HILLSIDE, NJ — In an ironic twist of events, former Hillside Chief of Police Louis Panarese has been reinstated by the town council at their June 14 meeting — just days after Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson handed down a 10-day, unpaid suspension to Panarese for alleged insubordination.
Panarese — whom Garretson demoted several months ago without warning — was informed of the 10-day, unpaid suspension in a letter sent to his home last week.
Panarese was reinstated by a 5-0 vote, with councilman Gerald Freedman initiating the vote, and councilmembers Donald DeAugustine, Christopher Mobley, Sip Whitaker, and George “Tony” Alston unanimously voting for the reinstatement. Councilmembers Dianne Murray and Andrea Hyatt were not present.
The insubordination charges filed by Garretson against Panarese stem from an email sent by Panarese in October to members of the police department in an attempt to boost their morale. After the email was leaked, a disciplinary hearing was held — on or around the same day as Panarese’s demotion — and presided over by a hearing officer, who said he would review the case and come back with a decision.
According to sources inside the department, a decision about Panarese’s suspension was supposed to come down on May 21 and a meeting was to be held, but the meeting never happened.
Inside sources told LocalSource that the hearing officer was an attorney and ally of Garretson who was also a contributor to Garretson’s campaign. The attorney was allegedly hired by Garretson back in January, and his ties to Garretson have been called a conflict of interest by many.
Insiders have referred to Panarese’s hearing as a “kangaroo court,” saying that the proceedings were a sham and that a representative for the former police chief was not allowed to speak on Panarese’s behalf.
Hillside business administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette told LocalSource that neither she, nor Garretson, could comment. “We cannot comment on this matter as it is a personnel matter,” said Bush-Baskette.
Bush-Baskette had previously told LocalSource that Panarese’s demotion was the result of him needing to take the Civil Service test, and that the demotion had nothing to do with the email that Panarese had sent.
LocalSource has obtained the letter sent by Panarese to members of the department, dated Oct. 8, 2015:
As you are aware the administration of the Township has not exactly been stellar in their leadership over the past 21 months. 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. The latest incident involving the Deferred Comp Fund is a direct result of this. 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.
I have been butting heads with the administration almost from its onset in January 2014. Captain Lomonte and I have fought and argued with them on every front regarding manpower and hiring, promotions, dispatchers, etc. only to be rebuffed at every turn. Finally after 18 months we were cleared to hire 3 dispatchers. We are however still short 14 police officers, even after the 8 hires.
I have made formal complaints to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and most recently with 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.
I have warned the three unions of the direction of the Township and now it’s time for the unions to step up and do what it can. I will back you in whatever course of action you decide to take, but 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 service that the citizens of Hillside deserve.
Panarese’s attorneys have called the suspension illegal. “Hillside’s illegal suspension of our client was under the guise of a ‘hearing’ presided over by a ‘hearing officer’ who was hand-picked, appointed, and well-compensated by the Township,” said Jeffrey Catrambone, of law firm Sciarra and Catrambone. “This, in addition to Hillside’s ill-conceived demotion of our client, is the latest in a campaign of retaliatory conduct against a police chief with a distinguished career as a law enforcement officer, as a result of his pointing out violations of law. Chief Panarese is a whistleblower and looks forward to addressing all issues in court.”
Hillside councilman Gerald P. Freedman told LocalSource that Garretson has not followed any kind of proper procedure throughout the process. “All I know is that we asked the mayor to send a letter to Civil Service,” said Freedman, who said that members of the council wanted specific questions answered pertaining to hiring practices and the civil service exam. “We wanted to see the letter and we asked questions, but she wasn’t forthcoming. We were told that only the mayor could have input in the letter. We wanted specific questions answered and they were never addressed in the letter.”
Freedman said that the council had asked Garretson to send the letter to the Civil Service Commission between 10 days and two weeks from the time it was requested, but Freedman said that he was not sure whether a letter was even sent. “We didn’t question whether the mayor had a right to make appointments,” said Freedman. “It was the way it was done.”
