Saturday, November 29, 2014

Milltown Police Standard Operating Procedures are on-line

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the Milltown Borough (Middlesex County) Police Department are now on-line here.

There are two versions: "MilltownSOP" which I received from the Borough in August 2014 and "MilltownPriorSOP" which is the version that existed prior to the adoption of the revised version.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Court hearing on Monday, Dec. 1st: Wildwood cops apparently seeking attorney fees from former Wildwood cops.

On April 3, 2013, eight retirees from the Wildwood Police Department (Kerry Higgs, Jonathan Winsett, James Nanos, John Davis, Gary Demarzo, William Cooper, Kenneth Philips and Roland Roy) sued two then currently employed officers (Steven Long and Shawn Yuhas), the City of Wildwood and its City Clerk Christopher Wood.  The civil complaint in Higgs, et al v. Long, et al, Docket No. CPM-C-20-13, is on-line here.

The lawsuit contains two claims.  In their first claim, the eight retirees allege that Long and Yuhas, who were said to be in charge of the "Wildwood Police Benefit Fund," a fund to which all eight retirees claimed to have contributed, "failed to manage the fund in a way that would maximize value [and] negligently distributed monies from the Fund for purposes other than intended when created."  Their second claim alleges that Clerk Wood failed to abide by the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) by refusing to disclose records pertaining to the Fund.

The Superior Court's computer system makes it difficult to tell how this case has proceeded.  But, it looks as if the City and Clerk Wood were dismissed out of the case on August 21, 2014.  The only other thing I can determine is that Long and Yuhas have filed a "Motn Pay Cslf" which I understand to be a Motion to Pay Counsel Fees, where Long and Yuhas are apparently seeking to recover their attorney fees from the plaintiffs.

Long's and Yuhas' motion, along with a Case Management Conference, will be held before Judge Raymond A. Batten on Monday, December 1, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.  The Court's computer lists the location of the hearing as "ML4" which I presume means the Mays Landing facility at 4997 Unami Boulevard.  Anyone who wishes to attend the hearing should call Judge Batten's chambers at 609-909-8233 on Monday morning and confirm the hearing's location.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

List of "Faukner" Municipalities on-line

There are 130 municipalities in New Jersey that have charters issued under the Optional Municipal Charter Act of 1950 (also known as the "Faulkner Act"). I have uploaded an Excel file of these municipalities here.

Burlington Prosecutor defers investigation info on Wrightstown Mayor. Seeks Mayor's explanation of "various discrepancies."

In a November 25, 2014 letter, Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Thaddeus E. Drummond said his office will defer its decision on whether to investigate an ethics violation committed by Wrightstown Mayor Thomas Harper until after the Mayor exhausts his rights to appeal.  Background on the ethics matter out of which the violation arose is on-line here.

Drummond did, however, ask Thomas Neff, Chairman of the state agency that issued the ethics violation, to advise him of "any explanation offered by Mayor Harper regarding various discrepancies among his 2010 to 2014 final disclosure statements."

My small project: Gathering court cases involving Plainfield, NJ

After publishing the $145,000 racial discrimination settlement between Plainfield and a police aide, I decided, just for fun, (I know. I have a pretty warped sense of what is "fun") to search the court indexes and submit OPRA requests for other interesting court cases involving Plainfield.

Today, I received the following court cases from Plainfield City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh:

Andre Crawford v. City of Plainfield, et al, Docket No. UNN-L-3184-13.

In this case, the President of Plainfield's police union claims that he was retaliated against after reporting a February 19, 2013 incident where Police Lieutenant Jeffrey Plum, while off duty, "was kissing and otherwise acting inappropriately with" a female subordinate.  One interesting thing is that Plum is the same officer who the police aide who received the $145,000 settlement complained about--see above.  Update: This case settled--click here.

Jeffrey Plum v. Andre Crawford, et al., Docket No. UNN-L-2529-14.

This is Plum's take on the February 19, 2013 incident.  Plum claims that Crawford assaulted him by placing his arm around Plum's neck, pulling him into an office, yelling at him and not allowing him to leave.  He claims that after reporting this incident, Crawford make a "false report" concerning Plum which is probably the "kissing" report that Crawford alleges in his complaint.  Plum further complains that he was confronted by the Police Director after having made a meritorious report against Crawford. Update: This case settled--click here.

Crawford's and Plum's cases have been consolidated by the court.

Frederick W. Walz v. City of Plainfield, et al, Docket No. UNN-L-1569-11

Walz, a Plainfield police sergeant, alleged that while investigating Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, he found a three-page printed e-mail on the center console of a police vehicle that he and his supervising captain "interpreted as indicating that defendant Hellwig was soliciting prostitution services via the Internet while in the course of his employment."  Walz said that his finding of this alleged e-mail caused Hellwig to retaliate against him including a transfer and a demotion. Update: This case settled--click here.

