Councilman questions mayor’s use of Clean Communities grant money

HILLSIDE, NJ — Hillside Councilman George Cook has called into question Mayor Dahlia Vertreese’s use — or misuse, as he alleges — of the town’s Clean Communities grant funding. The grant was awarded to the township for the Community Clean Team program, which hires area teenagers to clean the town’s streets. The program began July 6.

Cook’s issue lies not with the teenagers, but with how he alleges the money has been used.

“I want to make it clear that the teenagers working for the town under the Clean Communities grant have done nothing wrong, and I’m proud of them for helping to clean up our town,” Cook said on July 24. “The issue is with how monies were used.”

The N.J. Department of Environmental Protection awarded the $31,869.38 grant to the township on June 10, according to NJDEP.

“Clean Communities grants help municipalities and counties with the important task of removing unsightly litter, often from roadways and around stormwater collection systems, to enhance quality of life,” acting NJDEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said upon the announcement of the grant.

Cook alleges that, in addition to cleaning the streets, the hired teens are being used for labor outside the purview of the grant.

“The teenagers were hired to clean up around town where needed,” Cook said. “But other than clean, the teenagers were seen distributing a newsletter from the mayor door to door. In my opinion, the newsletter was political in nature, as it contained an attack against the council, false information about the budget and painted the mayor in a positive light.”

According to Cook, the teenagers are distributing the newsletter during work hours and he said he has collected proof.

“They were working, and residents sent in pictures showing them distributing the newsletter,” Cook said.

“I believe the funds were misused to distribute a propaganda piece. Grant funds are for very specific purposes, and using them to put out propaganda is not part of any state grant. There are no issues at all with the teenagers.”

Hillside administration spokesperson David Cummings quickly shot down allegations made by Cook, defending Vertreese’s use of the funds.

“The mayor and administration have done nothing wrong,” Cummings said on July 24. “The community is ecstatic with the efforts and results of these young people cleaning up their township.”

Cummings confirmed that the teens were handing out the newsletter but said the newsletter merely contains information on the town.

“This initiative is about supporting young people and giving them a chance to learn life skills while also showing they care about their community,” Cummings said. “Hillside residents are happy their young people are doing something positive. Residents have received the newsletter well because it’s informative. The only individuals upset are people who want to create a political issue out of something positive.”

The newsletter contains several pieces penned by the mayor. One such piece criticizes the council for its desire to open the community pool this summer. The piece reads, in part: “Remember the discussion about the Township pool. The Council wanted to open the pool this summer against my recommendation. Residents need to know facts, and not politics drove my decision. The pool is almost 60-years-old. Due to years of neglect, it’s noncompliant with current state code and leaks. A 2018 inspection report from Integrated Aquatic Engineers indicated it would cost $1.2 to $1.8 million to repair the pool and bring into compliance. If it were up to the Council, the Township would have allocated those dollars for the pool. Think about where we would be if we spent that money?”

In addition to containing positive news about Vertreese’s plans to create a Citizen Civilian Review Board and news of a local resident who offered lawn-cutting services to seniors during the COVID outbreak, the newsletter also reported that Hillside police unions had voted no-confidence in Police Chief Vincent Ricciardi; Vertreese recently tried to suspend Ricciardi, but the suspension was overturned by the courts. There is also a page titled: “Council Inappropriately Proposes Its Own Catastrophic Budget.”

Based off of the content of the newsletter, Cook stands firm in his point of view.

“It’s simply wrong to pay teenagers using taxpayer dollars to distribute something that is political and one-sided in nature,” Cook said. “This should have been paid for out of the mayor’s campaign funds. Then there would be no issue. Grant funds should only be used for their intended purposes to ensure that Hillside stays eligible to receive future grant funding.”

According to documentation regarding the Clean Communities Fund, the program requirements state that funds are to be used for programs of litter pickup and removal. Funds may also be used to abate graffiti. The use of funds for nonprogrammatic purposes is strictly prohibited.