Controversy over Hillside’s HOME Festival gets ugly

HILLSIDE, NJ — Although Hillside held its H.O.M.E. Festival — the Hillside Outdoor Music Event — more than a week ago, controversy surrounding the event lingers.

It started when the Hillside town council passed a resolution on Aug. 6, when, according to council members, they found out that Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson had included them on a flier advertising the event.

Council members told LocalSource that no communication was received by Garretson regarding the event, thus resulting in the council passing a resolution from the floor. “The Township Council of the Township of Hillside has received no communication from the Mayor regarding the HOME Festival, how said Festival will be paid for, who is collecting money for the Festival, and whether or not proper insurance has been obtained for the Festival,” read the resolution.
“Whereas, in prior years, vendors and residents came before the Township Council demanding payment for services rendered and further concerns regarding payment of overtime for various Township employees including the Police Department, Fire Department and Department of Public Works.”

The resolution went on to say that the council “will bear no responsibility or liability for the HOME Festival as this in not a Township Council sanctioned event” and that “no Township funds have been authorized and will not be paid for employee overtime, materials, or any other expenses related to the HOME Festival.”

Fast forward a week, and things are really beginning to heat up. Hillside town councilman Gerald Freedman told LocalSource in a phone call that the issue is what the council considers to be a lack of accounting or transparency. “The council had never been informed,” said Freedman. “We’ve been asking for over a year from the last festival for an accounting of the funds. The mayor never came before us and discussed it.”

Freedman said that before the festival, money was being collected and people were coming to town hall to reserve tables for the event, and Freedman said that the council was not sanctioning it because of liability reasons. “We’re not responsible for any problems that arise,” said Freedman. “We absolved ourselves from this festival.”

According to Freedman, Hillside Business Administrator Dwayne Warren didn’t show up for a council meeting to discuss the event, and Hillside’s CFO didn’t know anything about it.

Councilmembers want to know which vendors, such as food vendors, paid for space at the festival, and which vendors, such as DJs, were paid for services. In addition, council members say that no receipts of any kind were presented to them.

According to Freedman, monies were put into a trust last year, and if those monies were not spent, they had to go back to the vendors. “I doubt that any money was returned to the vendors,” said Freedman. “We asked the questions and we got no answers.”

Freedman said the township attorney will be drafting a letter to Garretson. “We may have to subpoena the mayor,” he said.

Garretson told LocalSource that the council has undermined the success of the event. “The HOME Festival is a successful event and its in its third year,” said Garretson in an email. “Each year the event gets bigger and it is exciting to bring our community together. The event was founded by Dawud Johnson, a long-term resident, and by the Office of the Mayor in the Township of Hillside, and the summer WorkReady Interns. The council members, including all the new members, elected Chris Mobley, Andrea Hyatt, and incumbent Council President DeAugustine and Councilman Freedman — all supported by Chairman Anthony Salters — voted against supporting the event at the council meetings August 2, 2016,” Garretson said, referring to Hillside Council President Donald DeAugustine and Hillside Democratic Chairman Salters, among the others mentioned.

According to an anonymous source inside the department, the CFO has stated that he has not received any monies for the event. “The CFO said no one gave him a dime,” said the source in a phone call. “No vendor money, nothing. It’s going to get ugly.”

But Garretson said that accounting has been provided. “Accounting for the last two years was provided to the council, and they voted on all invoices,” said Garretson. “The council reviewed the documentation and would not have authorized payment if the monies were not accounted.”

Some in the department say that Johnson, who allegedly heads the event and books the performers, collected money from vendors, and that the council members want to know where that money is. “The mayor told Dawud to collect the money, and the council wants to know where the money is,” said the anonymous source. “Not a dime has been turned over to the town.”

The source, unlike Freedman, said that he believed that Johnson paid the singers, deejays, and others who provided services at the event, but questions where the receipts for those payments are. “I have no doubt that he paid the people,” said the source of Johnson. “But where are the receipts?”

Although LocalSource did reach Johnson, he said he would call back. As of press time, however, LocalSource had not heard back from Johnson.

In response to the question of insurance, Garretson said the insurance is outside the council’s purview. “The council is not required to approve, in fact it is outside their responsibility,” Garretson said. “Every event run through the township, including National Night Out a few days before, does not go through this type of scrutiny. It is clear the council did not support the event. The township’s insurance responded in favor of the township for the festival this weekend.
Coverage remains the same and the terms and conditions remained the same. If possible, though not required, certificates should be requested of the vendors naming the township as an additional insured. I simply requested to provide the same level of coverage as the prior year from Willis Towers Watson,” said Garretson, citing the insurance company located in Short Hills.

Arthur Kobitz, President of the Hillside Board of Health and a former Hillside councilman, said in a phone call that no health inspections were performed because the event date had been changed to the next day due to inclement weather. “They moved the event to Sunday, and the BOH inspector was on vacation,” said Kobitz. “It’s against the law to waive propane permits and these permits must be paid for. According to the fire marshal, no money was received for permits. I have major concerns about people cooking without permits. She never told the BOH that she was cancelling it,” he said of Garretson. “The BOH found out from Facebook. She just does what she wants, when she wants.”

According to Garretson, however, the BOH has no part in the issuing of licenses. “The Board of Health has nothing to do with issuing licenses,” said Garretson. “It is the health officer, and he approved and confirmed with me that, like prior years, he approved the appropriate vendors.”

Hillside Councilman Sip Whitaker told LocalSource that he wants to make sure that the event is run properly. “My concern is that we want to do things properly,” said Whitaker. “We don’t want to deny the residents the same thing for this year. The residents had a good time last year.”

Hillside Democratic Party Chairman Anthony Salters told LocalSource in an email that he has supported the HOME Festival since its inception. “First and foremost, I will not allow myself to be dragged into the pettiness of he said/she said garbage,” said Salters. “That’s a distraction away from the core issues and concerns. Let’s discuss facts. The Home Festival is in its third year of operation and has been a huge success because of the outstanding effort and organizing of entertainment by Dawud Johnson, Kisha Chiles Bass, Marjorie Hargrave and others who I just don’t know are involved. I have attended two out of three events and had a great time. I actually was part of the crowd that had so much fun that did not want to leave to the point our great police officers had to keep reminding us that the festival was over and we had to leave the area.

Again, this is a wonderful, much anticipated community event. Well worth every dime we spend on it. I support it fully.”

According to Salters, the council supports the festival as well. “The municipal council supports the HOME Festival fully,” Salters said. “They approved it in 2014 and 2015. The issue — not a problem at that time — arose when no resolution to approve funding for the 2016 HOME Festival was presented to the council prior to August 7, 2016, the day of the event. A resolution is an official way to authorize permission to utilize public monies and in this case also the town-owned recreation area. The false perception that the council was against having the HOME Festival is completely false. They did not vote down anything because nothing was presented by the Mayor to vote on. The fact no resolution was presented to the council was purely poor planning on the business side by the administration. The council’s responsibility is to safeguard taxpayer dollars for any allocation of funds regardless of who, what or when.

They simply asked ‘Where are the monies already collected from vendors?’ A simple legitimate question. The answer should be just as simple. The township CFO said at a recent public meeting that he was given no funds to deposit for the 2016 HOME Festival. This comment raised eyebrows due to no final financial reports for the HOME Festival, presented by the mayor for 2014 and 2015 as well.”