Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Englewood Cliffs school board settles OPMA suit

On March 12, 2012, I filed an Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) lawsuit against the Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) Board of Education.  The lawsuit is on-line here. After I filed a motion for summary judgment (my brief is on-line here), the Board indicated that it wanted to settle the case.

On June 22, 2012, I entered into a settlement agreement under which the school board agreed to improve its Open Public Meetings Act compliance and reimburse me $250 for my filing fees and miscellaneous costs.  The Consent Judgment, which specifies the terms of compliance, is on-line here.

The Board was represented by Fogarty & Hara, which represents several school districts in the Bergen County area, including Cliffside Park, Secaucus and Haledon.  If you reside in a school district represented by the Fogarty & Hara firm, you may wish to compare your board's OPMA compliance to that required under the Consent Judgment.  If your board is out of compliance in a manner similar to that remedied by the Consent Judgment, it should not be too difficult to convince the board to voluntarily adopt the standard set forth in the Consent Judgment, given that your board's own lawyer had already approved of and recommended that standard.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Record: Englewood Cliffs man acquitted on indecent exposure charges says he'll pursue lawsuit

Englewood Cliffs man acquitted on indecent exposure charges says he'll pursue lawsuit

The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — A 55-year-old man who filed notice he planned to sue the borough over his arrest on indecent exposure charges a year ago said he’ll go through with the threatened defamation lawsuit now that he’s been acquitted by a jury.
Michael Telzer, an Englewood Cliffs resident, said he never should have been arrested based on the accuser’s account, and claimed he was a victim of the police chief’s desire to hire more officers by showing the borough had a crime problem.
“You had a town divided over hiring more police,” he said. “You had a chief campaigning, ‘We need more police. We need more police.’ It was devastating.”
Police Chief Michael Cioffi declined to comment on Telzer’s claim, citing the possibility of litigation. But his eyes widened and he shook his head when told about Telzer’s allegations.
“I wish I could say something,” he said.
Mayor Joseph Parisi said the council did hire more police officers to reduce overtime costs and to enhance the “overall protection” of the borough, not because of any incident.
Telzer was charged July 14, 2011, with lewdness and endangering the welfare of a child after a mother called 911 around 8 p.m. to report a man appeared to be exposing himself on the Witte Field walking path on Johnson Avenue.
Police issued a news release the next day, saying the woman was with her 6-year-old and 9-year-old daughters when she saw Telzer exposing himself. The release also stated that Police Officers Roland Waldt and Gerard McDermott responded to the call and Waldt found Telzer with his “pants/shorts unbuttoned, belt buckle and zipper opened.” It also states that the accuser positively identified him.
Telzer fought the charges, saying the woman’s statement shows she was not certain what she saw. He also said the woman never mentioned her children in the original statements and there were no other witnesses.
Telzer filed notice of intent to sue in October. In that notice, Telzer said he would seek $2.8 million from Police Chief Michael Cioffi and the borough and $1.8 million from each of the arresting officers for damages to his reputation.
The notice also accused police of false arrest, false imprisonment, witness and evidence tampering and character assassination “that amounts to defamation including but not limited to slander and possibly libel.”
He accused the police chief of making a “horribly abusive statement” to an online publication that police collected a paper towel found in a waste basket at the park for DNA testing. The tests came back negative for Telzer’s DNA.
The case went to trial on July 11 in Bergen County Court. On Friday, the jury found Telzer not guilty of all charges.
His lawyer, Robert Penangelo, said among the evidence that helped acquit Telzer was audio from a police car camera in which his client told officers, “I hope there are cameras in the park.” He also said Telzer passed a lie-detector test and that prosecutors had no other corroboration besides the woman’s statements.
Telzer said the allegations have made his life a living hell, but he was confident he would be exonerated.
“I was not going to let anyone say these things about me and get away with it,” he said. “I took a moral position.”

The Record: Englewood Cliffs' council OKs $13.48M budget

Englewood Cliffs' council OKs $13.48M budget

The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – Residents will be paying about $20 more a month in property taxes to fund services and replenish the borough’s depleted savings account under a 2012 spending plan adopted this week.
The Borough Council on Wednesday approved by a 5-1 vote a $13.48 million budget, which carries a 6 percent property tax hike.
Under the budget, a home assessed at the borough average of $1.26 million would pay $248 more in municipal taxes this year.
The spending plan is slightly less than last year’s $13.6 million budget, but the borough depleted its $955,000 surplus, leaving nothing to offset taxes this year, auditor Steven Wielkotz said.
Councilwoman Gloria Oh, a Democrat, blamed last year’s Republican-controlled council for overestimating revenue and underestimating expenses while freezing taxes, causing the surplus to evaporate.
“I’m confident the budget this year will put us back where we belong,” she said.
Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow, the sole Republican on the Democratic-controlled board, defended the prior year’s spending plan as one that was conscious of older homeowners on fixed incomes.
“We believe that we should not tax residents to raise surplus, taking monies from our residents who could make better use of their monies than us just letting it sit in a bank,” she said.
McMorrow voted against the 2012 budget, saying that it also underestimated spending. She blamed Democrats on prior councils for waiting until 2008, when real estate prices were high, to re-evaluate property values, leading home and business owners to challenge them now that values have dropped sharply.
“Stop blaming the tax increase on everyone else,” she said.
Council President Joseph Favaro said the county forced the borough to re-evaluate property in 2008, near the height of the housing market. As property values fell, property owners began challenging their assessments – and winning.
“The bottom fell out and we were left holding the bag,” he said. “This is a fair budget with what we had to work with.”
Chief Financial Officer Joseph Iannaconi Jr. said the 2012 spending plan is a “bare-bones budget” that maintains services, but has no cushion for emergencies. Englewood Cliffs would have to borrow money if it is hit with a large unanticipated expense.
The depleted surplus, and high number of tax appeals caused Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade the borough’s credit rating from the second-highest rating of Aa1 to the third-highest rating of Aa2. The downgrade means the borough will have to pay slightly more interest on roughly $16 million it has borrowed over the years for municipal projects.
Mayor Joseph Parisi said the borough was conservative in estimating revenue and aggressive on cutting spending wherever possible.
“No one likes tax increases but there are increases in our expenses.”
Among the increases is an extra $80,000 in police officers’ base pay because 14 were promoted after an arbitration ruling. The department has 26 officers, including 10 patrolmen.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Record: Police brass outnumber rank-and-file cops in Englewood Cliffs

