UNION, NJ — Since 2011 the township has been fighting to keep a former animal control officer from being rehired, but after multiple appeals, they had no choice but to not only rehire him, but also pay three years back pay and his legal fees.
It has been more than a month since James Kielwasser was reinstated to his position as animal control officer but while the township was under order by an administrative judge and the New Jersey Civil Service commission, questions about the rehiring continue to surface.
Township Administrator Ron Manzella explained in an interview Tuesday that the board of health pursued keeping Kielwasser from maintaining his position for the protection of the general public but they lost that battle.
“We believe in the process and system and in the end the court decided he should be returned to work. This was never about the individual. It was about the rules
we have to follow as a municipality,” he said, adding that the township and board of health felt that having a third party
look into the entire matter was warranted from the start.
“This was a fair and open process. There was nothing personal. It was business,” Manzella said.
Back in the spring of 2011 when the township discovered township animal control officer James Kielwasser, 36, had a past criminal record they put him on administrative leave and began a long legal battle to see him permanently removed as an employee.
Kielwasser was arrested in December 1999 for manufacturing and possession of controlled dangerous substances with the intent to distribute. He was found guilty of the charges and sentenced in January 2001 to three years probation and six months suspension of his driver’s license.
The township employee was one of 27 individuals arrested after a three-month investigation by the Somerset Prosecutor’s Office, which resulted in the seizure of drugs with a total street value of $158,230. Drugs seized during the sting included ketamine, an animal tranquilizer that acts on the central nervous system and is also known as a “date rape” drug. Also seized were cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana.
Further complicating the matter was that the employee also had a charge brought against him by the Union Board of Health involving the ACO’s failure to follow proper procedures when releasing a dog.
Kielwasser, the son of deputy township clerk Antoinette Kielwasser, was hired in April 2001, just a few months after his sentence was handed down. Although the position required a driver’s licence in order to fulfill the duties of an ACO, this escaped notice by the township health department.
Still at issue is how Kielwasser obtained state certification as an ACO while on probation. However, according to the township police director, the position of ACO is not one for which the township would require a police background check. The only positions in 2011 that required background checks were police, fire and EMS applicants, the director said.
In May 2011 the board of health decided to change that by unanimously approving and passing a resolution so all present and future health department employees undergo police background checks.
Manzella explained the issue was complicated by the fact the township is a civil service municipality, which meant the animal control officer could not be suspended without pay but had to be put on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation.
Plus, because this was a personnel matter, township officials were barred from discussing how they would be proceeding until after the matter was settled in court and by the state civil service commission. This led to misconceptions by the public, many of which were untrue.
Kielwasser, according to records obtained by LocalSource using the Open Public Records Act, was earning $20.46 an hour in 2010 as a full-time employee. He continued to receive his pay until the first of many court hearings and appeals took place.
The township’s position was that the discovery of the ACO’s past criminal record would significantly and negatively interfere with Kielwasser’s ability to perform his duties as an ACO, and subsequently he was let go by the township. Kielwasser filed a lawsuit and ultimately an administrative law judge ruled he should not have lost his job based on his past record, which had no bearing on how he did his job for the township health department.
The judge pointed out that the New Jersey Supreme Court established a four-prong test laying out what needed to be considered when determining whether a witness’s prior bad conduct could be considered by employers. Among these was that the offense had to be “relevant to the issue.” Subsequently the administrative law judge found that Kielwasser’s prior record was not admissible.
The judge in the first case, and further appeals by the township, found past conduct could not be used to establish present conduct. Further, the courts found that the township had no policies and procedures in place concerning ACO’s and their duties and responsibilities.
Although an appeals court would later rule in favor of the township in regard to Kielwasser not filling out the proper paperwork when releasing a dog, this violation was not found to rise to the level of termination, according to the civil service commission, who later determined that the former employee should be rehired.
In the final ruling by the administrative law judge and Civil Service Commission, the township was ordered to rehire Kielwasser and pay him approximately $64,175 in back pay. This included his pay, less unemployment earnings, from 2011 through 2014. Civil service noted that this amount would be adjusted pending his reinstatement date.
The township was also ordered by the court to pay Kielwasser’s attorney fees, which came to $28,030 for 140.15 eligible hours billed at $200 per hour.
The township had 30 days to comply with the order by the civil Service Commission, which was signed on Feb. 4. Had they not rehired Kielwasser the township would have been fined $100 a day beginning on the 31st day after the decision was signed, up to a maximum of $10,000.
Despite the court and Civil Service Commission rulings, not everyone understands why the township rehired the former employee. Several believe the decision was wrong and Kielwasser poses a risk to animals and residents.
Former township veterinarian Karen Negrin, who worked with Kielwasser in the past, feels the township “is in danger” with the rehiring of the former animal control officer given his prior record with the drug ketamine.
Negrin, who has a veterinarian practice in Union, pointed out to LocalSource that ketamine is a cat tranquilizer that only a vet can obtain but because it is a class 3 controlled substance and known as a “date rape drug,” she felt there should be concern over his employment.
She claimed the township failed to use information she provided when they went to court, which would have proved Kielwasser should not be rehired.
Hannah Pillar, who works with the Summit Animal Rescue Association, told LocalSource that she has dealt with Kielwasser and was gravely concerned about the way he treats animals.
“All he want to do is chase animals and get his paycheck,” she said, adding “it’s a nightmare how he treats cats.”
“All he is interested in is a paycheck and his pension. He’s not in this for the animals,” Pillar added, noting Kielwasser “is on my case all the time” because she goes behind the township animal shelter to rescue cats that have been released into the wild.
“Before he came back the Union Animal Shelter was a model shelter, with compassionate people who care about animals,” she said, pointing out all Kielwasser wants to do is hand out summonses.
Manzella said Tuesday that should anything happen in the future regarding Kielwasser’s employment as a animal control officer, “we will deal with it.”