HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson’s abrupt demotion two weeks ago of former Chief of Police Louis Panarese has unleashed a firestorm of criticism.
The notification of the demotion of Panarese from chief of police to captain — just one of many controversial moves by Garretson — came three hours before that decision went into effect, according to an attorney for Panarese, Vito Gagliardi, Jr.
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.
Many in the department believe the demotion came as a result of an email sent by Panarese to other officers in the department. The letter was intended to boost morale within the department, according to Officer Matt Casterline, Union President for the Patrolmen’s Association. Casterline says that the department has been dealing with scores of serious issues under Garretson’s administration. Casterline cites failure on the township’s part to make pension payments on-time and in-full, as well as deducted funds from subsidiary employee retirement accounts by the township that have never been deposited.
“For over six months we were led to believe that our investments were being managed properly,” said Casterline. “So not only did the town deduct our money, it sat in an account somewhere where the town benefitted off the interest. And when they were deposited, the amount was insufficient.”
In addition, Casterline says that employees are working without contracts.
“Not one department within the township is working under a contract right now,” said Casterline. “We have started negotiations over and over for the last few years and to no avail. Most recently we made agreements with the township attorney and we were ready to sign a contract. Then the mayor told me she was unaware of any of the agreements, causing us to start over.”
According to Township Business Administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette, all of the unions are in contract negotiations — all except the Patrolmen’s Association. “We sat down individually with each union representative,” said Bush-Baskette. “The only ones that didn’t show up was the Patrolmen’s Association. They said they couldn’t show up.”
But that’s not quite how things played out, according to Casterline. “Our union labor representative was unable to make it that day, so we asked to reschedule the meeting,” said Casterline. “Garretson refused to reschedule and said they were proceeding without us.”
Casterline went on to say that the union representatives that did sit down with the council for negotiations still don’t have contracts.
“No progress was made,” said Casterline.
The email written by Panarese — which was obtained by Union County LocalSource — addresses both the work environment under the current administration, as well as serious budgetary irregularities.
“The entire Finance Department has resigned or, in the case of the CFO, choose not to renew their contract. Imagine, if you will, a firm whose sole purpose is to make money as Chief Financial Officer for public entities not seeking to renew a contract. These people leaving are a direct result of a hostile work environment created by the administration,” Panarese wrote in his October 2015 email to fellow officers.
“The latest incident involving the Deferred Comp Fund is a direct result of this,” continued Panarese. “I informed both union presidents a few weeks ago that some type of payroll irregularities would occur. This is no way to run the Township. We have been without contracts for 3 years, yet the administration finds it appropriate to hire what I consider political patronage positions costing the Township hundreds of thousands of tax dollars.”
Panarese went on to say that he has lodged formal complaints to the Union County Prosecutor’s office, as well as the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. “My office has not sat idle, on any issue, in voicing its displeasure with the incompetence of the current administration.”
In the letter, Panarese urged the unions to tackle the issues, and states that he will back the unions with any course of action they decide to take.
“Rest assured, I will not waiver in my quest to adequately staff the department and to make ALL of the promotions that are necessary to continue with the level of service that the citizens of Hillside deserve.”