Police brass outnumber rank-and-file cops in Englewood Cliffs

The Record

Patrol officers in Englewood Cliffs are outnumbered — not by criminals, but by their supervisors.
Promotions that take effect July 1 will leave front-line officers in the minority on the top-heavy force of 26. The 10 remaining patrolmen will answer to a chief, a deputy chief, two captains, six lieutenants and six sergeants.
An arbitration ruling in a labor dispute between the borough and the police union created the opposite of the normal Police Department hierarchy and left the mayor shaking his head in disbelief.
“It’s the most idiotic solution I’ve ever seen, but it’s the only solution right now,” Mayor Joseph Parisi said before the Borough Council approved 14 promotions on Thursday night. “This is the lesser of two evils.”
The promotions were part of a deal in which the police union agreed to forgo three years of back pay owed to officers who had been performing duties of higher-ranking and higher paid officers.
Prior to the agreement, the department had 19 patrolmen, three sergeants, two lieutenants and no captains, Police Chief Michael Cioffi said.
Thirteen of the officers receiving promotions had been doing the jobs of a higher-ranking officer, he said, and the other one was rewarded for his exemplary performance.
The promotions won’t take cops off the street. The six new sergeants will be assigned to patrol while also serving as supervisors, Cioffi said.
“They’re long overdue,” Cioffi said of the promotions, the department’s first since 2007.
While lamenting the fallout, Parisi said the deal avoids a protracted legal fight with the police union and having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay.
The December arbitration ruling gave the borough’s police officers and supervisors their first contract, and awarded them retroactive raises progressing from 1 percent in 2009 to 2.5 percent in 2013. Before that, raises were given through ordinances or memorandums or even with a handshake. The ruling exempted the chief and deputy chief because they have separate contracts.
The borough appealed the ruling but lost, putting the borough on the hook for the back pay owed the officers.
Instead, the borough and union agreed on the promotions in lieu of retroactive pay.
The promotions were approved 2-0 by council President Joseph Favaro and Councilman Edward Aversa at a special meeting. Councilwoman Carroll Morrow, who is married to the deputy police chief, abstained. Council members Melanie Simon, Ilan Plawker, the police commissioner, and Gloria Oh, the council’s finance chairwoman, were absent.
Ramon Ferro, a Republican candidate for council, said having only two council members vote on the promotions was “completely irresponsible.” Resident Lauren Eastwood questioned how much the borough was saving by promoting the officers, who now will get paid a higher overtime rate and retire with a bigger pension.
“In my opinion, it is a very bad deal for Englewood Cliffs’ taxpayers,” she said in an email.
The contract requires the borough to pay sergeants $131,592 a year in 2013, lieutenants $142,118 and captains $153,487.
Mitchell C. Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, said having such a top-heavy police department is unusual.
“They chose to invert that pyramid,” he said. “I never heard of this before.”
Joe Iannaconi Jr., the borough’s chief financial officer, said Englewood Cliffs will pay an additional $80,000 in police salaries this year because of the promotions. If the borough had paid the back pay for the three years covered by the arbitration ruling, it would have cost more than $300,000, he said.
Cioffi estimated it would have cost the borough closer to $500,000, but said officers were willing to give up the money to advance their careers and end the legal conflict.
“It was going to be a cost to the town one way or another,” Cioffi said. “Who wants to continue fighting the battle? Everyone just wants it to come to an end.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Audio cassette duplication

Interestingly, the Borough's position that it can charge up to $339.79 to duplicate an audio tape from a single council meeting may be legally justified if its audio tapes are kept in some propriety format that requires substantial manipulation to convert into a format that people can listen to.  My May 16, 2012 letter to the Mayor and Council seeking further information to help me determine the legality of the $339.79 charge is on-line here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Borough seeks up to $339.79 for audio tape of a single meeting

The Borough of Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) wishes for me to pay up to $339.79 for the audio recording of a December 8, 2010 Borough Council meeting.  The Borough posits that the meeting was recorded on audio tape and that since the Borough now uses CD technology, it needs to use a private vendor, at $135 per hour, to duplicate the 2.5 hour meeting recording.

My OPRA request, the Borough's response and my reply to that response are on-line here.

John Paff

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How current are the Borough Council minutes?

I am trying to get a handle on exactly how up-to-date (or not up-to-date) the Borough Council is on keeping, approving and maintaining its public and executive minutes.  I have submitted a very detailed OPRA request, available here, that ought to provide me with that information and inform me if a compliance lawsuit is necessary.

John Paff

Monday, April 30, 2012

On May 1, 2012, I am filing my Motion for Summary Judgment in my Open Public Meetings Act case against the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education.  All the motion paperwork other than the Certification is on-line here. The Certification is on-line here.

John Paff

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Record: In Englewood Cliffs, all requests for informatin must go through mayor

In Englewood Cliffs, all requests for information must go through mayor

The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — All requests for "non-emergent information" from the borough's administrative offices will now go through Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. first.
The Borough Council adopted a resolution last week that states: "Joseph C. Parisi, Mayor of Englewood Cliffs, does hereby requires [sic] that all future requests for non-emergent information be sent to his office for approval."
Republican Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow was the lone dissenter. Democrats Joseph Favaro, Edward Aversa and Gloria Oh voted for it. Council members Ilan Plawker and Melanie Simon, also Democrats, were absent.
Although the agenda for Wednesday's meeting notes that the requirement is for "requests by department heads and council," the four-line resolution itself does not specify to whom it applies or what constitutes "non-emergent information."
"It is unfortunate that the mayor feels the need to control the flow of information, whether it be to our residents, council or department heads," McMorrow said Thursday. "In my opinion, council members and department heads should have available to them whatever information they feel they need to do their job effectively."
Parisi said Sunday that the resolution applies only to elected officials and department heads.
"The public can do whatever they want through the proper channels," he said. "I want them to call our personnel. Our personnel will be available to them."
He said he hopes to serve as an intermediary between council members and department heads and the borough administrator, to help alleviate the many requests for information fielded by the administrator's office. "A lot of things I'll know the answer to," he said.
As examples of "non-emergent information," he cited requests for the past 10 years of tax appeals and lists of children playing youth baseball. He said he would like to know why such information is requested, especially when it involves contacting one of the professionals hired by the borough, who charge hourly rates.
"I just wanted everyone to understand that time is important," Parisi said.
At the Wednesday meeting, resident Jack Geyer questioned how the resolution would affect residents.
"Does that mean that if I want to talk to Mark in DPW, I have to ask for a request from you, and how is the request made?" Geyer asked. "Do I mail it to you?"
Parisi responded that the resolution does not apply to residents.
At the meeting, he said he hopes the resolution will create a smoother transition from former Clerk/Administrator Susan McGinley Spohn, who died last month, to acting Clerk/Administrator Lisette Duffy, who was promoted from deputy clerk to the acting position.
Resident Lauren Eastwood asked what the point of the resolution was when Borough Council members, as members of the public, can file a request for information under the state's Open Public Records Act.
Parisi said he doesn't believe council members should file such requests.
"I have a problem with an elected official splitting themselves in half," he said.
"They have a right to do an OPRA request, but I'm just trying to make things more efficient."
But McMorrow, the lone Republican holding local office, said she would resort to that if she has to.
"If the borough office refuses to provide me the information I need to effectively do my job, I will join our residents in utilizing the Open Public Records Act as well," she said.
Thomas Cafferty, general counsel for the New Jersey Press Association, said the resolution appears to apply to anyone seeking information.
Cafferty said the public and Borough Council members have a right to request documents under the state's Open Public Records Act and the law specifies to whom those requests are to be submitted.
"If it's intended to apply to request under the Open Public Records Act, it creates a problem because the clerk is the custodian of records," Cafferty said.
Email: hayes@northjersey.com

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Record: Englewood Cliffs Borough Council abolishes zoning board, shifts authority to planners

Englewood Cliffs Borough Council abolishes zoning board, shifts authority to planners

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — The Borough Council has formally dis­solved the Board of Adjustment in a party-line vote that transfers its powers and responsibilities to the Planning Board.
The 3-1 vote followed four months of delayed public hearings, debates and legal filings on the mat­ter. Carrol McMorrow, the lone Republican on the council, cast the sole dissenting vote. Councilman Ilan Plawker and Councilwoman Melanie Simon were absent.
“It makes economic sense,” said Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr., who cham­pioned the merger. “There will def­initely be cost savings, not great, but cost savings are cost savings.”
The mayor and council agreed to delay publishing notice of the vote, which would effectively con­solidate the boards, by 15 days so that the Adjustment Board could meet one last time to memorialize a residential application it recently approved.

