HILLSIDE, NJ — The game of musical police chiefs continues in Hillside as police Lt. Vincent Ricciardi is now claiming that he should be the new chief of the Hillside Police Department.
Ricciardi was appointed as acting chief after the demotion of Louis Panarese on April 11 by Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson. Panarese filed a complaint against Garretson the following day, and a judge granted an injunction to Panarese, the current acting police chief.
While Ricciardi filed an appeal with the Civil Service Commission on April 20, Panarese remains the current acting chief of the HPD.
The April 11 demotion came two weeks after Garretson asked Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy to dismiss her case against both Panarese and the Hillside Town Council for its decision last summer to reinstate Panarese after Garretson had previously demoted him to the rank of captain.
Panarese has served as chief of police since February 2013, and has been on the force for more than 33 years.
In his appeal Ricciardi, who has served in the police department for more than 22 years, argues that he has the necessary qualifications to serve as chief. According to court papers, Ricciardi took the Civil Service exam for the position of chief of police, which he passed Dec. 6.
According to court documents, a list of eligible candidates was subsequently made public Jan. 12, and certified Feb. 22.
In his court papers, Ricciardi notes that, prior to his appointment as acting police chief and during the administration of Hillside’s former Mayor Joseph Menza, the council voted to install Panarese as provisional chief of police and director of public safety in 2013.
“In March 2016, Mayor Garretson learned that when the township resolved to appoint Capt. Panarese as provisional chief, he was not entered into, and had not passed, the Civil Service examination for the chief of police position in accordance with N.J.A.C. 4A:4-1.5,” Ricciardi states in court documents.
According to this requirement of the New Jersey Administrative Code, “Any employee who is serving on a provisional basis and who fails to file for and take an examination which has been announced for his or her title shall be separated from the provisional title. The appointing authority shall be notified by the department and shall take necessary steps to separate the employee within 30 days of notification, which period may be extended by the commissioner for good cause,” court documents state.
Court papers state that, in accordance with state regulations, “Mayor Garretson returned Panarese to his permanent title of captain and thereby separated Captain Panarese from his title as provisional chief of police by letter dated March 16, 2016.”
Three months later, the Hillside Town Council voted to reinstate Panarese as chief.
“The action filed by Louis Panarese, and his return to the position of provisional chief of police, is in direct conflict with my appointment as acting chief of police, making the appointment permanent, and the action detrimentally affects not only my service to the township and the township’s police department, but also adversely affects my position, wages, benefits and rights,” Ricciardi said in court documents.
Ricciardi claims Panarese has never been admitted to Civil Service as a chief of police, has not passed a Civil Service examination for that title or sought a waiver of these requirements.
“Louis Panarese may not be entitled to reinstatement to his provisional appointment as chief,” according to court documents. “Although Panarese was also prohibited by (state law) from maintaining his provisional status for more than 12 months, he remained in his provisional position for three years because of the township’s failure to comply with its statutory and regulatory obligation to notify the Civil Service Commission of Panarese’s provisional status.”
LocalSource reached out to the Civil Service Commission, which did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the court documents, Menza, along with the council, waived the chief’s test in 2013. Garretson, a council member serving under Menza, also voted to waive the test at the time.
According to sources inside the department, Ricciardi did not place first on the Civil Service exam, but was pushed ahead of Hillside Police Capt. Nick Lamonte.
In court documents filed by Panarese last month, attorney Christopher Gray cited a local code in stating that “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.”
At a hearing last month, Judge Cassidy reinstated Panarese to the position of chief.
LocalSource reached out to the attorneys for Panarese and Ricciardi — Gray and Ruben Sinins, respectively — both declined comment on the matter.
The mayor did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Lamonte, who serves as spokesman for the HPD, told LocalSource that although the department did not wish to comment on Ricciardi’s appeal, it did want to make a few things known.
“The chief is ethical, he has integrity,” Lamonte said in a recent phone interview, referring to Panarese. “They don’t make people like him anymore. He cares about his community. We’re getting the town back to where it should be. We are fully transparent in everything we do, and because of the chief, we don’t have issues that other departments have.”
According to Hillside Democratic Municipal Chairman Anthony Salters, “Lt. Ricciardi and Captain Lamonte both took the N.J. Civil Service examination for Hillside Police Chief,” Salters told LocalSource in a May 6 email. “Chief Panarese opted not to participate in the written examination process. I will not speculate why he came to this decision when it concerned his own job.
“My understanding is both sides keep saying they will accept and abide by whatever New Jersey Civil Service rules regarding the rights of Chief Panarese, Captain Lamonte and Lt. Ricciardi to remain, vacate or assume the position of Hillside police chief.”
According to Salters, Hillside abides by Civil Service regulations.
“This trumps anything else,” Salters said. “The rules are the rules all the time. Not a la carte. New Jersey Civil Service puts all ruling determinations in writing. No reason to guess or trust anyone’s understanding. We need to see documentation from New Jersey Civil Service to support any claim by anyone. New Jersey Civil Service is excellent at notifying anyone in writing of their status promptly. No exceptions. Any other vitriol concerning this issue is misdirected and an emotional waste of time.”