HILLSIDE, NJ — Mayor Angela Garretson has struck again.
The sudden demotion last week of Hillside Chief of Police Louis Panarese has left the already beleaguered township in the throes of yet another scandal.
According to Officer Mark Casterline, who has been with the Hillside Police Department for nine years, the demotion of Panarese from chief of police to captain is just the latest in a slew of negative incidents associated with Garretson. Garretson, a Democrat who was elected mayor of Hillside in 2014, appointed Captain Richard Floyd as acting chief to replace Panarese.
Panarese, 57, is a 32-year veteran of the police department and served as captain for six years before being appointed as chief of police. Floyd has been with the department for 26 years and served as captain since December 2014.
Casterline believes that the demotion is directly connected to an email sent by Panarese.
“The mayor has been trying to to get him suspended since he sent that email,” Casterline said.
The email, according to Casterline, was sent by Panarese to other officers in the department and was intended to boost morale within the department.
“He wanted to let the officers know that their complaints are not going unnoticed,” said Casterline.
At time of publication, Union County LocalSource was unable to obtain a copy of the email.
According to Casterline, the police department has been besieged by problems and has been ignored by Garretson. “The township has failed to make pension payments on time and in full amounts,” said Casterline. “Officers cannot retire or take pension loans. Ten percent of our salary is deducted for retirement. The township took our money and where did it go?”
The problems with pay persist.
“Not one department within the township is working under contract right now,” said Casterline. He also stated that the department’s building is in grave disrepair and that a new police car has not been purchased in ten years.
“You’d be extremely embarrassed if you drove by our department and saw our cars,” said Casterline, citing exposed wires, dents and bald tires as just a few of the problems.
“An email should be the least of our worries, and yet the mayor is wasting township resources on attorney fees on fighting this issue. The problems I speak of is what’s going to be the downfall of Hillside’s public safety.”
The email sent by Panarese culminated with insubordination charges being filed against him by Garretson.
But according to Township Administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette, the demotion was implemented because of a civil service test that must be given to potential candidates for the position of police chief and is completely unconnected to the Garretson’s charges of insubordination.
“The disciplinary hearing is totally separate and apart from the civil service test,” said Bush-Baskette. “The charges of insubordination is based on an email that Panarese sent to other officers in the department.”
The last of the hearings was held this past Friday, and, according to Bush-Baskette, a final decision regarding the charges has not been made.
As of press time, Garretson was unavailable for comment.
Casterline says that former mayor Joseph Menza had waived the civil service test but, according to Bush-Baskette, the test will be reinstated in about a month.
“I was surprised that the former mayor didn’t do it,” Bush-Baskette said.
The township has been beset by problems and has been catapulted into the public eye since Garretson’s assumption of office. Mismanagement of personnel, chronic vacancies, serious budgetary issues, loss of monies and grants, neglect of infrastructure and a failure to negotiate contracts with township employees are just some of the grievances against Garretson.
An employee at the department who refused to be identified was brought to tears when asked about Panarese’s demotion. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said. The unnamed employee said that she was afraid to say anything or to go on record. “They’ll hang me out to dry,” she said.
Vito Gagliardi Jr., attorney for Panarese, said that there was a unanimous vote in February 2013 when Garretson was on the council, appointing Panarese police chief.
“A unanimous vote installed him three years ago,” said Gagliardi Jr. “And she gave three hours notice to Panarese informing him of his demotion,” he said of the mayor.
According to Gagliardi Jr., Garretson sent a letter March 16 to Township Council members notifying them of the promotion of Captain Richard Floyd to Police Chief, effective that same day.
“Forget due process,” said Gagliardi Jr. “There’s no process. She gave no reason whatsoever. Presumably tomorrow she’ll decide that someone else should be chief of police. She did this on a whim and without due process. She cannot undo what the council has done.”
Panarese had been serving as chief until Floyd returned from vacation March 21. Now that Floyd is back, no one knows for sure who the acting police chief actually is.
“No one knows for sure who is acting police chief,” Gagliardi Jr. said. “This should be a concern for every citizen of Hillside.”
Gagliardi Jr. said the sequence of events seemed retaliatory.
“I can’t say whether this is retaliation,” continued Gagliardi Jr., referring to the mayor’s actions against Panarese over the sent email, “But I can say it sure looks that way.”
According to Casterline, Garretson has never implemented a Civil Service Test when it comes to sergeant and lieutenant captain positions.
“She’s created this system where she has to interview people,” said Casterline. “She conducts these backwards interviews. You basically have to kiss her ass to get a promotion.”
The current controversy is the least of the department’s issues, says Casterline, citing issues of pay, contracts, pensions, the dilapidated condition of the department’s building and fleet of patrol cars, budgeting mismanagement, missing funds, and charges of unfair labor practices, which the department’s union filed against the mayor.
“There is no cooperation between the township and the police department since the mayor has taken over,” said Casterline. “They’ve been butting heads since she took over.”
The mayor has been trying to get him suspended. The captain has to fight with her every step of the way,” Casterline said of Panarese and Garretson. And, Casterline said, he believes that for the mayor, this is a personal vendetta.
“This is just a way for her to get back at him,” Casterline said of Garretson’s actions against Panarese. “She wants a public apology. I think she’ll drop the charges if he publicly apologizes.”
Casterline commented on the atmosphere that he believes Garretson has fostered.
“The mayor has created her own little universe,” continued Casterline. “She does whatever she wants. It’s a complete Mayor Garretson world over there.”
According to Gagliardi Jr., if the issue of Panarese’s demotion is not resolved, action will need to be taken. “I’m certain that if this is not clarified by council or by the prosecutor’s office, we will litigate,” said Gagliardi Jr.
Casterline believes, however, that Panarese will eventually regain his rightful position.
“Chief Panarese will be back to being chief again,” he said.