HILLSIDE, NJ — The fight to determine who will be Hillside’s police chief has intensified with new allegations of retaliation emerging from within the force in the form of a whistleblower lawsuit.
Capt. Nicola Lomonte filed the lawsuit July 27 in Superior Court, documenting his contentious working relationship with Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson, a current Democratic candidate for the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Lomonte alleges Garretson did not promote him to the top commanding officer out of revenge for his accusation that she made what he believed to be an unlawful request for a police escort.
Meanwhile, Vincent Ricciardi was appointed as acting police chief this year by the mayor, although it was not immediately clear if Ricciardi’s interim period as chief has ended or whether he still has to be approved by the Hillside Municipal Council. Township business administrator Ray Hamlin said he could not comment on legal or personnel matters, and the mayor did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
“Capt. Lamonte was the best most senior decorated officer who tested No. 1 on the Civil Service test for chief,” Christopher Gray, a lawyer for Lomonte, said recently. “But because Lomonte was a whistleblower about stuff Mayor Garretson was doing, she went and promoted Ricciardi.”
Gray also represented Louis Panarese, who sued to keep his position as chief after Garretson demoted him and appointed Ricciardi, who was serving as a lieutenant in the department at the time. Panarese officially retired from the department in August, but is now suing for damages, his lawyer said in a phone interview.
Township attorney Farrah Irving declined to comment on the pending lawsuits by Panarese and Lomonte. Ricciardi declined to comment on any pending litigation or personnel matters, saying it was “inappropriate” to discuss these with the press. A lawyer for Ricciardi also did not respond to a request for comment.
Lomonte, who is suing the mayor and township, said he scored No. 1 on a Civil Service Commission test for the chief position, court documents show. Ricciardi reportedly scored No. 2 on that exam.
Garretson requested the test, Lomonte’s lawsuit stated, while she attempted to demote Panarese from his position as chief and appoint Ricciardi. Lomonte’s suit said he told the mayor he was interested in the position of chief after learning of his score, but was told he was not selected.
The Civil Service test was a critical point of contention in the legal battle between the mayor and Panarese until he recently retired.
Civil Service Commission Deputy CEO Grace Kelly referred LocalSource to its own bylaws when asked why the commission would recognize someone who scored lower on the exam as chief.
When fewer than three interested eligible candidates are certified and there is no provisional person currently serving in the title listed on the certification, a recognized authority can make a permanent appointment, or make a provisional one from the list, the bylaws state.
Lomonte’s suit alleges the mayor did not promote him to chief out of retaliation for reporting her “harassing” actions to Panarese on multiple occasions. The suit alleges that, shortly after Garretson became mayor in 2014, she requested Lomonte provide her with a police escort to drive her to “duties outside of the township.” Lomonte refused, believing it was unlawful, and reported the request to Panarese, who was serving as chief at that time.
Garretson allegedly became “extremely irate” and asked Lomonte why he’d told the chief of her request. Around that time, Lomonte began to work as the deputy coordinator for the Office of Emergency Management, but he never received compensation since the mayor never acknowledged or recognized him for the position, the lawsuit says. Throughout 2015, the lawsuit said Garretson and Panarese were at odds with each other. In October 2015, Lomonte told Panarese that Garretson had made attempts to get him to “usurp” Panarese’s authority.
A month later, Panarese asked the mayor to promote Lomonte to deputy chief, but she ignored his request, Lomonte’s lawsuit said. Panarese also requested a promotion for Lomonte’s brother, who was an acting lieutenant at the time.
When Lomonte asked Garretson about the status of the paperwork for the promotion, she allegedly laughed at him. The mayor eventually gave her blessing to make the brother’s position permanent, but the township never approved it, the lawsuit stated.
In 2016, Garretson allegedly told Lomonte in front of other employees: “I hope you aren’t discriminating.” Lomonte told Panarese that he wanted to pursue a hostile work environment complaint after the incident, at which point the mayor filed her own internal affairs complaint against Lomonte, the suit reads.
Lomonte learned the following day that the mayor had a requested a police escort to her office, claiming she was concerned for her safety because he had allegedly “threatened her.” Lomonte denies that he threatened Garretson.
Lomonte’s suit also alleges that Garretson told her staff to have no contact with him. She also told Panarese that Lomonte should no longer work in administrative function in an “attempt to prevent (Lomonte) from performing the essential functions of his position,” the suit says.
That had a “detrimental” impact on the township, the suit said. Lomonte allegedly was not allowed to attend an emergency planning meeting for an upcoming snowstorm in 2016.
Due to the lack of “proper coordination,” the schools were closed for three days, while nearby towns were closed for only two, the suit said.
Garretson promoted Ricciardi to acting police chief in April and Lomonte was reassigned to the Detective Bureau by Ricciardi the same day he was promoted, the suit said. Garretson, who formerly served on the Hillside Municipal Council, has been at odds with the police department and the council throughout her tenure as mayor. The council passed a vote of no confidence in the mayor a year after she took office.
Garretson also was issued summonses related to a traffic incident by a Hillside police officer in 2016, around the same time she was in a legal dispute with Panarese. Her lawyers claimed the tickets were political retribution.
NJ Advance Media reported that she was found guilty of some but not all of the charges against her.