD report and/or incident reports.

06/20/14 - Incident 2014-00006939 (Harassment)
06/23/14 - Incident 2014-00007049 (Special Investigation)
06/25/14 - Incident 2014-00007156 (Suspicious Activity)

1. Regarding Investigation 6939, Mrs. Burger provided me only with the CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch Report).  That report shows only that a telephone call came into a police dispatcher at 1:38 p.m. on Friday, June 20, 2014.  According to my interpretation of the report, police unit 2502 (Police Lieutenant Arthur Waterman) responded to 91 Union St, Medford at 1:38 p.m. and cleared the scene at 1:38 p.m.  The CAD report shows the "nature of the call" as "harassment."  (I have placed a new OPRA request to Mrs. Burger for the police incident reports related to this incident.)

2. Investigation 7049 is a "Special Investigation" conducted by Chief Richard Meder.  Chief Meder's report indicates that the "Township of Medford" was the "victim" of whatever offense was being investigated.  The report cites that his investigation was initiated by a telephone call Mrs. Berger placed to him on Thursday, June 19, 2014.  She apparently then went to the police station to speak with Chief Meder after informing Mr. Merryman and Manager Schultz of her intention.  After providing Chief Meder with some information, Mrs. Berger called him again at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, June 20, 2014 and requested that either the Chief or Lieutenant Waterman come to the Township Building because "additional information was coming to light."  The information was apparently important enough to cause Chief Meder to abandon a trip he had already started to Evesham for a training seminar and return to meet Mrs. Burger.  After meeting with Mrs. Burger, Chief Meder briefed his command staff as well as Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Thaddeus Drummond about that matter. Chief Meder's report further recites that the Township Council, on June 24, 2014, retained a Special Counsel to investigate further.

Interestingly, Chief Meder reports that on Friday, August 8, 2014 he was "summoned to Union Fire Company by Kathy Burger who was continuing her administrative investigation.

3. Investigation 7056 regards Officer William Knecht's Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 4:04 p.m. dispatch to 91 Union Street to investigate a report of "suspicious activity." While Knecht's report identifies a white, male "subject" of the investigation, the identity of this subject is blacked-out.  According to Knecht's report, he began his investigation after Chief Meder told him about information he had received from a Medford employee.

On Friday, June 27, 2014, Knecht received contact from William Tietjen of the New Jersey State Police Missing Persons Unit regarding a person whose name was redacted from the report.  Almost two weeks later, on Wednesday, July 9, 2014, Knecht and Detective Corporal Jason Deroian met with unknown individuals.  After that meeting, Knecht spoke with Tietjen who said that he would "do some background work on [unknown]."  The next day, July 10, 2014, Tietjen reported that his background work revealed nothing but that he would be available on July 16, 2014 and that he would ask the State Police Polygraph Unit to assist.  The unknown suspect, apparently hooked up to a polygraph administered by State Police Detective Marie Sansone, was interviewed at the Medford Police Station at noon on July 16, 2014.

According to Deroian's report, the polygraph interview actually began at 12:54 p.m. in Interview Room #1 at the Criminal Investigation Bureau.  An audio recording was made of the interview, which was attended by the subject, Knecht, Deroian and members of the State Police Missing Persons and Polygraph units.  The interview lasted until 2;15 p.m.  Immediately after the interview, the subject asked for a phone and "attorney's phone number."  Deroian gave the subject 856-694-0306 and turned off the audio recorder while the subject called that number.  The subject then gathered his property and left the station at 2:21 p.m.  According to a Google search, the phone number belongs to the Franklinville location of the Hoffman DiMuzio law firm.

On Monday, August 11, 2014 Deroian, Knecht and Chief Meder met and determined that the case should be closed and labeled as "unfounded."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Clifton City Councilman apprently to resign to take full time Emerson Borough Clerk/Administrator post

In an agreement signed on July 1, 2014, Clifton City Councilman Joseph C. Kolodziej accepted a three year stint as the Borough Clerk and Administrator of the Borough of Emerson.  Under the agreement, which is on-line here, Kolodziej will receive $125,000 from Emerson for a three-year term ending July 14, 2017.  That annual salary will jump to $130,000 once Kolodziej receives his State certification as a Registered Municipal Clerk.

