The vote to appoint a new municipal prosecutor, the awarding of contracts to new attorneys and the selection of an architectural firm were called “political favors” by some council members.
Councilman Reginald Atkins said after the meeting he was considering contacting the state Attorney General’s Office about hiring practices he characterized as “very messy.”
Adkins, Cynthia Johnson and Kim Shaw mainly voted together against council members Denise Wilkerson, John Fortuna and Brandon Bernier, who are aligned with Mayor Christine Dansereau. Twice Dansereau’s vote broke council stalemates.
“Tonight, you saw our mayor break two ties to give or award contracts to people that she’s in covenant with,” Atkins said at the meeting. “There’s some challenges there. Over $100,000 to attorneys; $25,000 to architects. We have to be fiscally responsible for what we do.”
The contentious meeting focussed on a resolution appointing Corrine Bentley McGhee as municipal prosecutor.
Adkins said at the previous council meeting the council was “asked to appoint a Carolyn Sullivan” to the position by a “blind vote of confidence” to replace former prosecutor Steve Merman. Sullivan subsequently said she could not assume the position because of personal reasons, Adkins said.
“Some of us sitting up here, we just don’t know,” Adkins said. “We called the court, we called the judge. There was no performance issues or problems or anything along those lines. And now today we are being asked to vote on this particular resolution. The hiring process, it just seems messy. I know this is probably going to go through, but I just wanted to make sure I went on record with all those things I just identified.”
When asked after the meeting if there had been an issue with Merman’s performance, Dansereau responded, “We don’t need a reason to try someone new.”
Bentley McGhee was appointed, but tensions rose again during discussion about another resolution awarding a contract to DMR Architects for an amount “not to exceed $25,000.”
Johnson announced at the meeting that Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr is listed as director of business development on DMR Architects’ website.
Dansereau endorsed Mahr in her failed 2018 bid for chairwoman of the Union County Democratic Committee. At the time, Dansereau said there weren’t “enough words to describe the integrity, honesty, intelligence and commitment” Mahr demonstrated throughout her political career.
The mayor defended the DMR appointment when questioned by Johnson and Adkins.
“Is there a reason why the council can’t entertain DMR legally?” she said. “I don’t understand because let me just be clear to the public that Colleen Mahr is an esteemed president of the league of municipalities and also mayor of Fanwood for many years.
“Is there a reason why, because I know a whole lot of people who work in Union County; we have to go down the list (of those) who are both council people as well as other people who work for agencies and companies and I’m wondering if there’s something illegal with that?”
Shaw responded, saying, “I think the issue is there have been accusations of political favors and things like that and so when I look at a resolution that has the name of a company of which an individual serves as the director of business development, and that individual has close political relationships with people on this dais, I do have to question it.”
The choices of several law firms to enter contracts with totalling more than $100,000 also came under scrutiny at the meeting. Johnson, Adkins and Shaw questioned the appointments of law firms Antonelli Kantor, Jalloh & Jalloh and Garrubbo & Capece.
Shaw questioned the appoint of the Garrubbo & Capece firm, which was hired as “special counsel – labor” according to the agenda. She said the firm’s website lists area of expertise, such as medical malpractice, significant personal injury, discrimination and others, and wondered why Garrubbo & Capece was being considered for appointment for an amount not to exceed $15,000 since labor was not on that list of specialties.
Bernier, however, defended the choice, saying, “I just want to remind the public that every member of this council, as far as my recollection goes, two weeks ago voted on a list of qualified vendors. So, if we had issues on whether or not any of these law firms are qualified to do the work under which they submitted, I think that would have been the time to do so.”
Johnson later said, “Everyone on this resolution definitely is qualified, but the question is are they qualified to work for us as a borough?”
Shaw also pointed out that the state attorney general had “levied a series of allegations against one of the main partners” of the firm in 2014, which concerned her.
In that case, Elizabeth Board of Education member Juan Donoso, board attorney Kirk Nelson, and outside board counsel Frank Capece were charged with covering up a false application filed by Donoso’s wife for the federally funded free lunch program.
The wife, Olga Oviedo-Arevalo, was charged with filing several false applications. In 2016, Capece was acquitted in the case. Capece writes a weekly column for LocalSource.
When the council vote tied 3-3, Dansereau cast the deciding vote to appoint Garrubbo & Capece.