More to come . . .


Monday, November 24, 2014

Managing pension abuse and fraud inquiries.

I spoke today with Sue Grant, Lead Investigator with the New Jersey Pension Fraud and Abuse Unit.  She informed me that her office is interested in receiving requests to investigate whether a particular public official is properly enrolled in the state pension system.  For each such investigation requested, she invited me to complete the "Referral Form" that is available from the Unit's web site here.

While she assured me that the requests are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, she also told me that the Unit would not acknowledge receipt of Referral Forms and is not permitted to correspond with or give progress reports to citizens who submit Referral Forms.  She recommended that interested citizens follow up with the local agency that appointed or elected the public official to see what action, if any, the local agency took.

I will endeavor to submit Referral Forms for each suspected instance of fraud and abuse.  I will keep track of those Referral Forms by way of an on-line Excel roster, which is on-line here, and can be accessed by anyone who wishes to see the Referral Forms I have so far submitted.

To learn more about the pension abuse problem in New Jersey, please see my blog entry here.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Change of venue sought in Edison mayor's ethics case. Still, Edison Ethics Board to meet on December 2nd.

In a November 3, 2014 letter (on-line here), a local lawyer urged the New Jersey Local Finance Board to take jurisdiction over an ethics complaint filed against Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey.  In his complaint (on-line here), Somerset resident John Paff, who chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, claimed that the mayor may have acted unethically by using the Township lawyer's free legal services to represent him on a traffic violation.

In his letter, attorney Christian R. Mastondrea of the Edison law firm of Eichen, Crutchlow, Zaslow & McElroy LLP, does not explicitly say that he is representing Mayor Lankey.  He states, however, that Mayor Lankey "has relationships with a number of the individuals who are on [Edison's local ethics] board and played a role in appointing some of them."  Accordingly, Mastondrea argued, "there would be a conflict of interest by having him appear before a board whose decision could be question based upon their partiality."

In a November 21, 2014 e-mail to Paff (on-line here), Edison Ethics Board Secretary Michelle Kasperski referred to Mastondrea as "the Mayor’s attorney" and said that the "Edison Ethics Board does not believe that [the complaint] should be moved as we are an established Commission."  According to Kasperski's e-mail, the Board will meet on the 3rd Floor of the Edison Municipal Complex at 7 p.m.on Tuesday, December 2, 2014 "to discuss whether the Board will pursue the matter further or not."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Somerdale Borough asked to reconsider whether public defender is eligible for a state pension.

My letter to Somerdale Borough is on-line below.
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November 17, 2014

Hon. Gary J. Passanante, Mayor and members of the 
Somerdale Borough Council
105 Kennedy Blvd
Somerdale, NJ 08083

Dear Mayor Passanante and Borough Council members:

On behalf of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, I ask that you please put the following issue as a discussion item on the agenda of the November 24, 2014 Council work session: 
Is it legal for Somerdale to still be retaining Public Defender Charles Wigginton on the PERS pension rolls given that the Borough of Gibbsboro, where Wigginton also serves as Public Defender, decided to terminate him from PERS enrollment on August 30, 2014 apparently due to an e-mail and letter received from the Fraud and Abuse Unit of the Division of Pension and Benefits?  
Background material and documents pertaining to Gibbsboro's decision to remove Wigginton from the PERS are on-line here.  Somerdale's list of PERS enrollees is on-line here.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,

John Paff

P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, NJ  08875
Voice: 732-873-1251
Fax: 908-325-0129
e-mail: paff@pobox.com

cc. John B. Kearney Esq. Solicitor

Burlington County Democrat and Republican Committee Members on-line


On-line here and here are lists of the Democrats and Republicans, respectively. who serve on the County Committees for terms running from 2013 through 2015.  I am not aware of this information being on-line anywhere else.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Letter to Prosecutor: School boards should not hire professional media consultants to "educate" voters on bond referenda.

Update: The Prosecutor's Office's December 2, 2014  response is on-line here.
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November 12, 2014

Geoffrey D. Soriano, Esq.
Somerset County Prosecutor
40 North Bridge St
P.O. BOX 3000
Somerville, New Jersey
via e-mail to Bennett@co.somerset.nj.us and fax to 908-526-8634

Dear Prosecutor Soriano:

More than twenty years ago, I worked with Hillsborough resident Randy Enterline and the local chapter of the New Jersey Libertarian Party to challenge the Hillsborough Township school district's use of taxpayer money to produce a newsletter that urged voters to approve a referendum authorizing $54 million for a new high school.  The effort resulted in a September 11, 1995 decision by Administrative Law Judge Solomon A. Metzger holding that the newsletter in question was "very much an advocacy piece." Accordingly, Judge Metzger held that the newsletter, even though it did not explicitly urge voters to vote "yes," was an impermissible expenditure of taxpayers' money because it attempted to sway voters' opinions.

