HILLSIDE, NJ — Just about everyone in Hillside seems to be waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. After Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson handed down a 10-day, unpaid suspension to former Hillside Chief of Police Louis Panarese on alleged charges of insubordination, followed by a reinstatement of Panarese by the town council against the orders of Garretson, people are waiting and wondering what will happen next.
Panarese’s suspension comes several months after he was demoted by Garretson for what many believe to be retaliation against Panarese for an email he sent to department personnel to boost their morale in what seems to be a town that is fast coming loose at the seams.
After several unsuccessful council votes to reinstate Panarese, the council finally voted to reinstate the former police chief.
Garretson had sent several letters to the council threatening them with actions if Panarese’s reinstatement went through. The council, undeterred, ignored her threats and went ahead with the reinstatement.
In a letter sent by Garretson to the council, Garretson threatens to take any necessary steps to stop or overturn the reinstatement. “I am writing to all councilmembers regarding legislative interference,” Garretson wrote in a letter dated June 9. “The council on more than three occasions illegally tried to reinstate Captain Louis Panarese to the Acting position of Chief of Police. The council has no legal authority to reinstate the captain.”
Garretson then lists reasons why Panarese must not be reinstated, including his appointment to the acting position by former Hillside Mayor Joe Menza, the fact that Panarese did not take the Civil Service exam and that the exam had not been waived, and the fact that “appointments are an administrative function…the council is legislative and has no authority to interfere in day to day operations.”
Ironically, Menza was sued by Garretson herself when she was council president over the issue of appointments, with the decision coming back in Menza’s favor under the Faulkner Act.
In the letter, Garretson threatens the council with definitive action. “As a result of any additional interference, I will provide all documentation to start an investigation into the operations of the council’s violation to follow proper procedure and state laws, to the following agencies: Prosecutor’s Office, Attorney General’s office, Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and Federal Bureau of Investigation,” wrote Garretson. “In summary, I am advising the council that any further action on this matter is in breach of the law and action will be taken against those members who ignore the law.”
Hillside Business Administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette told LocalSource that she did not know what Garretson’s next move would be. “I don’t have information regarding the intended next steps,” said Bush-Baskette.
According to Hillside councilman Gerald P. Freedman, the council has already discussed hiring an attorney. “Someone on the council wanted to hire an attorney to defend us, but we’ve tabled it for now,” he said.
Hillside Democratic Chairman Anthony Salters told LocalSource that any future litigation is a waste of taxpayer’s money. “I am relieved and hopeful that this issue is finally resolved,” said Salters, referring to Panarese’s reinstatement. “I have spoken to the mayor and police chief — separately and together — in the hopes of moving forward in a more positive manner. Any future litigation regarding this action is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. I have, in stronger terms, which will remain private, stressed how vital it is, that for the good of Hillside they work and communicate together better,” he said.
An anonymous source close to Panarese said that Garretson is citing and communicating erroneous claims. “She’s citing things in this paperwork that are simply not true,” said the source. “The residents aren’t being told otherwise, so she’s getting away with falsehoods. She never wrote the letter to civil service, so there is zero way that they agreed with what she did.”
Freedman now believes that Garretson never actually sent the letter that she claimed was sent. “That letter was never written,” said Freedman.
The source claims that many of Garretson’s former political allies have abandoned ship, including many who helped get her elected. “She’s made too many rash decisions, lost too many good employees, and stepped on too many toes,” said the anonymous source. “She has zero evidence to back up her outrageous claims and I’ve heard that the Union County prosecutor’s office blew her off. If this woman goes to the FBI, she will be setting herself up for persecution or prosecution. She’s done so many barely legal things, specifically handling Hillside’s funds and hiring uncertified employees.”
Panarese returns to work tomorrow, and many at the department say that they are waiting to see how the next few weeks and months will play out.