February lawsuit

Parisi introduced the ordinance at the Jan. 7 reorganization meet­ing. But Adjustment Board Chair­man Russell Porrino filed a lawsuit in February arguing that the mayor violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act at that meeting be­cause he failed to hold a public comment portion as required by law. Porrino alleged that any action taken at that meeting was invalid.
Porrino also argued that the or­dinance was not on the agenda, an­other violation. As a result of his suit, the council reintroduced the ordinance in March and scheduled a public hearing and final vote for Wednesday. The lawsuit is pend­ing.
“While merging boards is not unusual these days, what transpired in Englewood Cliffs is a travesty,” Porrino said Thursday. “There can be no argument that the rush to dis­solve our board was in the best in­terests of the residents. If I had not filed suit against Mayor Parisi and the borough for violating the Open Public Meetings Act, the process would have been done in less than 30 days. The residents should be asking why the rush to judgment?”
Prior lawsuits
Porrino was the first to speak during the public hearing and an­nounced that two lawsuits have been filed against the Adjustment Board’s approval of LG Electronics USA’s new North American head­quarters at the former Prentice Hall site on Sylvan Avenue.
He questioned what would hap­pen when the lawsuits go before a judge if the Adjustment Board no longer exists.
Parisi said he had gotten a legal opinion and recommended keep­ing the Adjustment Board’s attor­ney on the payroll to handle those lawsuits. Porrino argued that if the Adjustment Board is dissolved, there is a chance that LG would have to reapply to the Planning Board, which could mean another year of hearings.
Among those testifying on the ordinance was Gregg Pastor, the borough attorney in Dumont, where voters agreed to combine its two land-use boards. Englewood Cliffs does not have to have a refer­endum because it has fewer than 15,000 residents.
Pastor said in most small towns, which are almost entirely devel­oped, there is a lack of planning ap­plications. But state statute does not allow the Planning Board to be merged into the Adjustment Board, so the zoning powers are given to the Planning Board, he said.
“Particularly in this down build­ing market there has been some ef­ficiency that has been gained in terms of what is going on in Du­mont,” Pastor said.
Email: hayes@northjersey.com

Saturday, April 14, 2012

7 Borough and 3 Board of Education Officials Have Annual Pensions of More Than $100,000

New Jersey Watchdog, http://newjersey.watchdog.org, has published two articles under the heading Where Does the Buck Stop for NJ Pensions?  The first, posted on April 2, 2012 at http://newjersey.watchdog.org/2012/04/02/100k-club, is titled $100K New Jersey Pensions 'Club' State Retirement Funds

The list of retirees receiving pensions in excess of $100,000 arranged by pension amount, from highest to lowest, is available at http://newjersey.watchdog.org/2012/04/03/100k-sidebar/.  Ranked 34 is retired Englewood Cliffs Police Chief Thomas Bauernschmidt with an annual pension of $143,604.  Ranked 59 is another retired Englewood Cliffs police chief, Lawrence Whiting, with an annual pension of $137,155.  People who have lived in Englewood Cliffs for a while may remember that Mayor Joseph C. Parisi, Jr. skipped over two higher ranking police officers to promote then-lieutenant Bauernschmidt to police chief and that former Police Chief Whiting held back applications for the position of patrolman for then-Councilwoman Patricia Drimones' two sons, current Patrolman Nicholas Drimones and recent police dispatcher candidate Christian Drimones.  (see March 15, 2012 post)

Also on the list from the Borough of Englewood Cliffs are:  retired police inspector William Gallagher receiving $120,939, retired police captain George Murray receiving $120,030, retired police captain Martin Barrett receiving $114,840, retired police lieutenant Douglas Speidel receiving $106,350, and retired police chief Patrick Farley receiving $105,047.  In contrast, the New Jersey State Police officer with the highest pension receives $97,897 according to $100K New Jersey Pensions 'Club' State Retirement Funds, http://newjersey.watchdog.org/2012/04/02/100k-club

In addition, three Englewood Cliffs Board of Education retirees are on the list of those receiving pensions in excess of $100,000:  retired Superintendent of Schools Philomena Pezzano, receiving $119,733, Marion Luthin receiving $114,712, and retired principal Joseph Spano receiving $113,047. 

In a follow up article posted on April 12, 2012, New Jersey Watchdog lists those receiving pensions in excess of $100,000 by last employer.  The article, titled Paterson & Hoboken Lead NJ in 100K Pensions for Retirees, http://newjersey.watchdog.org/2012/04/12/6227, indicates that the Borough of Englewood Cliffs has the same number of retirees receiving more than $100,000 -- seven -- as the City of Englewood and more than the Boroughs of Tenafly and Fort Lee.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

This editorial describes a situation similar to that in Englewood Cliffs Borough.

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012

Editorial: Backlog on Trenton Council meeting minutes must be remedied

Many of us feel there are not enough hours in the day to fulfill all our obligations.
The City of Trenton, it’s been discovered, does not have enough minutes in its archive to meet legal requirements.

The backlog has been a chronic problem, says City Clerk Leona Baylor. It’s a headache she inherited when she started in the office.

Alerted that the written records of proceedings and actions at government meetings are missing from the city’s website, Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini wrote to Baylor asking that the omission be addressed and requesting a timetable for accomplishing that.

It’s certainly well within the parameters of the state’s “Sunshine Law,” which requires public bodies to keep “reasonably comprehensible” minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying.

Minutes must include the time and place of the meeting, the members present, the subjects considered, the actions taken, the votes of each member and any other information required by law. The law sets out not a timeframe but the direction that the record should be presented “promptly.”

There’s certainly no question that Trenton’s records are behind schedule.

As The Times’ Matt Fair reported last week, there are nearly two years’ worth of minutes from City Council meetings that have never been written up.

Documentation is available for only 16 of nearly 100 council meetings that have been held since the current council took office in July 2010. In addition, meeting minutes are not available for more than two dozen meetings predating the current council.

Catching up on all that accumulated work will be an enormous task. It’s a job that’s been delayed by attention to an increasing number of Open Public Records Act requests, which must be responded to within seven business days.

Still, those minutes are a necessary and important reference for residents, especially in the contentious back and forth that characterizes Trenton’s city government.

Baylor has said her office will be hiring a new deputy clerk. That should help with the unfinished business. But as the city clerk strives to catch up with the meetings of years past, it also should focus on making sure the minutes of every meeting from now on are available promptly.