The agreement, however, provides for a $500 per month reduction in Kolodziej's salary until he "resigns as Clifton Council Member."  According to the agreement, "this resignation must take place no later than 6 months after July 7, 2014."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Former teacher's union president allowed back on campus

In an agreement signed in May 2014, the former president of the Mercer County Vocational Education Association agreed to drop his lawsuit against the Mercer County Technical Schools Board of Education in exchange for being allowed to enter upon school board property without first obtaining written permission from the school superintendent. 

In his lawsuit, Robert Murphy of Chesterfield, claimed that in December 2012 the school board informed him that he could not enter onto any school board premises or attend any board-sponsored event unless he first received written permission from Superintendent Kimberly Schneider.  He claims he was told that if he did not comply, "he would be considered trespassing in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3, would be immediately escorted off the premises, and subject to possible criminal charges."  Murphy claimed that the directive violated the board's policy and violated his constitutional right to free speech.  He claimed that the board issued the directive in order to "intimidate Plaintiff as former President of the Mercer County Vocational Education Association" as well as to "intimidate the current members of the Mercer County Vocational Education Association."  The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

The settlement agreement provided that both the school board and Murphy would pay their own legal expenses.  It also confirmed that Murphy is permitted access to school property and events as long as he obeys all the board's rules and provides the board with one business day advance notice of his visit.  As an additional stipulation, Murphy agreed that he was to have "no contact or other interaction with Board employee Lori Perlow when he is present on the properties or facilities of the Board."  The agreement does not explain why Murphy is not allowed to contact or interact with this specific employee.

Murphy was represented in his lawsuit by Arnold M. Melik of Princeton.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Medford pressed for details regarding "workplace investigation."

On June 24, 2014, the Township of Medford (Burlington County) passed Resolution 94-2014 which authorized $10,000 for a "workplace investigation."  The resolution, however, did not identify the person under investigation nor did it provide any indication of the type of act or omission that was being investigated.

On August 11, 2014, Township Deputy Clerk Dawn Bielec responded and I have uploaded her response here.

The response provided a copy of the contract between the Township and Verita, LLC, the firm conducting the investigation.  Unfortunately, the contract reveals nothing regarding the nature of the investigation.  The response also disclosed the Council's June 24, 2014 and July 22, 2014 executive session minutes where the investigation was discussed.  The Township, however, redacted the entire substance from both sets of minutes.

Most interesting was Bielic's response to my request for "[a]ny police reports dealing with any occurrence upon which this 'workplace investigation' is based, in whole or part."  She stated that the police report(s) responsive to this request were "not being released as it falls under OPRA exemption 20."  This appears to admit that the "workplace investigation" involved conduct that was previously investigated by police.

I have submitted the following, supplemental OPRA request to Bielic in order to learn more about this matter:
Please accept this e-mail/fax as my request for government records pursuant to the Open Public Records Act and the common law right of access.  Please respond to this request and send all responsive documents to me at paff@pobox.com.  Thank you.

Records requested:

1. In your August 11, 2014 response to my records request, you provided, among other records, two sets of executive meeting minutes with the substance of each of those sets of minutes completely redacted.  I believe that at least some of the redacted material (at least some innocuous material such as "Chief Meder stated that . . .") could be disclosed without jeopardizing any governmental interest in confidentiality.  I ask that you please provide me with additional copies of those executive session minutes, but this time a) redact them as narrowly as possible, b) and explain the nature of the redacted material in enough detail to allow me to judge whether or not the redactions are lawful.

2. A screen shot from the Police Department's CAD system showing the initial call for service or other event related to the police report(s) to which you denied access on August 11, 2014.

3. All regulations, ordinances, policies or procedures that require the Medford Township Police Department to record written reports on calls for service and other interactions with members of the public.

If you cite an OPRA exemption to justify any suppressions or redactions, please identify the exceptions in plain language, such as "Advisory, Consultative and Deliberative" instead of by number (e.g. OPRA exemption 20) as you did in your August 11, 2014 response.  My version of OPRA, taken from the statute, does not contain any numbers that correspond to the ones you used in your August 11, 2014 response.