Judge Metzger based his decision on Citizens to Protect Pub. Funds v. Board of Educ. of Parsippany-Troy Hills, 13 N.J. 172 (1953) in which then New Jersey Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (who later became a Justice of the United State Supreme Court) ruled that school boards could use public funds to educate the voters on ballot initiatives provided that they didn't cross the line into advocating for or against the measure.

Fast forward approximately twenty years: On September 30, 2014, voters in Bound Brook approved a $27 million bond referendum.  The school district's web site contains professionally produced fact sheets, flyers, newsletters and press releases that the Bound Brook school district distributed to voters and media prior to the election.  My Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request disclosed the school district's $8,400 contract with Zander Consulting, LLC for a media and public relations campaign related to the referendum.  A quick check of Zander's web site shows that its clients include several school districts across the state.

While the pieces Zander produced at taxpayers' expense are very carefully worded to not expressly exhort voters to vote in favor of Bound Brook's referendum, the material does accentuate the positives of the referendum while downplaying the negatives.  For example, the back page of the Zander-produced newsletter asks "It sounds too good to be true. How will our taxes not increase if Bond Proposal #1 is approved?" The newsletter goes on to state: "The school district is paying off the previous bond. If approved, the new debt will replace the old bond with no additional tax increase to residents." The "Top 10 Referendum Facts" sheet produced by Zander discloses that the existing bond "is about to be paid in full."

An opponent of the referendum might would likely want to emphasize that while replacing the old bond with a new one might not greatly increase the amount of the tax burden, it would clearly extend the duration of the burden since the old bond would, regardless of the referendum's outcome, be soon paid off.  But, the opponents of the referendum did not have the benefit of $8,400 of taxpayers' money to prepare and mail their newsletter out to every Borough household thus getting its spin of the facts in voters' hands.  Likewise the opponents didn't have public funds available to it for professionally developed "talking points" prepared for presentation at professionally coordinated "referendum open houses" or for "backpack stuffers" to be distributed to parents through their children.

School districts that use public money to purportedly "educate" voters will invariably spend it to send a lopsided message that promotes passage of the referendum.  They will hire professional public relations consultants who, being intimately familiar with the Parsippany-Troy Hills case, will come as close to the education-versus-advocacy line as possible to spin the message in favor of a "yes" vote while retaining a plausible claim that the school board's true intention for retaining them was merely to present the voters with neutral facts.

I bring this issue to your office's attention because I don't think that filing petitions with the Department of Education is a sufficient remedy for citizens who feel aggrieved by their school boards' hiring of professional media relations firms to promote their bond referenda.  In the Hillsborough case, all that Judge Metzger did, after the bond was passed, was simply declare that the board was in violation and require it to have bond referenda that might to come up during the next year "reviewed in advance by the full Board in open session with the assistance of counsel."  This is a slap on the wrist that I'm sure the Hillsborough Board was (or the Bound Brook Board would be) happy to accept in exchange for the bond referendum being ultimately approved.

Given that school boards in Somerset County will continue to campaign for new debt and, accordingly, will continue to use public relations firms to get their version of the facts presented to the voters, I believe that it would be appropriate for your office to take a position or issue some guidelines on this issue.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Very truly yours,

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

Monday, November 10, 2014

Trouble, with a capital T, right here in Riverdale Borough

A police sergeant serving Riverdale Borough (Morris County) New Jersey filed suit last October against the Borough's mayor claiming that the mayor has been harassing and retaliating against him.  Even though the lawsuit was filed more than a year ago, I have not seen mention of it in any newspaper. So I decided to blog it.    The lawsuit is on-line here.

In his lawsuit, Sergeant Gregory Bogert claimed that Mayor William Budesheim perceived that Bogert harassed Budesheim's son, who works for the Borough as a police dispatcher.  Bogert, however, maintains that the junior Budesheim is often late to work and neglects his duties but escapes discipline because his father is the mayor.  Bogert also alleged that the junior Budesheim more than likely destroyed the campaign signs of his father's political opponents.  He also alleged that Mayor Budesheim has become so enraged at Bogert that he has tailgated his car and made a "scumbag" comment for which the Borough Council forced him to apologize. 

The lawsuit is in the discovery phase, but the discovery period is scheduled to end in March 2015.  Thereafter, the matter is likely to settle or be tried. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why the limits on taxicab owner's licenses?

The City of Trenton, like many cities across New Jersey and the nation, set an arbitrary limit on the number of taxicabs the city will license.  In Trenton, City Code § 272-4(B), sets the maximum number of cabs at 82.  Cities don't limit the number of bakeries or shoe stores in a town, so why taxicabs?  Does this type of restriction benefit the public good or is its aim to protect existing cab owners from competition?

