HILLSIDE, NJ — After Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson slammed former Hillside Chief of Police Louis Panarese and the Hillside town council with a lawsuit for allegedly violating the Faulkner Act in overturning her demotion of Panarese months ago, Panarese has emerged as the acting provisional chief of police, effective July 31.
At a hearing last week at superior court in Elizabeth, Judge Karen Cassidy handed down her verdict reinstating Panarese as acting provisional chief of police, effective on July 31, 2016, the date of current Acting Chief of Police Richard Floyd’s retirement. Floyd was promoted by Garretson from the position of captain on the day she demoted Panarese, informing him in an email that the demotion would be effective within mere hours of her notice.
Cassidy listened to arguments from attorneys representing Panarese, the town council, New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, and Garretson as police chiefs from across Union County and others looked on.
Cassidy seemed shocked when Vito Gagliardi, Jr., attorney for Panarese, mentioned that Floyd was retiring at the end of the month.
At some point during the proceedings, Garretson also allegedly stated that the council was “out to get her.”
As of press time, Garretson had not responded to a request for comment on the outcome of the hearing.
Cassidy stated that public safety was her first concern, and that once Floyd retired from his post at the end of the month, Panarese would be reinstated as acting provisional chief.
Hillside Councilman Gerald Freedman told LocalSource that the outcome of the hearing was common sense. “I think it’s a shame that they had to go through paying the attorneys and all these legal fees to make a common-sense decision,” said Freedman. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Hillside Councilman Sip Whitaker told LocalSource that he was happy with the outcome of the hearing. “I knew she was going to lose,” Whitaker said of Garretson.
But the saga does not end there, as Panarese has served Garretson with a lawsuit of his own. LocalSource has obtained a copy of the suit, which was filed last week in superior court by attorney for Panarese Jeffrey Catrambone.
In the suit, Panarese refers to Garretson’s repeated violations of Civil Service Law regulations, including her failure to place employees into needed positions in order to properly staff the police department.
In an email dated December 9, 2014, Panarese informed Garretson of his refusal to allow her to further violate the Civil Service Act, and subsequently had to ask Garretson to comply with regulations for new hires within the department. “Months would pass before Mayor Garretson would respond and take any action certifying lists, calling for promotional exams, and updating materials in the CAMPS system for Civil Service,” said court papers. “Defendant employed officers who worked out of title which is a violation of Civil Service Law.”
Court papers show that in April, 2015, Panarese complained via phone call to Marc Van Brugen of the Civil Service Commission, and that “Mayor Garretson was not following the Civil Service Act and was failing to take statutorily and administratively required actions.”
According to papers, the Commission determined that Mayor Garretson “was negligent in her duties under the Civil Service Act and associated regulations,” and that Garretson was ordered by the Commission to correct these deficiencies. Garretson ignored the staffing issue, according to court documents, as well as the order from the Civil Service Commission.
Despite communication on the part of Panarese to Garretson citing public safety risks at due to understaffing, Garretson allegedly ignored the issue.
Panarese cites a hostile work environment, abuse of authority, interference with day-to-day operations, and retaliatory measures meted out by Garretson against Panarese because he contacted the Commission.
Other allegations against Garretson include her failure to follow the Fraternal Order of Police Collective Bargaining Agreement, “misuse of public employees by demanding an officer bring her butter for a bagel,” “violating Hillside Township Staffing Ordinances,” and “harassment and intimidation of township employees.”
In addition, Panarese cites Garretson as responsible for payroll irregularities including officers’ inability to cash paychecks and Garretson’s failure to make required pension contributions. In October 2015, officers were told not to cash their paychecks “as they would bounce of insufficient funds.”
According to Panarese, payroll violations were not the only issue that Garretson was guilty of. “Mayor Garretson was responsible for the termination of services by Verizon,” said court papers. “In 2015 alone, Verizon cut service on at least 5 occasions for non-payment of bills.”
Papers also detail Garretson’s charges of insubordination against Panarese, his 10-day unpaid suspension, and his demotion from chief to captain. The charges were, according to the suit, “retaliatory to a whistle-blowing Chief of Police who stood up to an inept administration based upon violations of law.”
In the suit, the township hearing officer’s refusal to hear any argument or testimony about the sudden demotion of Panarese during the insubordination hearing is noted, as is Garretson’s intimidation of council members on several occasions to keep them from reinstating Panarese. “Defendant’s harassing and retaliatory actions against Plaintiff constitute violations of CEPA,” said court papers. “As a result, Plaintiff’s statutory rights have been violated and his protections under the law have been eviscerated. Plaintiff has suffered damages resulting in the loss of compensation and benefits, loss of earning power, physical injury, mental injury, the loss of opportunities for prospective employment, the loss of fringe benefits, and is incurring legal expenses and other expenses as a result of Defendant’s actions. Defendant’s foregoing actions were knowing, willful and deliberate violations of law and deprivations of Plaintiff’s statutory and civil rights, and Plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages under applicable law.”
Catrambone told LocalSource that Panarese looks forward to resuming his duties as chief. “Louis Panarese looks forward to continuing to serve the citizens of Hillside and resuming his duties as Chief of the Police Department,” said Catrambone. “He performs those duties competently and in furtherance of public safety, and the court noted today that the Mayor and her attorney failed to present any evidence to indicate otherwise. The ill-conceived removal of Chief Panarese was pursuant to a thinly-veiled campaign of illegal retaliation against a bona-fide whistleblower. We look forward to continuing to vindicate Chief Panarese’s rights in court.”