Freedman told LocalSource before the June 14 meeting that although he had abstained from votes taken by the council to reinstate Panarese to his former position, he was ready to change his vote. “I’m willing to change my abstention vote to reinstate him because of how the process was done,” said Freedman. Indeed, Freedman made good on his promise and voted to reinstate Panarese to his former position.
According to Freedman, the council had recently received a letter from Garretson threatening them if they tried to reinstate Panarese. “We got a letter threatening the council that if we made any move to reinstate Panarese, we were in violation,” said Freedman. “It was quite threatening.”
Freedman maintained before the meeting that if the council did vote to reinstate Panarese, Garretson would probably not adhere to the vote. “If we vote him in, she probably would lock him out anyway,” said Freedman. “Whatever this woman does doesn’t surprise me.”
Former Hillside council president Salonia Saxton said that Panarese’s suspension is just another example of Garretson’s misconduct. “While the town is falling apart, the streets are crumbling, vacant properties unattended and overgrown with grass and weeds, trash is flying all over the streets, catch basins are full of trash causing flooding, this mayor is suspending our police chief,” said Saxton. “This mayor has done nothing for this township but cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars with illegal hirings and lawsuits. From the time this mayor took office, Hillside has been in complete disarray, and what’s sadder is that nothing is done to put an end to this nightmare. Talk about official misconduct. Why hasn’t the attorney general’s office stepped in?”
A source inside the department — who, like many others, asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by Garretson — said that the grounds for Panarese’s suspension are unfounded. “Ever since Mayor Angela Garretson has taken over, it’s been a constant battle between her and the chief,” he said. “He wants what’s best for the town and police department regarding safety and staffing. But because he doesn’t play the political games of give and take she refuses to work with him for the common goal. We still work in horrible conditions regarding the cars and buildings, Serious pay discrepancies, lack of contracts, and promotional issues. Manpower is still at an all-time low. Every one of these issues is at the hands of the mayor.”
The source went on to say that in sending a letter to department members, Panarese was trying to boost morale in a climate that is fast becoming toxic. “Chief Panarese was only attempting to let his employees know that the issues were not going unnoticed and that he was attempting to salvage whatever morale was left,” he said. “Since she had been successful in removing him as chief and now suspending him, it has shown the employees that unless you do things her way, it’s the highway. All the issues that he brought up have been highlighted in the public already. He wasn’t stating anything that wasn’t true. It’s not insubordination as she claims. If anything, she’s being insubordinate to the employees and citizens she swore to protect, but instead politics has taken a precedence over the safety of the town. We went from a proud town of low crime to the laughing stock of Union County, and crime is on an upswing. He predicted this and knew it was going to happen sooner or later with the way she has been mismanaging the town.”
Yet another anonymous source said that some blame must be laid at the feet of the council. “Angela Garretson does what she wants, when she wants, and she’s not made accountable,” said the source. “I blame the council. They let her get away with it. I just can’t believe that no one is holding her accountable. This is just a travesty. This human doesn’t understand that this is law enforcement. There are things that Panarese can do without her permission, and she doesn’t like that.”
Supporters of Panarese took to Facebook after the reinstatement to celebrate. “Hail the Chief.” reads one post. Another reads, “The Hillside Township Council voted to reverse Mayor Angela Garretson’s demotion of Chief Louis Panarese to Captain. So once again, Chief Panarese takes the reins of the Hillside Police Department. Mayor Garretson did not take this action by the Council very well. She has sent a letter to every investigatory agency in the State of New Jersey and beyond alleging illegal acts, misconduct and ethics violations by members of the Township Council. Next stop? Superior Court, I’m sure. But in the meantime, Congratulations Louie.”
In addition, Garretson’s letter mentioned in this article, which was described by Freedman as threatening the council, is posted on the Hillside Facebook forum.