Similar taxicab limits have been struck down in other states for violating constitutional provisions guaranteeing equal protection under the law.  In a 2013 case, Wisconsin Circuit Judge Jane Carroll found that Milwaukee's limit on taxicab licenses failed an equal protection analysis because it wasn't rationally related to the public health, safety, morals or general welfare.  Judge Carroll's ruling, which is on-line here, states that the arbitrary limit on taxicabs indicates "the desire of the City to create a valuable asset for the current permit holders so that they could sell them and, as the one taxi driver indicated, retire comfortably to Florida, that's simply not a legitimate government purpose."


Question for the General Assembly's Standing Committee on Ethical Standards

November 5, 2014

Michael J. Mitzner, Esq.
Mitzner & Mitzner,PA
Suite 101A
786 Mountain Blvd
Watchung, NJ 07069-6268
Via e-mail to mitznerlaw@aol.com and via fax to 908-668-9986

Dear Mr. Mitzner:

I understand from reading the February 21, 2012 New Jersey Legislative Digest that you were appointed, by authority of N.J.S.A. 52:13D-22(a), by the Assembly Republican Leader to serve as one of the eight members of the bipartisan Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards. According to the current list of Committee members you still serve in that capacity.

Through further research I learned from Rules 19a of the Rules of the General Assembly for the State of New Jersey that in addition to the eight members of the Joint Committee, the four members of the Joint Committee appointed from the General Assembly, of which you are one, constitute a standing committee of the General Assembly authorized to receive and consider allegations of possible misconduct by members of the General Assembly which "reflect[] upon the good name, integrity and reputation of the Legislature, a House or any member thereof."

Against this backdrop, I ask that you please accept this e-mail and fax as my request for the General Assembly's Standing Committee on Ethical Standards to conduct an investigation into a) whether Assemblyman Angel Fuentes violated any rule, law or ethical standard by using his district office staff and state resources for the benefit of a private, non-profit organization and, b) if not, whether the rules, laws or ethical standards should be amended to proscribe a legislator's use of taxpayer-funded resources for private purposes.

The factual allegations that form the basis of this request are contained within an October 17, 2014 Courier-Post article entitled "Legislator's actions spur ethics questions" authored by journalist Kevin C. Shelly.  

According to the article, Assemblyman Fuentes admitted to having used members of his staff, on state time, to support the Hispanic Leadership Association, a private, non-profit organization. While the type of staff support is not completely known, the article quotes Fuentes as stating that "[t]he work included compiling a mailing list for the association's annual fall summit."  According to the Association's web site, the summit is "The Premier Event for New Jersey's Hispanic Leaders" for which tickets are available for purchase.

The propriety of using taxpayer resources to benefit a private organization does not turn on the popularity of the organization or how beneficial its works are perceived to be.  The public funds Fuentes committed to the Association's benefit belong equally to both those who support the Association's work and those who don't.  My complaint should not be taken as a criticism of the Association or its works, since I would have the same argument had Fuentes used state resources to benefit any other private organization.  While Fuentes' desire to support charity is admirable, he should use his own funds for his advocacy and not taxpayer funds to which he has been entrusted.

Regardless of whether Fuentes' actions were morally wrong, the question of whether or not he violated the ethics standards is the main question for the Standing Committee's consideration.  The standards, as I understand them, mainly prohibit legislators from taking public action that financially benefits the legislator or his family.  The only proscription that might pertain is that contained in N.J.S.A. 52:13D-25, which states, in relevant part:
No State officer or employee, special State officer or employee, or member of the Legislature shall willfully disclose to any person, whether or not for pecuniary gain, any information not generally available to members of the public which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his official duties. 
Whether Fuentes violated this provision depends on facts that are currently unknown.  Did his staff create the Association's summit invitation list from Fuentes' private lists of supporters, friends and acquaintances or did they otherwise use private information to promote the summit to the invitees?  Or, did the staff use their time to create a list from publicly available sources?  The question of whether Fuentes violated N.J.S.A. 52:13D-25 turns on the source and of information that was used rather than on Fuentes' decision to use taxpayer-funded resources to create the list.  This is a question that the Standing Committee, if it chooses to, can answer by conducting an investigation into this matter.

Regardless of whether Fuentes' conduct violated N.J.S.A. 52:13D-25, the Standing Committee should consider recommending the adoption of a new ethical standard that would ban a legislator's use of public resources to benefit a private charity.  I fully agree with veteran legislator William E. Schluter, who is quoted in the Courier-Post article as stating "I think that the legislative office, paid for with taxpayer money, should be used for legislative work, period."

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I would appreciate receiving a response to this inquiry.

John Paff

Monday, November 3, 2014

Bergen County Corrections Officers' Salaries

In response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, I learned that Bergen County has 273 Corrections Officers at an average annual base salary of $97,206 and a median annual base salary of $108,513.

An Excel table is on-line here.