Hillside attorney facing termination in dispute with mayor

Hillside township attorney Rhea Moore, center, listens to the discussion of Mayor Dahlia Vertreese’s attempt to dismiss her, which included a debate about parliamentary procedure.

HILLSIDE, NJ — A dispute between the township attorney and the mayor, and purportedly her assistant, has the attorney on the brink of termination unless one councilman is allowed to change his vote.

Councilman Donald DeAugustine asked at the end of the Dec. 11 caucus meeting if he could change his earlier vote from “abstain” to one in support of attorney Rhea Moore.

In a letter dated Dec. 2 obtained by LocalSource from Moore, Mayor Dahlia Vertreese informed Moore that it was her “intention to remove (her) as the Township Attorney.”
It was unclear if DeAugustine could ask to change his vote or call for a new vote because it wasn’t known if his abstention constituted a vote for the prevailing side.

At the Dec. 11 meeting one township employee cited “Robert’s Rules for Dummies, Second Edition” — a reference source based on the guide of municipal parliamentary procedure originally published in 1876, which states that only a member from the prevailing side could call for a revote.

Initially, four council members voted to support Moore, with only council President Andrea Hyatt voting against the motion that would have kept Moore in her job. DeAugustine and Craig Epps abstained. The motion was declared passed until Hyatt asked if a superior majority was required. A 15-minute recess was taken as Terence Wall, the new township clerk, checked the statute. When the meeting was reconvened, Wall confirmed that five votes were needed for Moore to keep her position.

When DeAugustine asked if he could change his vote, Wall hesitated to make a ruling. Since Moore was the only lawyer present and was conflicted on the issue, it was decided that the matter would be taken up with special labor counsel Daniel Antonelli.
Antonelli, who was not present at the hearing, said in a Dec. 14 text message that he is reviewing the matter and would not comment further.

According to statements Moore made at the meeting, the mayor’s attempt to remove her is retaliation for a letter Moore wrote to police Chief Vincent Ricciardi on Nov. 29, informing him of an incident in which mayoral assistant Steeve Augustin called the Hillside Police Department to have a parking ticket voided.

According to the letter, which Moroe provided to LocalSource, Moore said “that this incident is not only improper, but also violative of” a local government ethics law. Moore said at the hearing that the matter has been turned over to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.

Moore also alleged that Vertreese has given Augustin authority he should not have because his position is “equivalent to a secretary,” adding that the mayor has allowed Augustin to sit in on discussions involving “private, confidential” township matters. Moore said he should not be privy to such matters because the former attorney was disbarred in 2011.

State Superior Court documents show that Augustin was “recklessly negligent” when he used a client’s trust account to obtain “markers” at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City. Between Aug. 8, 2006 and March 23, 2007, he used the trust account as collateral for his 146 markers. Markers are essentially short-term, no-interest loans or lines of credit.

According to the documents, the total credit extended to Augustin during that time period was $467,250, “all of which was secured by the trust account.”

Moore addressed the council at the caucus meeting, saying that township is facing a more than $4,000 bill from Lowe’s that was charged to a business account with Augustin’s name attached to it. Moore said she had confirmed this with an employee at Lowe’s and added that business administrator Hope Smith has refused to authorize payment on it “because it is improper for Mr. Augustin to be personally listed on that account.”

“Mr. Augustin is not a confidential employee and he holds himself out to be the mayor’s confidential aide,” Moore said. “I’ve witnessed Mr. Augustin provide legal advice to the mayor. I’ve witnessed him sign contracts (with Comcast and Windstream) on behalf of the township, participate in legal and personnel discussions and, moreover, his status as a disbarred attorney precludes him from being involved in those discussions and from conducting himself as a quasi-lawyer. He has usurped a position that does not exist. I ask why do we allow him to engage in this conduct.

“I have advised the mayor on numerous occasions and she does not want to accept it. Instead I have already been retaliated against. I was told yesterday morning by Ms. Smith that I would have to be moved from my office because Steeve does not feel comfortable with me there. I was also advised by council President Hyatt, as well as other directors, that all legal matters are now referred to the business administrator and the directors were contacted and told not to have any contact with me.”

Vertreese began the hearing portion of the meeting by reading from a prepared statement listing several reasons for wanting to dismiss Moore; she criticized Moore for allegedly not following a directive to draft an employee handbook, refusing to clock in like other employees, and being lax in overseeing outside counsel’s handling of ongoing litigation in the township.

“Should the council decide to keep Ms. Moore, we are reverting back to a time when the township attorney failed to protect the entity and the members of this township, which is just another formula for lawsuits going forward,” Vertreese said. “I understand Ms. Moore believes that my actions in this matter are to allegedly protect another employee from scrutiny. It is my hope that the evidence presented to you this evening says otherwise.

“There are two options in this regard: A township attorney we cannot trust to protect our interests and the interest of the town or a township attorney who is unqualified to perform as needed for the job. Neither option is acceptable.”

According to Augustin the Lowe’s account was used to buy garbage cans for the township and the parking ticket in question had been issued to a senior citizen during a Thanksgiving event. The office who issued the ticket, Augustin said, told him it had been done in error and instructed Augustin to call to have it dismissed.

Moore pointed out that the township “has not received any legal litigation that’s of any significance this year” and that any ongoing cases are being handled by attorneys appointed by the township’s insurance company.

“In the past, the cases were not referred to the insurance companies so that could take place and the township has suffered a lot of fees because of that,” Moore said. “I have done due diligence and made sure all those cases that come across my desk go to the insurance company as they are rightfully supposed to go.”