If the office does not have enough resources to do so, it should be given help – at least on a temporary basis — until the archive is current.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Record: Englewood Cliffs 'whistle-blower' settles suit

Englewood Cliffs 'whistle-blower' settles suit

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – A former borough clerk and administrator who claimed she was forced to resign because she was a "whistle-blower," will get a $66,000 settlement, bringing her total severance package to $80,000.
The agreement with Deborah Fehre, a Democrat who resigned Jan. 5, 2010, when Republicans took control of the council, covers a $10,000 retroactive raise and payment for 75 unused sick days and 59 unused vacation days.
Fehre, whose husband is the Planning Board chairman, filed suit in May 2010 claiming she was forced to resign after the Republicans advertised for her job without notifying her. She alleged it was in retaliation for refusing to provide confidential employee information and declining to shut down a voting machine during the 2009 election after a candidate, Carrol McMorrow, reported a problem. Fehre's suit says an election official checked the machine and found it to be operational.
She sought $60,192.05 to cover the raise and unused sick and vacation time.
The borough paid her $14,134.50 after she filed the lawsuit and will pay about $46,000 under the settlement. The borough's insurance company is contributing another $20,000.
The council voted 4-1-1 on March 14 to approve the agreement. Councilman Edward Aversa abstained and McMorrow, the lone Republican who is named individually in the suit, voted against it.
McMorrow took issue with the $10,000 payment, which the settlement stipulates will be credited toward Fehre's final year of employment and could boost her pension if the Public Employee Retirement System board accepts the adjustment. The borough has no liability if the board doesn't accept it, Borough Attorney E. Carter Corriston Sr. said.
"While I am glad the borough will be able to put this issue to rest for the sake of our taxpayers, I am critical of a settlement, which, in my opinion, pays so much and creates a fiction that she was earning $10,000 more than what she was earning when she left," McMorrow said in a statement Monday.
Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. said he is happy the matter is closed.
"I think you have to always be fair to your employees and Debbie worked hard for this town," he said. "She got what she was entitled to."
In her suit, Fehre claimed former GOP Councilman Eric Petrone and McMorrow also defamed her. She sought punitive damages against the council for withholding her pay and offering to make a payment only if she signed a document that would bar her from filing future lawsuits, which she said violated her rights under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
McMorrow said Monday she would have rather a judge decided the case. She also said she was not on council when Fehre resigned and should not have been named in the Conscientious Employee Protection Act claim, since she was not Fehre's employer.
"The 'whistle-blower' claims against the borough, myself and Eric Petrone were on the verge of being dismissed by the judge, who said as much at two hearings," McMorrow said in a statement Monday. "However, before the motion to dismiss the claims was decided, a majority of the governing body decided to settle with Ms. Fehre."
The $10,000 raise was not in the 2009 salary ordinance. However, Fehre produced a letter written by Parisi in November 2009 that said the Borough Council agreed in April 2008 to give her $10,000 raises in both 2008 and 2009, but Fehre agreed to postpone the second raise due to a salary freeze.
"In my opinion, Mayor Parisi had and has no individual authority to write a letter promising a raise to an employee based on a closed session discussion," McMorrow said in the statement. "Records do not indicate that there was ever a public vote on the $10,000 in question."
Parisi defended the letter on Monday. "We put a salary freeze in effect and Debbie did say she would take a salary freeze, but it was owed to her," he said. "I had the authority to do that because the council agreed to it in closed session."
Email: hayes@northjersey.com

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Record: Open meetings advocate makes Englewood Cliffs his test case

Open meetings advocate makes Englewood Cliffs his test case

Sunday, April 1, 2012 Last updated: Sunday April 1, 2012, 9:19 AM
The Record

John Paff isn't a resident of Englewood Cliffs — in fact he lives 60 miles away. And he's never set foot in the borough, but that hasn't stopped him from suing the Board of Education, alleging it violated the state's open public meetings laws.
Paff, a Libertarian, says he is trying to ensure both the school board and the Borough Council comply with the Open Public Records Act, often called OPRA, and the Open Public Meetings Act or Sunshine Law.
And he's not doing it just in Englewood Cliffs. Paff goes after towns when he thinks there are blatant violations.
OPRA was put in place in 2001 with the goal of increasing transparency by making it easier to obtain public documents detailing government operations, like bills showing how much a municipality spent or a contract detailing services a company was hired to perform. However, there is no agency regularly checking in to make sure towns, school boards and other public agencies comply with the law. Without a watchdog, people like Paff find that information is not released in a timely fashion or requests are denied even though the records should be made public. Sometimes, documents are released only after the denial is challenged.
When requests are not filled on time or are rejected, the issue can be taken to the Government Records Council, which decides whether the law was violated and can levy fines of $1,000 to $5,000. But people seeking the records must file a complaint.
"It seems to me I shouldn't have to do all this," Paff said. "There should be a compliance officer."

All 21 counties

Paff represents himself in all of his court cases because the laws don't allow him to seek attorney costs. He is attempting to file a case in each of the state's 21 counties to highlight non-compliant governing bodies and use what he hopes will be court wins to force other towns to adhere to the laws.
Englewood Cliffs is his first Bergen County Sunshine Law case. In the past decade, he has filed suits against 17 Atlantic County municipalities, winning against one town and settling with the others.
He won most of the issues he raised in cases in Camden County, Monmouth County, Ocean County and Hudson County. He is waiting for a hearing in Cumberland County.
He has also raised countless OPRA violations.
Paff said he chose Englewood Cliffs after visiting the borough's website and seeing it was outdated, listing public officials who are no longer in office, and lacked basic information, such as meeting dates and agendas.
"Somebody's got to do it, and I'll try it and we'll see what the court says it means," he said.
He filed his suit against the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education on March 12 in Superior Court in Hackensack in response to records he received from the district that he claims showed violations.
For instance, he claims that the board should pass a resolution each time it enters closed session. Instead, it relies on a blanket resolution, which is adopted once a year.
Paff also alleges, based on the minutes he received, that the board is discussing issues in closed session that are not exceptions to the law and should be open to the public, such as the annual audit and the school budget.
But he also said the board keeps poor minutes, so there may not be a violation, but there appears to be.
"Maybe it is covered under an exemption, but because of the brevity, the terseness of the minutes, I can't even tell what they're talking about," he said.
The board's attorney, Stephen Fogarty, did not respond to requests for comment.
Board President Frank Patti Jr. also declined to comment before consulting with Fogarty.

Updating the laws

State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, championed the laws and is pushing for amendments that would allow people like Paff to seek reimbursement for attorney fees and make it easier for residents to obtain public records.
The amendments would upgrade the laws, which were written before social media, text messaging and other technologies were being widely used. The changes would prohibit local officials from texting or emailing to communicate at a meeting instead of discussing the issues publicly. The changes would also encourage municipalities with websites to post meeting minutes, agendas and other documents online, so that residents do not need to file a records request to access the information.

