HILLSIDE, NJ — It was a case of “Play it again, Sam,” last week in the Township of Hillside as Mayor Angela Garretson took another turn at bat and demoted Hillside’s acting Chief of Police Louis Panarese for the second time. Garretson demoted Panarese for the first time in March 2016.
The April 11 demotion came just two weeks after Garretson asked Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy to dismiss her case against both Panarese and the town council. Garretson had filed the suit in June after the council voted to reinstate Panarese to chief after Garretson had demoted him to captain.
An order was filed by Cassidy on March 31, which
reinstated Panarese to his former position of acting chief of police.
On April 12, in response to Garretson’s second demotion of Panarese, Panarese filed a complaint against Garretson and sought an injunction, which was granted by Cassidy, thus returning him to his previous position of acting chief of police.
According to sources inside the police department, the saga began when Garretson had an assistant from her office hand-deliver her notice of demotion to Panarese at the police department. In the letter, Garretson told Panarese that he was “hereby returned” to his “permanent title,” after which she thanked him for his service.
Garretson then promoted Hillside Police Lt. Vincent Ricciardi to the position of acting chief.
Although Ricciardi did not place first on the Civil Service Exam, he was pushed ahead of Hillside Capt. Nick Lamonte, according to sources. The promotion of Ricciardo, albeit short-lived, would, according to sources, be in direct violation of Civil Service regulations since Ricciardi had never taken the captain’s test and had been skipped ahead three ranks, bypassing the positions of captain and deputy chief. According to Civil Service rules, an officer cannot be skipped more than two ranks to the position of chief.
After the sudden demotion, Panarese filed a request for an injunction from the court.
In an April 11 court brief, Christopher Gray, attorney for Panarese, outlined last week’s surprise demotion by Garretson.
“Plaintiff has been chief of police since February 5, 2013,” read the brief. “Plaintiff has over 33 years’ experience as a police officer. Plaintiff was unlawfully demoted from his position as chief of police on March 16, 2016. The Municipal Council of Hillside voted to override the demotion pursuant to their authority from New Jersey statute and the Township of Hillside code. Defendant Garretson filed suit to challenge the legality of the resolution reinstating Chief Panarese. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice March 31, 2017, thereby ending the challenge to the Hillside council’s resolution reversing the demotion. Only two weeks later, Defendant Garretson issued Plaintiff a letter advising that he was demoted again.”
The brief, which also alleges that Garretson was seeking to remove Panarese without just cause, noted that, “Defendant has failed to articulate a single legitimate business reason for the abrupt demotion of Plaintiff on less than nine hours’ notice. Defendant cannot operate the Township of Hillside as an absolute dictator.”
LocalSource reached out to Garretson, who said that she was unable to comment due to her status as a litigant.
The crux of the issue seems to be whether Panarese, as acting chief, can be removed from his position by the appointing authority. According to Civil Service statutes, it would appear that he cannot.
Court documents outline the issue clearly:
“Pursuant to the Hillside Township Municipal Code, Plaintiff was permanent chief three months after his promotion on February 5, 2013. Under the Hillside Code 78-8 (B) & (C), Chief Panarese’s provisional status automatically became permanent after the passing of three months. Further, according to the former Hillside Mayor Menza, as well as former Council President Saxton, confirm Chief Panarese was permanently appointed to his position in 2013. As a permanent chief of police, Plaintiff cannot be demoted or removed from office without just cause and a hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A: 14-147.”
It is also interesting to note that Garretson voted in favor of Panarese’s appointment in 2013 when she served on the town council under former Hillside mayor Joseph Menza.
Garretson was at the April 12 hearing along with Hillside Township Attorney Farrah Irving. Ricciardi was in attendance as well.
In court to support Panarese were representatives from the New Jersey Chief’s Association, among others.
South Brunswick Chief of Police, Raymond Hayducka, who is also the president of the New Jersey Chief’s Association, told LocalSource that Panarese, who is a member of the association, has their full support.
“We are involved because she is violating his rights as chief,” Hayducka said of Garretson in a recent phone interview. “She clearly has a personal vendetta against him and she is impeding day-to-day operations of the agency and impacting him personally.”
Hayducka noted that the taxpayers of Hillside are paying for Garretson’s continued antics.
“Unfortunately, the people paying the price are the people of Hillside,” Hayducka said. “It’s the taxpayers who lose from this constant ridiculousness.”
Panarese currently has a suit against Garretson, citing Garretson’s repeated violations of Civil Service Law regulations, abuse of authority, interference with day-to-day operations, and retaliatory measures meted out against him.
Hillside Council President Andrea Hyatt said that comments from elected officials regarding ongoing litigation could hurt Hillside’s residents.
“It is not in the best interests of Hillside or its taxpaying constituents for any member of the township’s government to make statements regarding litigation, as it would be irresponsible and it places the municipality at risk,” Hyatt told LocalSource in an April 12 statement. “Although several elected officials have commented in the past, I will not make conscious decisions to engage in behaviors that may result in negative monetary consequences for my residents, business owners and visitors simply to make a statement that may grant some form of instant gratification.”
Hillside Councilman Sip Whitaker told LocalSource that Garretson has abused her authority.
“I don’t think the mayor should hold an elected position anywhere because she abuses her authority entrusted in her by the voters,” Whitaker said in a recent phone interview.
According to Hillside Councilwoman Diane Murray-Clements, the situation seems to be a lose-lose for everyone.
“I don’t see any winners in this situation,” Murray-Clements told LocalSource in an April 12 email. “Hillside is a great place to live and work, Residents are smart and they know lawsuits reduce money available for services in their town. Now is the time for government to rebuild. I foresee many positive changes in Hillside government this year. This was one of many tribulations that Hillside had to overcome in order to start moving forward.”
Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for May 24.