HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson has dropped her lawsuit against the Hillside town council for its reinstatement of Hillside acting Chief of Police Louis Panarese after almost a year of ongoing litigation.
The suit, which was filed by Garretson in June, went after the council for passing a resolution to reinstate Panarese, overturning Garretson’s demotion of Panarese to the position of captain.
The order for dismissal, dated March 31, was signed by Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy, who stated in the order that Garretson had asked to withdraw her complaint against the council.
Cassidy dismissed the case with prejudice.
A case dismissed with prejudice means that Garretson is barred from filing another case on the same claim. Dismissal with prejudice is a final judgment.
With the case against the council dismissed, Panarese is now permanently reinstated as acting chief of police.
Attorneys for both Panarese and the council consented to the dismissal.
Garretson did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Garretson’s suit named Hillside council members Donald DeAugustine, Andrea Hyatt, Gerald Freedman, Diane Murray, Sip Whitaker and Christopher Mobley as defendants, along with Panarese.
The June 24 suit stemmed from the reinstatement of Panarese by the council, who voted unanimously to overturn Garretson’s demotion of Panarese from chief to captain. Although Garretson claimed at the time that the demotion was due to the fact that Panarese had not taken the Civil Service exam, many believe that the mayor’s actions were in retaliation against Panarese after an email he sent to department personnel.
The email in question was sent by Panarese in October 2016 to members of the police department in an attempt to boost their morale. With still ongoing diminished manpower, the department and its vehicles in disrepair, and a mayor who, many say, has stymied efforts toward a workable relationship with the department, Panarese stated at the time that he had sent the email out to members of his force to show them some much-needed support and solidarity.
After the email was leaked to Garretson, a disciplinary hearing was held — on or around the same day as Panarese’s demotion — and presided over by a hearing officer, who said he would review the case and come back with a decision.
In her suit against the council, Garretson claimed that the council was in violation of the Faulkner Act when they overturned her demotion of Panarese.
The council had voted to reinstate Panarese at its June 14, 2016 meeting, just days after Garretson had handed down a 10-day, unpaid suspension to Panarese for alleged insubordination. He was reinstated by a 5-0 vote, with councilman Gerald Freedman initiating the vote, and councilmembers Donald DeAugustine, Christopher Mobley, Sip Whitaker, and George “Tony” Alston unanimously voting for the reinstatement. Councilmembers Dianne Murray and Andrea Hyatt were not present.
The suit came days after a sit-down meeting between Garretson and Panarese that was mediated by Union County Prosecutor Grace Park, that was, ostensibly, to garner some kind of a working agreement between the two.
Park ruled in favor of the mayor, stating that the council did not have a right to overturn Garretson’s decision to demote Panarese.
The following month, Cassidy ruled against Garretson, reinstating Panarese from captain to acting provisional chief of police.
In August, Panarese served Garretson with a lawsuit of his own, citing Garretson’s repeated violations of Civil Service Law regulations, including her failure to place employees into needed positions in order to properly staff the police department.
Other issues cited by Panarese in the suit include a hostile work environment, abuse of authority, interference with day-to-day operations, and retaliatory measures meted out by Garretson.
Panarese’s suit against Garretson is moving forward at press time.
In an April 4 statement, attorney for Panarese, Christopher Gray, of Sciarra and Catrambone LLC, said that justice has been served.
“On Friday, March 31, 2017, Mayor Garretson’ s complaint seeking to invalidate the Hillside Township Municipal Council’s Resolution to reinstate Chief Louis Panarese was dismissed with prejudice,” Gray told LocalSource in an email. “With the complaint dismissed, the mayor may no longer challenge the Resolution of the Township Council reversing Chief Panarese’ s demotion. Therefore, by Resolution of the Hillside Council, Chief Panarese is permanently reinstated. Chief Panarese is happy to put this issue behind him and looks forward to working with Mayor and Council to continue to serve the citizens of Hillside.”
Anthony Salters, Hillside Democratic Party Chairman, told LocalSource that the legal fees surrounding the suit has been a burden to taxpayers in the township.
“First, I want to thank the mayor for asking that her lawsuit against the municipal council and Chief Panarese be dismissed,” Salters said in an April 4 email. “This fiasco of a working relationship between the mayor and police chief is a total embarrassment for all of Hillside. Hopefully, somehow, some way this nightmare ends soon. When people become unconcerned and basically oblivious to how much taxpayer monies they are wasting in legal fees, it becomes hard for residents to have sympathy for them. If residents knew the legal fees paid to the mayor’s and police chief’s attorneys already, they would be irate.”
Hillside Councilwoman Dianne Murray-Clements told LocalSource that the entire debacle should serve as a lesson.
“I’m glad the judge saw the need to end this lawsuit,” Murray-Clements said in an April 6 email. “This was a lesson for all in legislation and administration regarding their roles and boundaries. As elected officials, we must remember that when making decisions, they should be what’s best for the township, not our personal agenda. This was a lawsuit of personal agendas. Doing what’s right isn’t difficult when your intentions are in the right place.”
Murray-Clements also stated that she hoped Garretson would make the safety of Hillside’s residents a priority.
“Whoever the mayor chooses, I hope she keeps in mind that we all live here and we want the best chief,” Murray-Clements said. “Safety of our families and properties is important and we depend on her to make the best educated and unbiased decision.”