Might cause harm

While Weinberg said she appreciates Paff's efforts, in some cases she said it could cause more harm than help.
"I respect his crusading attitude and he's added some input into the legislation that's working through the Legislature, but it also has a negative impact because it makes municipalities not want to cooperate," she said.
Weinberg said she wants to create an environment where officials understand everything should be out in the open, with the exception of certain exemptions, such as contract negotiations and discussions of legal settlements.
"If it was all out in the open you wouldn't have Mr. Paff filing all these lawsuits," she said.
Garfield Municipal Clerk Andrew Pavlica, president of the Municipal Clerks Association of New Jersey, said residents are entitled to records and municipal clerks or designated records custodians have to grant that access.
But he said complying within the seven-day time constraint set by OPRA can sometimes be hard when government is cutting back on its workforce.
"You want to comply with the law, you're under oath to adhere to the law but sometimes there are circumstances that make it difficult," he said.
Asked about Paff gathering documents from across the state, Pavlica said it doesn't matter why someone is making a request.
"We're under oath to adhere to the law and we shouldn't question why anyone is requesting the record and we have a moral obligation to serve the public to the best of our ability and put forth a good faith effort," he said.
Email: hayes@northjersey.com

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Suburbanite: Englewood Cliffs council approves hiring of 4 police officers

Englewood Cliffs council approves hiring of 4 police officers

Thursday, March 29, 2012
Northern Valley Suburbanite

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – Police Chief Michael Cioffi got the staffing he requested, for more than a year, when the governing body approved the hiring of four officers.
"As you all know, we had a reduction in our police force over the last few years," said Councilman Ilan Plawker, who serves as the council liaison to the Police Department. "Now we have four additional officers on the street."
The mayor and council approved hiring Frank Hechinger, who was a dispatcher in Hawthorne, Jae H. Lee, who served as an officer in Paterson and Pompton Lakes and speaks Korean and Spanish, Dimitrios Salogiannis, who served with the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police and speaks Greek and Kyle A. Ust, who served as a U.S. Air Marshall, on March 14.
Three of the officers can get right on the road while one has to finish approximately 40 percent of the police academy.
"They are wonderful, wonderful individuals," said Mayor Joseph Parisi, Jr. "I'm proud because I believe they are going to be a fine addition to your Police Department."
The department's staffing levels have dwindle from 29 in 2002 to 22 officers this year – the new hires bring the operation to 26. At one point last year, the force had 19 police officers.
Since October 2010, Police Chief Michael Cioffi implored the council to hire more officers because they were working 12-hour shifts and getting "burnt out."
"Crime rates have increased dramatically in surrounding communities," said Plawker. "Public safety is our number one concern. You [can] rest assure when you come to Englewood Cliffs you're safe and we have a relatively low crime rate and that's not an accident."
Although the four new hires come with experience, they are each getting paid a starting salary of $34,999. However, even with the added salaries, officials said the government will spend approximately $100,000 to $200,000 in overtime on the department. Last year, the governing body spent approximately $556,000 in police overtime.
Resident Jack Geyer brought up at the meeting that the Matrix Consulting Group's report said the Englewood Cliffs Police Department is staffed properly. He questioned if a study was done that said the borough needed more officers.
The borough hired the Matrix Consulting Group in March 2011 for $22,000 to examine the operational structure and staffing levels and make recommendations while also figuring out how to reduce overtime.
"None of those suggestions were taken by the council as a way to alleviate overtime," said resident Mary O'Shea, referring to the Matrix report.
"A number of different reports were submitted and the prior administration didn't like some of them," said Councilwoman Melanie Simon. "So it kind of got worked over until it was palatable to the previous administration."
Plawker said the prior administration, a Republican-controlled council, opted to hire Matrix instead of listen to the chief and police officers.
Like Plawker, Parisi believes the council should have listened to Cioffi and his staff and not hired Matrix.
"It was wrong," said Parisi. "It was money we should have spent for our police, not judging our police."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Record: More tax appeals denied as North Jersey towns reject data on low-priced homes

