Civil Service names Hillside police chief, but confusion reigns

HILLSIDE, NJ — Although Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson continues her quest to topple Hillside’s Acting Chief of Police Louis Panarese, Panarese’s attorney, Christopher Gray, has made it clear that the legal battle is far from over.

On June 13, Farrah Irving, township attorney for Hillside, filed a motion, a copy of which was obtained by LocalSource, to dissolve the temporary restraints Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy placed last month. Cassidy had ruled that Panarese could not be demoted from his position as chief and that the Civil Service Commission was to make a final determination on his status.

The court’s decision came after Garretson demoted Panarese in April from police chief to captain and promoted Hillside Police Lt. Vincent Ricciardi to chief. At a hearing last month, Cassidy returned Panarese to his position as acting chief and handed off the case to the CSC.

The June 13 motion was followed up with a letter to Cassidy by an attorney for Ricciardi, Rubin Sinins, demanding that Panarese be removed and Ricciardi be placed in the chief position.

In 2013, Panarese was appointed the provisional police chief by former Hillside Mayor Joseph Menza in a move approved by the council in a resolution. Garretson, on the council at the time, approved of the appointment.

In March 2016, Garretson demoted Panarese to captain after she accused him of insubordination. The accusation came after Panarese reportedly sent a letter to HPD personnel in which he offered them moral support in the midst of ongoing turmoil and diminished manpower at the department.

In June 2016, the council voted to overturn Garretson’s demotion by way of resolution, after which Garretson filed a suit against the council.

In October, Garretson called for the promotional exam for the position of chief in order to appoint a permanent chief of police. The test was taken by Ricciardi and Hillside Police Capt. Nick Lamonte, with Ricciardi placing second to Lamonte.

Questions have been raised by some in the HPD as to Ricciardi’s qualifications and ability to act in the capacity as chief. In addition, members of the department have questioned Garretson’s promotion of Ricciardi, as he has a lower rank and placed behind him on the chief’s exam.

Garretson did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment by press time. Sinins also did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
In March, Garretson suddenly dropped her case against Panarese and the council, and the case was dismissed with prejudice by Cassidy.

Then, on April 11, Garretson appointed Ricciardi as acting chief. On April 12, Panarese filed an Order to Show Cause, contesting the appointment of Ricciardi and naming Garretson and the township of Hillside as defendants.

In May, Cassidy entered an order handing off all issues regarding civil service to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission for a determination of the status of both Panarese and Ricciardi.

According to the most recent motion, Hillside business administrator Ray Hamlin contacted Mark Van Bruggen at the Civil Service Commission on May 30, for the purpose of ascertaining the status of the chief appointment.

“On that same date, Mr. Van Bruggen sent an email addressed to Mayor Garretson confirming that Vincent Ricciardi was approved by the Civil Service Commission on April 19, 2017,” states the motion. “Van Bruggen also stated that the appointment of Vincent Ricciardi was recorded in the CAMPS system as the chief effective April 12, 2017. He indicated that upon completion of a three-month working test period, he will become permanent.”

According to the motion, Oluwayseyi Ogunyinka, of the Human Resources Division at the CSC, states that, “the NJ Civil Service Commission considers Vincent Ricciardi as the chief of police of Hillside.”

The motion also states that, “While it is true that Garretson was a member of the council when Panarese was appointed … appointing Panarese clearly states that he was appointed in a provisional capacity, not permanent, thus any belief or understanding that the plaintiff is seeking to associate with Mayor Garretson is irrelevant, notwithstanding the fact that she vehemently denies such an understanding.”

The complaint asserts that Panarese, “was not permanent and he was not demoted. Instead, he was returned to his permanent position because he lacks the qualifications, in accordance with Civil Service guidelines, to hold the position of police chief.”

In a June 14 letter to Cassidy, Sinins states that clarity has been given to the matter of Ricciardi.

“The Civil Service Commission has unequivocally indicated that Intervenor Ricciardi is, as far as the Civil Service is concerned, the Chief of Police of the Township of Hillside,” reads the letter. “Plaintiff Panarese was never appointed as a permanent chief of police. Accordingly, there should be no bar — by way of temporary restraints or otherwise — to the township placing Intervenor Ricciardi in that position. There should likewise be no hesitancy removing Panarese from the position he now wrongly occupies.”

