Residents grill Mountainside council over police case

MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ – Several residents have told the mayor and Borough Council they are concerned that a recent lawsuit filed against the borough by five male police officers and a female clerical employee could raise taxes and decrease property values.

At the June 19 council meeting, a $200,000 emergency appropriation was approved to help pay for legal fees associated with the lawsuit, and Mayor Paul Mirabelli and members of the council were questioned about whether they had taken the correct action or were doing enough to restore the borough’s reputation after the 46-page lawsuit was filed in Superior Court on May 11.

The suit includes allegations of ignored harassment dating back nearly 20 years within the Mountainside Police Department.
Resident Liz Truman said at the meeting that when people looking to settle in the borough do an internet search of Mountainside, they will “be hit with article after article” detailing allegations in the lawsuit, such as how a sex toy was allegedly thrown at subordinate officers and waved in their faces.

“They read the allegations, which they believe are too numerous and too extreme to all be false,” Truman said. “They’re disgusted, and in disbelief, they decide not to take a chance on home ownership here. They don’t want to live in a town where this behavior is apparently tolerated and are concerned about the potential increases to property taxes in a town that will undoubtedly incur significant expenses from litigation and settlements.
“As a homeowner, I’m concerned about the potential drop in my property value that will likely result because of this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit was filed by officers Jeffrey Stinner, Christopher Feighner, Richard Latargia, Thomas Norton and James Urban as well as Amy Colineri, who formerly worked as a part-time dispatcher and now works as a part-time clerical employee in the department.

Police Chief Allan Attanasio, Detective Sgt. Andrew Huber and Lt. Thomas Murphy have been placed on paid administrative leave. According to state records, Attanasio has an annual salary of $150,104.

Among the numerous allegations in the lawsuit are that Attanasio pointed a laser-sighted pistol at subordinates when he was a lower-ranking officer. The lawsuit also makes references to sex toys, use of a flashlight to touch department members’ buttocks, suggestive comments and other allegations.

Huber is accused of possessing and displaying a sex toy that he would throw at officers and wave in their faces. Westfield-based lawyer Joshua McMahon, who has in the past represented members of the Mountainside Police Department, provided LocalSource with a video that he said shows Huber removing a blue phallic toy from a filing cabinet and waving it in an unidentified man’s face. The man in the video who appears to be recording the incident on his phone, McMahon said, is Murphy.

Several times throughout the meeting, residents told the council they feared these allegations would tarnish Mountainside’s reputation. And, they demanded to know how it could be restored.

“The allegations in the complaint raise some serious issues of sexism, gender bias, homophobia and racism,” Anjali Mehrotra said at the meeting. “They break a trust cycle in this town. The trust between the Mountainside Police Department and the Borough Council, between the council and the residents. What are you going to do to restore that trust? How are you going to restore the reputation of our town?”

Mirabelli repeatedly defended the council. He said it had taken the correct course of action by placing the three senior officers on paid leave and hiring former Assistant U.S. Attorney William Maderer to expand his current investigation to include allegations in the recent lawsuit.
Mirabelli also said the Union County Prosecutor’s Office is conducting an investigation into the allegations in the lawsuit. He said the borough has also hired Christine Amalfe, “a highly experienced labor and employment attorney,” from the Gibbons P.C. law firm in Newark.

The mayor added that residents’ taxes could not go up in 2018, and that he and the council would be “fiscally responsive so that your taxes will go up as small as possible in 2019.”

Despite Mirabelli’s attempts to reassure residents he and the council were taking appropriate measures, the meeting often turned contentious.
At one point, borough attorney John Post sought to allay residents’ fears that legal fees and punitive damages could result in a tax hike in 2019.
“The governing body and the borough does not believe for one instant there is any factual basis for determining that there would be punitive damages awarded in this case,” Post said.

Laughter in the audience, however, prompted Mirabelli to interrupt.
“Please show some respect here tonight,” the mayor said. “Everybody will have their opportunity to come and speak.”
A few residents questioned the role of the police commission, which is comprised of councilmen Robert Messler, Keith Turner, Glenn Mortimer.
When resident Scott Kline asked Turner to discuss his role as the borough’s police commissioner, Mirabelli stepped in and said, “For Mr. Turner to address it at this time is against the advice of our attorneys.”

After another round of laughter from the 30 or so residents at the meeting, Kline said, “I’m asking a basic question. I’m only asking about what a police commissioner does.”

Post said he believed the title “police commissioner” had been removed from the job description, and said he would send Kline an email with the official job description.

For residents such as Genevieve Cooper, the reassurances from the administration didn’t go far enough. When she suggested that the controversy stemming from the lawsuit would have been put behind them if the mayor and council had fired Attanasio, Huber and Murphy when the allegations were first made, the room filled with applause.

“In any other environment, if you work in a pharmacy, if you work in a department store, if you work in a legal firm, if someone is doing some of the things we saw in videos and in deposition and so forth, the answer is that they’re fired,” Cooper said. “It’s not that we immediately hire a lawyer.”

The borough and Mirabelli issued statements via the borough’s Twitter feed and website shortly after the lawsuit was filed stating they first learned of the allegations in a Feb. 28 meeting with Police Benevolent Association attorney Leonard Schiro.