North Jersey homeowners already squeezed by declining values and high taxes are facing more financial fallout from the housing bust: Towns are making it harder to win a tax appeal, at times with scant justification.
'My takeaway is that I think their intent was to frustrate me and make me go away,' says Bob Traitz of Wyckoff. 'The (tax appeal) process is very unfair.'
'My takeaway is that I think their intent was to frustrate me and make me go away,' says Bob Traitz of Wyckoff. 'The (tax appeal) process is very unfair.'
In growing numbers, municipalities across Bergen and Passaic counties are restricting the pool of “comparable” sales homeowners can cite to contest their property assessments — the key to a successful appeal and the tax relief that comes with it.
Specifically, the evidence suggests that some local tax assessors are overusing a section of the state tax code that allows them to selectively disqualify properties they believe were sold under financial duress.
The assessors say it’s their job to review all sales and exclude those that do not reflect true market value. But lawyers and appraisers contend that some assessors are unfairly eliminating transactions that simply reflect the downward trend in housing prices, and not just those influenced by the threat of foreclosure or some other clear evidence of duress.
The issue has caught the attention of authorities in Trenton. The state reversed 15 percent of these so-called Code 26 exclusions made by assessors in Bergen and Passaic counties from 2009 through mid-2011, after reversing none in 2007 and 2008. Statewide, 11 percent were reversed in the more recent time period, compared with 3 percent in 2007 and 2008.
Beyond that, The Record interviewed a handful of sellers in transactions that had been excluded by local assessors. In most cases, they said that their sales reflected neither duress nor any of the other unusual circumstances that fall under Code 26.
The more aggressive stance by assessors comes as municipalities in Bergen and Passaic battle an appeal caseload that has soared from about 5,400 in 2005, to nearly 18,000 last year in the two counties, and at a time when town and school budgets are getting ever tighter. Close to 14,000 appeals have come in so far this year, a week before the April 2 filing deadline.
Local property taxes are among the highest in the nation. Bergen County’s median residential property tax topped $9,200 last year, while Passaic’s passed $8,600. Under the right circumstances, an appeal can provide some relief — especially for homeowners in towns where assessments have not kept pace with the declining market. But for each appeal a property owner wins, towns must make up the difference elsewhere — usually from other taxpayers.
The assessors tactics have frustrated people like Bob Traitz of Wyckoff who have seen their appeals be dismissed before county tax boards, decisions that have cost them hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars. He appealed the $922,400 assessment on his circa-1950s five-bedroom, split-level house on the grounds that similar homes are selling for $685,000 to $800,000.
“My takeaway is that I think their intent was to frustrate me and make me go away,” said Traitz, who lost in 2010 and 2011 after the Wyckoff assessor ruled out most of his comparable sales under Code 26. “The process is very unfair.”
Wyckoff Assessor Pamela Steele did not return several messages seeking comment on her exclusions, which state officials have reversed about 70 percent of the time in recent years.
Wyckoff Mayor Christopher DePhillips said he knew there were concerns about Steele’s decisions.
“I have certainly heard from residents who have complained about this issue, I would say on and off for about 18 months,” he said. “I do think their complaints are justified.”
He added that officials were considering a townwide update of property assessments to try to head off the need for appeals.
Impact of short sales
Elsewhere, assessors defend the practice as part of their legal obligation to accurately define the real-estate market from town to town.
Property sales are recorded in 34 state-mandated codes that categorize them according to whether they reflect true values or have special conditions. Transactions involving relatives, estate liquidations, bankruptcies, homes under renovation or foreclosed properties are among those most often tagged as not reflecting the market.
But when a sale fails to fit neatly into a specific category, assessors turn to Code 26, which serves as a catch-all for excluding a sale. Many going in that category are short sales — transactions in which banks accept less than the value of the mortgage on a property in exchange for not foreclosing on the owner. State officials say such sales are properly excluded.
Beyond that, assessors have the discretion to eliminate sales for other kinds of duress that could affect the price. And assessors say they research sales before deciding if they represent the market.
“We are doing what the state tells us to do,” said George Reggo, an assessor in 10 Bergen municipalities, a majority of them with relatively high rates of transactions barred from appeals. “I research every sale as I am supposed to do. I am doing my job.”
But lawyers, appraisers and homeowners, with some support from a state monitoring agency, say some assessors go too far — improperly excluding, for instance, sales that stem from divorces or retirements, or those not listed through real estate agencies.
In some towns, “if the assessor gets the slightest whiff” that a home might have been sold under duress, they remove it from contention, said Jim Bogris, a Fair Lawn appraiser. “I don’t know how many times I’m at tax board hearings, and I see people going in to appeal … and the assessors just blow them out of the water. I believe [the code] is overused.”
They further contend that short sales should be allowed in appeals because they do indeed represent the true market in distressed neighborhoods where property values have fallen most and many owners owe more than their homes are worth.
An analysis of property sales data by The Record and interviews with home sellers revealed that assessors use the catch-all category inconsistently and sometimes without apparent cause. The analysis further found that the percentage of home sales declared off limits in appeals ranges widely in communities with similar economics.
Varities by town
For example, in a row of middle- and lower-income Bergen and Passaic towns running from Ridgefield to Paterson, 17 percent to 33 percent of sales were eliminated as Code 26s in 2010 and the first half of 2011. But less than 5 percent were eliminated in East Rutherford, Carlstadt, Lyndhurst and Saddle Brook.
Similar variability was found in more upscale areas, with 38 percent of sales taken out of contention in Wyckoff in that period, compared with less than 5 percent in Franklin Lakes and Midland Park.
Overall in Bergen and Passaic counties, the percentage of home sales kicked out of the mix has risen from about one in 50 in 2005-06 to one in 13 for 2010 and the first half of 2011.
Assessors said the variability could be because of varying levels of short sales, though one, Jack Whiting of Clifton, noted that the figures “should be somewhat consistent. There should be a normal pattern to it.”
Moreover, in interviews with 13 people who sold homes in Wyckoff in 2010-11 that were filed as Code 26 sales, all said they believed they got fair prices for their homes and were not short sales. In a random survey of another six such sellers in other towns, four said their transactions had no special conditions.
“No, no, no. Nothing like that,” declared William Recant of Tuxedo, N.Y., whose sale of a five-bedroom colonial in Wyckoff in 2010 for $820,000 was used in the unsuccessful appeal for a home assessed at $966,700.
“There was nothing unusual, in the sense that it was a willing buyer and willing seller,” he said.
Peter Mortimer of Wyckoff, whose former home was used in the same appeal, said he and his wife got “a fair price” when they sold the five-bedroom contemporary-style house in 2010 for $815,000.
“It was not a fire sale,” he said.
The office in the state Division of Taxation that monitors the sales-recording process is reversing a growing number of decisions after finding that assessors misunderstand or misuse the law, the head of the office said.
When sales are improperly recorded, “we will change it”, said Thomas Reilly, chief of valuation and mapping for the office. “Ninety percent of assessors do the right thing, but sometimes there are gray areas. Assessors sometimes misclassify things.” Staff was added to the office in 2009 partly to address the issue and “educate” officials, he said.
In Wyckoff, where the 70 percent reversal rate for 2009 through the first half of 2011 was among the most severe in North Jersey, Reilly said Steele, the assessor, “may have been a little aggressive” in classifying sales. In some cases, he said, she wrongly eliminated sales simply because they were not marketed sufficiently through real estate agents.
In other cases, investigators talked to home sellers and agents, as The Record did. “We are finding what you are finding, that they were indeed arms-length sales. So we are doing our job and putting them back in.”
At a disadvantage
In trying to determine which transactions represent the market, assessors say they talk to lawyers, realtors and sellers.
“I’ll reach out with whatever means I have,” said Stuart Stolarz, the assessor in five municipalities with relatively low exclusion rates.
Despite the exclusions, Reggo, the assessor for 10 Bergen towns, said that “plenty of sales” remained for owners to use in appeals.
But the increasingly limited pool of comparable sales puts property owners “at a distinct disadvantage,” especially if they proceed without a lawyer who knows legal arguments that can rebut the exclusions, said Richard Hubschman, a real estate attorney based in Palisades Park. Assessors “are very liberal about assigning non-usable to almost anything. It’s a defensive tactic that they need to put forward to try to defeat the appeals.”
Even when a homeowner goes in armed with evidence to get around the problem, he can lose, as Traitz discovered in his appeal. He said he told the tax board that Steele had eliminated comparable sales, even though sellers had told him that their sales had no special conditions.
The board still sided with the town, and Traitz is now taking his case to state tax court.
To Traitz, who became something of a tax-law expert as he researched his case, the long-term answer is more regular municipal property revaluations that keep assessments up to date, maintain equity in the system and eliminate the need for many appeals.
Beyond his own appeal, he said, “I’m interested in seeing a more fair system.”
John Lloyd, a lawyer who advises Wyckoff on tax issues, noted that property owners are permitted to challenge an assessor's decision to exclude a sale before the county tax board and in state Tax Court.
A growing limitation
Selected municipalities are making greater use of a discretionary element of state tax law to eliminate property sales from a potential pool that can be used in property tax appeals. Data represent percentage of all residential sales excluded under this provision of the law.
MunicipalityPercent 2005-2006Percent 2010 - 1st half of 2011
Bergenfield 116
Englewood Cliffs116
Little Ferry133
LodiLess than 124
New Milford616
South Hackensack724
PassaicLess than 113
Source: New Jersey Division of Taxation
Staff analysis by Dave Sheingold

No longer comparable?

These homes in Wyckoff were sold in 2010 and the transactions were cited as "comparable" sales in a subsequent tax appeal filed by a third party. The assessor recorded them as not reflecting the true market value; both sellers told The Record there was nothing unusual about the transactions.
Two-story, five-bedroom colonial sold August 2010 for $820,000

Two-story, five-bedroom contemporary sold July 2010 for $815,000

Friday, March 16, 2012

OPMA suit filed against Englewood Cliffs school board

On March 12, 2012, I filed a four-count lawsuit against the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education alleging violations of New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act. The lawsuit, which is on-line here, concerns the school board's nonpublic (closed or executive) meeting minutes and resolutions. While I still need to formally serve the Board with the lawsuit, I already e-mailed the Board an advance copy of it. John Paff

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Englewood Cliffs school board pays $20,000 to settle wrongful termination suit

On October 3, 2011, the Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) Board of Education agreed to pay $20,000 to a former school custodian who had sued the school board for allegedly firing him because he became injured and sought workers compensation benefits.

More details on this matter are available on my "New Jersey Civil Settlements" blog here. No sign up or information is required to view the information at the above link.


I chair the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project which seeks to increase governmental transparency and accountability, particularly at a local level. For more information on the Libertarian Party, go to http://www.njlp.org.

As part of my work, I routinely check civil court cases where at least one of the parties is a government agency or official. Most often, these settlement agreements are never revealed to the public. I post them on the Libertarian Party's blog at http://njcivilsettlements.blogspot.com and other public forums because I believe that civil settlements, regardless of amount, may be of interest to citizens and taxpayers.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

Links to Information About Englewood Cliffs

Bergen Beathttp://blog.northjersey.com/bergenbeat   

Articles on Englewood Cliffs that were printed in The Record and stories by Record reporters that weren’t printed in the Record can be found here.
New Jersey Press Associationhttp://www.publicnoticeads.com/nj

This site allows you to search the public notices in The Record by municipality.  It allows you to see what notices Englewood Cliffs, its boards and commissions, and the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education have published without searching through the newspaper. 
New Jersey Association of County Tax Boardswww.njactb.org

Click on “Record Search” to access the search function, which allows you to find the property tax data on any property and any property owner in New Jersey.  This site also allows you to download information, including all the data on Englewood Cliffs property values, as an Excel spreadsheet.   