The letter also emphasizes that Panarese registered for the chief’s exam.
“Perhaps most significantly, we now know that Panarese registered for the chief of police examination in 2016,” reads the letter. “Had he truly believed he was already the permanent chief of police, he would never have done so.”

But Gray, in a June 15 letter to Cassidy, stated that the matter has not yet been received by the proper division at the CSC and that the issue remains unsettled. Furthermore, Gray maintained that a waiver for the chief’s exam was intended or actually sought and that an obvious clerical error on the part of the township cannot be ignored or blamed on Panarese.

“As the matter transferred to the Civil Service Commission has not been resolved yet by the Commission, the application of defendant is premature and must be dismissed,” Gray said in the letter. “Defendant has provided information to the court from individuals without personal knowledge of the transfer of the matter from the Superior Court.”

According to a June 14 email obtained by LocalSource, Christopher Myers, director of the Division of Appeals and Regulatory Affairs, indicates that “Messrs. Van Bruggen and Ogunyinka work in the Division of Agency Services, essentially, and their roles are to service the various appointing authorities to which they are assigned, with their day-to-day interactions/transactions, etc. that come to the Commission. They do not work in the Division of Appeals and Regulatory Affairs, which provides support to the Civil Service Commission with respect to appeals filed by various parties under its jurisdiction.”

According to Gray, “the Civil Service Commission has not ruled on the matter referred to them for decision by the court. The information that defendant provided to the court is incomplete and incorrect. Neither the defendant, nor do the Civil Service employees from Agency Services, address the issue regarding Chief Panarese’s entitlement to a waiver of examination in 2013 under N.J.A. C. 4A:4-2.7. Defendant ignores the clear evidence that a waiver was intended to be or was actually sought by those in power in Hillside in 2013. Any neglect in the process or paperwork is Hillside’s fault and not Chief Panarese’s.”

Gray noted that “this issue is at the crux of the chief of police position in Hillside. That is why it was referred to the Civil Service Commission to be adjudicated. It is undisputed that if Civil Service grants the waiver to Chief Panarese, there is no chief’s vacancy for the lieutenant to fill.”

Gray also pointed to issues regarding Ricciardi’s fitness to be named as chief.
“Defendant is seeking to appoint a lieutenant with no executive experience and a highly questionable disciplinary history to run the department and upend the status quo,” Gray said. “This is also being undertaken without approval from the Hillside Municipal Council. They have taken no action to validate the appointment of Ricciardi. The court already addressed the concerns about maintaining cohesion in the leadership of the department while this gets sorted out.”

Gray stated in the letter that the council has not reversed its decision on the matter.

“To date, since the inception of this litigation, the municipal council has not taken any action to reverse their objection to the removal of Chief Panarese,” Gray wrote in his letter. “Without formal action from the municipal council, we have to presume their veto of the demotion of Chief Panarese stands and their lack of approval to the promotion of Lieutenant Ricciardi controls.”

Gray also noted the testimony of Menza and former Hillside Council President Salonia Saxton, who stated under oath that it had been their intention to make Panarese permanent.

“For whatever reason, the process of finalizing the waiver application may not have been completed, that was not the fault of Chief Panarese,” Gray stated. “Due to the fact that Chief Panarese was appointed in February of 2013 and has essentially served continuously since without any noted performance deficiency, as clearly stated on the record from Mayor Garretson in the prior litigation, he is rightfully the duly appointed police chief in Hillside.”

Anthony Salters, Hillside Democratic Party Chairman, said the HPD would continue to maintain professionalism despite the ongoing issues.

“I have said all along the Civil Service Commission would separate fact from fiction,” Salter told LocalSource in a June 15 email.

“We all can have our own various opinions and that can change. The facts are the facts. The facts have not changed. Too many people weighed in based purely on emotion without knowing all the facts.

“We have the utmost confidence that the wonderful men and women of the Hillside Police Department will continue daily to be professional and maintain the fine reputation they have earned in the community regardless of who is in charge.”