HILLSIDE, NJ — In the latest chapter out of the continuing Hillside saga, Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson has hit the Hillside town council and former Chief of Police Louis Panarese with a lawsuit.
The suit, dated June 24, names Hillside council members Donald DeAugustine, Andrea Hyatt, Gerald Freedman, Dianne Murray, Sip Whitaker and Christopher Mobley as defendants, along with Captain Louis Panarese.
The suit stems from the reinstatement of the former police chief by the council, who voted unanimously to overturn Garretson’s demotion of Panarese to captain. Garretson claimed that the demotion was due to the fact that Panarese had not taken the Civil Service exam, while many believe that the mayor’s actions were in retaliation against Panarese after an email he sent to department personnel.
The suit, filed in Superior Court by attorney Genia Phillips on behalf of Garretson, states that “defendants are temporarily enjoined and restrained from engaging in any acts or practices in furtherance of any violation of the Faulkner Act.” In addition, Garretson requests that “defendant Captain Louis Panarese be prohibited from assuming the position of Provisional Police Chief,” and that “Defendants are prohibited from preventing Acting Provisional Police Chief Floyd from carrying out the responsibilities as Police Chief.”
The suit comes days after a sit-down meeting between Garretson and Panarese and mediated by Prosecutor Grace Park, that was, ostensibly, to garner some kind of a working agreement. According to insiders, however, Garretson knocked down every attempt at a compromise with responses of, “no,” and, “I’m not doing that.”
Park, who some say is a friend and former colleague of Garretson’s, ruled in favor of the mayor, stating that the council did not have a right to overturn Garretson’s decision to demote Panarese.
The saga began when Panarese sent an email to members of the police department in an attempt to boost morale within a beleaguered department. With diminishing manpower, the department and its vehicles in disrepair, and a mayor who, many say, has stymied every effort toward a workable and productive relationship with the department, Panarese sent the email out to members of his force to show them some much-needed support and solidarity.
Not long after the email was leaked by someone in the department to Garretson, Garretson demoted Panarese to captain — without notifying the council. Although Hillside Business Administrator Stephanie Bush-Baskette told LocalSource that the demotion was due to Panarese not taking the Civil Service exam, many believe that Garretson’s actions against Panarese are retaliatory.
LocalSource reached out to Garretson asking her to comment on the cost of the litigation to taxpayers, as well as whether she believed that the council’s decision to reinstate Panarese was harmful to Hillside, as she stated in her lawsuit, and why she has taken the steps she has against the former chief. Garretson would not answer any of LocalSource’s questions, responding instead with, “these are opinion questions, what fact question would you like addressed?”
In court papers filed by Panarese’s attorney, Vito Gagliardi, Jr., Gagliardi responds pointedly to Garretson’s suit. “This action stems from the Mayor’s unlawful demotion of Chief Panarese and the subsequent affirmative vote of the Township of Hillside Municipal Council to reinstate Chief Panarese to his position as the Chief of Police of the Hillside Police Department,” Gagliardi states. “Quite simply, the Mayor has unlawfully disturbed the status quo through her unlawful demotion of Chief Panarese and wants the Court to freeze her misdeed in place while this case is litigated. Such a result has no basis in a court of equity.”
Gagliardi continues in outlining the case. “Without any notice to the Council, and without the most fundamental due process to Chief Panarese, she served a letter on him, demoting him immediately in March,” he wrote. “Now that the Council has exercised its authority to right her wrong, the Mayor has run to Court. In trying to justify that which she never tried to justify at the time, the Mayor has asserted a defect in Chief Panarese’s appointment from three years ago and engages in character assassination…The Mayor’s actions violate the Faulkner Act — she acted without notice to the Council, which has now reversed Chief Panarese’s removal with a unanimous vote, and without due process to him.”
Indeed, a look back at the timeline of events shows convoluted and inexplicable actions taken by Garretson in regard to Panarese.
Panarese was nominated for the position of provisional chief of police by former Hillside Mayor Joseph Menza in February, 2013, a nomination that was approved by the council, including then-councilwoman Garretson. Although Panarese was appointed on a provisional basis, Menza requested that the Civil Service Commission examination be waived in preparation for Panarese to be appointed as the permanent Chief of Police.