Asbury Park Press’ Data Universehttp://www.app.com/section/DATA/DataUniverse

Scroll down to “Public Payroll”. 

Click on “N.J. Public Employees and Police” to search municipal employees’ salaries.  If you click on the arrow to the right of “Agency/Town,” select “Englewood Cliffs Borough” from the pull down menu, and leave everything else blank, you will get a complete list of Englewood Cliffs’ employees and their salaries, albeit as of 2010.  Additionally, you will be able to see how many government positions Englewood Cliffs employees who also work in other municipalities have. 

Click on “Public School Teachers” to search school district employees’ salaries.  If you click on the arrow to the right of “County” and then select “Bergen” from the pull down menu, then click on the arrow to the right of “District” and select “Englewood Cliffs” from the pull down menu, you will get a complete list of the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education’s employees, their educational level, and years of experience, albeit for 2010-2011. 

Scroll down to “Retirees & Other Records” and click on “to search former municipal and school district employees’ pensions. 

Some Background Information

On Conflicts of Interest in Englewood Cliffs

From the New York Times, A Town Where the Neighbors are in Everybody's Business, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/14/nyregion/14englewood.html?pagewanted=all&emc=eta1


On Hiring Practices in Englewood Cliffs
From the Record:  Police chief favored son, friends

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS - Aspiring police officers lined up outside the police station here in October for an application to work in this affluent, quiet borough. Many were turned away.

But the son and friends of Police Chief Lawrence Whiting appear to have gotten special treatment during the ongoing hiring process, an investigation by The Record has found.

The chief's son, a councilwoman's two sons and the chief's friend's son received applications through unusual circumstances, according to phone records and officers in the department.

The borough had advertised in The Record and the Herald News that candidates must appear in person Oct. 4 to apply and pay a $75 fee. Only 100 applications were given out, and all were gone by 11 o'clock that morning, according to police officers and a sign posted on the door.

"I got down there, they were out," said Brendan Phillips of Norwood. "I was kind of disappointed."

"I get the feeling that they know who they're going to hire before they start the process," said Phillips, speaking of small-town police departments in general. "So they just go through the formality of it."

Chief Whiting's son Chris, a patrolman in Ridgefield Park, received an application. But Chris Whiting was working Oct. 4 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., said Ridgefield Park Police Chief Dieter Ahrlich.

Two Englewood Cliffs police officers who asked to remain anonymous said that Chris Whiting has passed the physical and written tests and is among the finalists being considered for the position.

"You can't advertise that there will be 100 applications and then hold some back for your friends," said one of the police officers.

After seeing the job opening, Councilwoman Pat Drimones called Chief Whiting in late September to get applications for her two sons, Christian, 25, and Nick, 20.

"I said, Nicky's going back to school, and he said, don't worry, I'll hold them for you," Drimones told The Record later. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with that."

Christian Drimones stood in line on Oct. 4, but the applications ran out before he got one, his mother said. Police tapes then show that his mother called the station at 11:31 a.m., and told Patrolmen Keith Wicker that Whiting was holding two applications for her. Wicker had just told two previous callers the applications were all gone.

Wicker put Drimones on hold and then returned to the phone and told her to send her son back to the station.

Drimones, who has a brother on the force, said later that neither of her sons had become finalists.

About 185 of the New Jersey's 480 local police departments participate in the civil service system, which has strict rules for testing and hiring prospective cops.

For the other departments, such as Englewood Cliffs, municipal officials can pass laws guiding the hiring and promoting of police officers, said Ed Kologi, a Linden-based lawyer who specializes in municipal and police issues.

Englewood Cliffs' hiring ordinance does not address how applications should be given out, but it does say the borough "may" require physical, mental or psychological exams. The mayor and council give final approval to the police committee's candidate recommendations.

Joseph DelGreco, a retired Passaic cop, also called the station Oct. 4 and asked to speak to the chief. He mentioned that his son Joseph wanted an application but couldn't get one that morning.

"Chief, Joseph worked EMS last night, he got off late," he said on the tape. "He missed the uh, one of the times, uh, for getting the applications. I thought it was an |all-day thing."

"Is it totally cut off or you think you could get one?" he asked the chief.

"Hold on one second," Whiting replied. "Oh, okay, good. Yeah, I think we can. Believe it or not, I have, 'cause you know what? I just held back, just in case."

"Okay, can I send him down now?" DelGreco said.

"Yeah, send him down and tell him when he comes to the desk to see me," Whiting said.

Whiting, a past president of the Bergen County chief's association, did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by phone, letter, and visits to his home and workplace.

Kologi said he has never heard of a police department handing out applications on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"This isn't like a quest for Yankees tickets," he said. "I don't think the person who gets up earliest and decides to wait in line puts the municipality in the best position of finding qualifying candidates."

If favoritism was also a factor in Englewood Cliffs, then "it just diminishes credibility and confidence in the hiring system," added Kologi, an associate counsel with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

"We're in a situation where public confidence in government appears to be eroding more and more. If things like this occur, if they are in fact occurring, it contributes to that."

Phillips, from Norwood, said he would not give up on his goal of becoming a police officer. "I'm going to put myself through the academy to get around all this politics that's involved," he said.

The Suburbanite: Englewood Cliffs mayor wants to revamp 5th Street area in borough

