HILLSIDE, NJ — Former Chief of Police Louis Panarese has been dealt another blow at the hands of Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson.
The April 5 workshop meeting of the Hillside council was standing room only, as members of the police department, police chiefs from surrounding municipalities, residents and friends came out to support Panarese, who was abruptly demoted to captain on March 16. The meeting was to determine whether Panarese would be reinstated to his former position.
At the meeting — to which Garretson arrived flanked by two bodyguards — council president Donald DeAugustine introduced a motion to reinstate Captain Panarese to his former position. “Yes” votes came from DeAugustine and councilmembers George “Tony” Alston, Diane L. Murray, and Sip T. Whitaker. Council Vice President Andrea Hyatt abstained, along with councilmembers Christopher Mobley and Gerald Freedman.
DeAugustine called for a second vote on the motion, with the same three council members abstaining once again.
The determination was made by township attorney Farrah Irving that five votes in favor of reinstating Panarese were needed and duly announced that the motion had not passed.
The demotion — which came in a letter from Garretson a mere three hours before it went into effect — came on the heels of an email Panarese sent out within the department. The email was written to boost morale in a department that continues to be beleaguered by problems. Lack of contracts, missing pensions, budgetary irregularities and unfair labor practices are just some of the issues cited by several employees of the department.
According to Garretson, Panarese’s demotion had nothing to do with the email and was only implemented because Panarese was hired as chief provisionally and had not taken the civil service test.
Former Hillside Mayor Joseph Menza, who was the mayor at the time of Panarese’s appointment to chief in 2013, said that Garretson voted for Panarese and was fully aware that the position was provisional, yet took no action of any kind until after she became aware of the email. “Everybody voted for him,” said Menza of Panarese’s appointment. “We asked to have the test waived. The mayor knew he was provisional.”
Garretson was unavailable for comment as of press time.
The question being asked repeatedly is why Panarese was simply not kept in his former position until he took the civil service test and why former police captain Robert Floyd was promoted to Chief of Police despite his not taking the test either.
“It was clearly the intention of the council to appoint Panarese and that it would become permanent,” said Menza of the 2013 appointment. “A resolution was written. The test does not need to be given. Typically, chiefs do not take the test. Garretson voted for appointment and to have the test waived.”
According to Menza, Garretson failed to follow protocol under the Faulkner Act, which provides New Jersey municipalities with a variety of models of local government. Under this act, it would necessitate written notification to all council members before removal of a department head. “The council had the opportunity to reinstate him with a two-thirds majority vote, meaning five votes,” said Menza. “They did not as of yet. Under the Faulkner Act, she does not have the authority to appoint a department head without advice and consent. She clearly broke the law,” he said of Garretson.
According to former council president Salonia Saxton, Garretson was asked during the meeting if she would reconsider the decision, to which she responded, “no.”
“It was amazing what happened that night,” said Saxton of the meeting. “I can’t understand for the life of me why he was not reinstated,” she said of Panarese.
Sergeant Matt Cove, president of Superior Officers Association, Lodge 160, says that his union was disappointed by the council’s decision. “Our lodge’s view is that his removal was improper,” said Cove of Panarese. “We were disappointed that his removal was not immediately overturned. We had hoped that the council would come together. We as a lodge support Chief Panarese.”
Cove went on to say that although the association has confidence in the newly appointed Floyd, they are disturbed by the demotion. “His removal has caused a big distraction within the police department,” said Cove of Panarese.
Councilman Freedman, who abstained on the motion, said that more information was needed before he could vote definitively. “I’m in no rush, I want to get all of the information on the legality of the issue,” said Freedman of the provisional aspect of Panarese’s appointment. “I was elected to vote with my brain, not my heart. I don’t know the law or the legality of what was done. Four of my colleagues had no interest in knowing the legal standing.”
According to Freedman, a letter will be drafted and sent immediately to the Civil Service Commission in order to determine the issue more decisively. That said, Freedman maintains that there is something decidedly questionable about Garretson’s actions.
“Didn’t the mayor know it was provisional?” said Freedman of the former chief’s position. “She never said anything. I have a lot of questions as to why it was done this way. But the bottom line is that if the mayor has her prerogative and if the Civil Service Commission backs her up, we don’t have much say in it.”
Menza questions not only Garretson’s controversial decision in demoting Panarese, but also the process. “Where is the progressive discipline in all this?” said Menza. “There is no progressive discipline at all here. The mayor should have informed the council before she demoted him. Anybody with common sense would look through this and say this is a personal vendetta.”
Menza also questions the integrity of township attorney Irving, whom he calls ‘tainted.’ “She dwelled on the provisional aspect of this, not the fairness,” said Menza of Irving.
Saxton says that the disappointment upon hearing the council’s decision was palpable. “You could hear an audible sigh of sadness,” said Saxton of the crowd of supporters. “I have never seen such sadness. It’s amazing that she got elected,” she said of Garretson.
An employee of the department who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation at the hands of Garretson — one of many employees who expressed similar fears — says that a lot has changed since Panarese’s demotion. “He’s a good man,” she said of Panarese. “I can’t say enough good things about him. I’m scared for this man. I’m scared for this town. Floyd didn’t want this job,” she said of the newly appointed chief. “The mayor told him that he’s not allowed to get guidance from Captain Panarese.”
Freedman believes that Garretson’s actions against Panarese have more to do with her own agenda than the law. “Do I think it’s personal?” said Freedman. “Of course it’s personal.”
Menza asserts that the mayor is setting herself up for trouble. “This opens the door for Captain Panarese to file a lawsuit,” said Menza. “It’s unlawful firing.”
The anonymous employee said that many at the department are in a state of turmoil. “It’s like a light went out in everybody,” she said. “Everybody’s scared. People want to talk about it but they’re scared. They’re walking on eggshells.”