Fast forward to March 16, 2016 when, as Gagliardi wrote, “without notice, rationale, or due process, the Mayor served Chief Panarese with a letter that demoted him to Captain and unilaterally appointed Richard Floyd to Acting Chief of Police.”
In addition, Garretson charged Panarese with insubordination for sending the email, and a hearing was held — overseen by Garretson’s attorney who, insiders say, was a campaign contributor and political ally of the mayor’s.
The next day, March 17, counsel for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, on behalf of Panarese, wrote a letter to Garretson advising her that she had no legal authority to reduce Panarese in rank without due process, and demanding that Panarese be returned to his rightful position of police chief.
According to the suit, Garretson refused to take any action or respond to the NJSACOP’s letters and, after no response from Garretson for two weeks, the NJSACOP sent a letter to the council advising that the mayor’s demotion of Panarese was unlawful since she failed to provide him with due process.
On April 5, the Council voted to return Panarese to his former position of chief, with a unanimous vote of 4-0, with three abstentions. Despite the council’s unanimous approval, however, Panarese was not reinstated, with the township attorney advising that a two-thirds vote of the council was required for reinstatement.
In early June, Garretson sent a letter to Panarese, informing him that he was immediately suspended for 10 days without pay — a decision handed down by the attorney who had overseen the hearing back in March.
On June 14 — just days after Garretson handed down the suspension — the council voted to reinstate Panarese with a 5-0 vote, satisfying the two-thirds vote requirement.
In response to Garretson’s claims of “immediate and irreparable harm” perpetrated by the defendants, Gagliardi states that Garretson cannot prove any such claim. “Plaintiff will not suffer, and has altogether failed to allege any actual injury to the public, let alone irreparable harm,” Gagliardi wrote in response.
“Plaintiff alleges that Hillside Township will be “rendered in a state of confusion” if two Chiefs of Police are installed and Chief Panarese is reinstated against the authority of the Mayor. Such an argument cannot establish irreparable harm as it is undisputed that the Council has reinstated Chief Panarese as the Chief of Police after a unanimous vote by the council members. As a result, no confusion exists — Chief Panarese is the sole Chief of Police.”
Gagliardi cites Garretson as disregarding the Police Chief’s Bill of Rights afforded to Panarese, and that “the Mayor’s demotion of Chief Panarese, without just cause, due process, and a formal hearing violated both New Jersey statute and case law. The Council has properly reinstated Chief Panarese and Plaintiff has failed to provide any legal basis evidencing how his demotion was lawful.”
Hillside Councilman Sip Whitaker told LocalSource that while he does not dislike Garretson as a person, he does take issue with the way he believes the mayor wields her power. “I think it’s a personal thing with the chief,” Whitaker said. “The chief has been here for three years and there’s never been an issue. Now something happens between you and the chief and now you want to let him go.”
Whitaker maintains that Garretson’s legal disputes are costing taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money. “Sometimes she acts like she hit the lottery the way she spends the taxpayers’ money,” said Whitaker. “The problem is the costs of all those attorneys. We don’t have money like that. Then she hired an Urban Enterprise Zone director. When was she going to tell the council? So that’s more money that it’s going to cost us.”
Whitaker claims that the money going into Garretson’s never-ending legal disputes should be going to more important things, like repairs desperately needed at both the fire and police departments. “These are the things we should be addressing,” said Whitaker.
According to Whitaker, the price tag on the insubordination hearing back in March cost a whopping $25,000. “The bill came in at 25 grand,” said Whitaker. “So now we have these attorneys and it’s costing thousands of dollars. It’s terrible. The taxpayers are suffering. We have two square miles. Hillside is not a big place and we have so much drama,” he said.
Whitaker believes that professionalism is in order on the part of the mayor. “We need to get mature,” he said.
Panarese is now back at work and operating in the capacity of captain. A hearing at Superior Court in Elizabeth is scheduled for July 20.