Englewood Cliffs mayor wants to revamp 5th Street area in borough

Thursday, March 15, 2012
Northern Valley Suburbanite

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — Mayor Joseph Parisi, Jr. wants to hire a planner to determine the best way for the borough to utilize 5th Street, from Bayview Avenue to the edge of Fort Lee.
"There's a bunch of different things I'd love to do on that property," said Parisi. "It would be great for the town and ratables."
The area includes about 17 different properties, approximately 50 percent of which are owned by the same person.
In order for any plans to be made, the borough would have to make changes to the zoning of the area, known as the B-3 Zone.
"The zoning of that area is prohibitive to develop in a way that benefits Englewood Cliffs," said Parisi.
Like Parisi, Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow believes changes should be made to the zoning of the B-3 Zone.
"I believe that the B-3 Zone is underutilized due to outdated zoning regulations and should be examined and appropriate revisions implemented," said McMorrow.
Parisi wants to hire a planner to look at the different zoning issues, consider the borough's master plan and determine what would be most feasible use of the area. Parisi has an artist's rendition of what can be done to the area.
"It is my understanding that the mayor has already attended a preliminary meeting and that drawings of ideas that encompass a combination of 42 condos and retail space were discussed," said McMorrow. "I do have concerns about the extent of preliminary activity, which did not include the property owners and residents."
She said she is concerned that the Planning Board will meet in subcommittees – these meetings do not need to be advertised to the public.
Parisi said although he has the drawings, the Planning Board has not yet had the opportunity to look at the plan.
"Our biggest concern right now is how much it would cost for the planning end of it," said Parisi.
Parisi said he would like to lay out the plans for the people developing the area, so they understand what the borough's vision is.
"If we show them, they will build, so to speak," said Parisi.
He added the developers could always make modifications to the plans, but the details would already be ironed out so the borough gets exactly what it is looking for.
While plans for 5th Street are only in the conceptual stages, Parisi has a few ideas for what he would like to see done in the area.
"What we are looking at is maybe having a mixed use with retail, condos, co-ops or apartments," said Parisi.
Parisi is interested in adding residential units in the area so the "mature" residents of Englewood Cliffs do not move out of town.
"If they sell their homes, where would they move?" said Parisi. "The residential units down there would provide the opportunity for those residents to stay in Englewood Cliffs."
The residential units would most likely be one-bedroom, instead of two-bedroom, units. Parisi said the borough would have to look into the effect having residential units would have on school taxes.
Parisi also envisions outdoor cafes where people can sit and relax. The area is zoned for about 1,600 square feet of retail.
Before any work is done to the area, property owners would have to agree to develop the area.
"We're not going to do anything like eminent domain," said Parisi. "We really wouldn't be involved in any other extent than setting up our ideas."
Parisi said there are a number of different ways to develop the area. A developer could take a land lease and pay to develop the property, one of the property owners could pay to keep the property and develop it or someone could buy up all the property and develop it. The developer or property owner would have to determine if it is cost effective to develop the property.
"If the landowner doesn't agree [to the plans], we would have to go in for a variance," said Parisi.
Before any action is taken, Parisi wants to hold public hearings and hear everyone's thoughts and comments about redeveloping the B-3 Zone.
Like Parisi, McMorrow also believes the public should be involved in the process.
"I strongly believe the process, which includes the involvement of both the Planning Board and the Governing Body, should be open and transparent from start to finish and should allow the property owners and residents ample opportunity to express their opinions from the rezoning's infancy," said McMorrow.
Email: baskind@northjersey.com

The Record: Ethics filing aimed at mayor

Ethics filing aimed at mayor

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — A crusader for open government has filed an ethics complaint against the mayor questioning whether he had a conflict when he participated in school budget negotiations.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, has filed a complaint with the state Local Finance Board alleging Mayor Joseph Parisi violated the local government ethics law in 2010.
"If the mayor did this he should be held accountable for it," Paff said Thursday.
The ethics complaint is the latest in a series of steps Paff has taken to shine a light on Englewood Cliffs. Paff randomly began filing requests under the Open Public Records Act in January, something he has done in other municipalities across the state to make sure governing bodies and school boards are complying with state laws.
In his complaint, Paff notes that Parisi is chairman and CEO of Otterstedt Insurance Agency and is on the board of directors of North Jersey Community Bank.
Although the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education contracts with Parisi's insurance company and uses the bank as an official depository, the mayor participated in discussions when the defeated school budget was sent to the council for cuts, Paff's complaint states.
Parisi questioned why Paff, who lives in Somerset, nowhere near the borough, is raising a two-year-old issue.
"I don't understand his motivation," Parisi said. "This is an old item, already addressed, already spoken to. I have not violated anything again."
Parisi, a Democrat, said the borough attorney at the time, Fred Semrau, told him afterward that he should not have participated in the discussions and he has avoided school issues since that time. Parisi also noted that the Republicans controlled the council and he didn't vote on the budget, but only stated his opinion.
"He said that I should not have participated and I won't be doing in the future," Parisi said.
Paff includes meeting minutes that quote Parisi saying he recommends no cuts to the school budget. Paff said Parisi should have recused himself from the budget deliberations.
"Mayor Parisi had a divided interested," Paff wrote in the complaint. "He could not realistically support a cut to the school district's budget without imperiling his bank's and insurance agency's financial arrangement with the school board."
Parisi said he though Paff's complaint was politically motivated.
"I just pick towns, there's nothing scientific about it really," Paff said. "You look at the website, it sort of gives you a clue. Especially their website. There's nothing on their website."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Record: Council considers hiring 4 officers

Council considers hiring 4 officers

Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – After painting a dire budget picture just last month, the Borough Council is considering hiring four police officers and a dispatcher.
Mayor Joseph Parisi, who has long advocated the hiring of more police, said the additional officers and creation of a civilian dispatcher position would help eliminate overtime. The borough spent about $500,000 last year on overtime, well over the $300,000 that was budgeted.
Parisi said he thinks overtime could be cut to $275,000 with the additional hires and plans to work with the police chief to change the organizational structure of the department to further reduce costs.
"It makes sense," he said. "You have to look at both ends of the spectrum."
Parisi also said adding a dispatcher would take an officer from behind the desk and put him on the street.
Although the council discussed the preliminary budget Monday it did not present any documents to the public. The council plans to introduce the 2012 spending plan at its next meeting on Tuesday.
Police Chief Michael Cioffi brought four police officer candidates and introduced his nephew, Christian Drimones, as the dispatcher candidate.
Resident Mary O'Shea questioned how the council could be hiring police without advertising for the positions.
"If the council hasn't discussed hiring police officers why would the police committee interview candidates if they don't know that the council wants to hire candidates?" she said.
Council President Joseph Favaro said Cioffi did advertise the positions and Parisi said even without advertising the borough had received hundreds of résumés in recent years.
Parisi asked the candidates to briefly introduce themselves during public comment.
All four police officer candidates are working for other agencies and have already been through the police academy. One of the candidates speaks fluent Korean, something Parisi said would be an asset in the borough.
Several residents remarked on the qualification of the men, but took issue with Drimones becoming a police dispatcher.
Drimones, a lifelong resident and longtime volunteer firefighter is the son of fire Chief George Drimones and former Democratic Councilwoman Patricia Drimones, the police chief's sister.
When Parisi asked if he had any experience as a dispatcher, Drimones said he had obtained the necessary certification and taken online courses.
Cioffi said many of the men would be taking pay cuts to work for the Englewood Cliffs Police Department because they want to serve the community.
"They are very well qualified, good gentlemen and any one of them would be an asset to the community," he said.
Starting salary for police officers is $34,999.
Councilman Ilan Plawker, the police commissioner, was not at Monday's meeting but said Wednesday that he hopes to have the hires on next week's council agenda for a vote.

The Suburbanite: Englewood Cliffs official files complaint against Mayor Parisi, Jr. and borough

Englewood Cliffs official files complaint against Mayor Parisi, Jr. and borough

Thursday, March 8, 2012
Northern Valley Suburbanite

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — Zoning Board of Adjustment Chairman Russell Porrino filed a civil complaint with the Bergen County Superior Court against the Borough of Englewood Cliffs and Mayor Joseph Parisi, Jr. to void all of the actions taken by the governing body at the Jan. 7 reorganization meeting, because Parisi failed to open the meeting for public comment.
In addition to asking for the voiding of all actions taken by the governing body at the Jan. 7 reorganization meeting, Porrino wants it declared that Parisi and the Borough of Englewood Cliffs violated the Open Public Meetings Act, an issuance of injunctive order to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act, an order to make sure Parisi and the governing body do not conduct public meetings without a public session and the fining of Parisi if he knowingly violated the Open Public Meetings Act.
One of the actions taken at this meeting was the council approving the first reading of an ordinance calling for dissolving the Zoning Board of Adjustment and shifting its powers to the Planning Board, in a 5-1 party-line vote.
Parisi instructed Borough Attorney Carter Corriston to draft this ordinance before he was sworn in as the borough attorney and that this ordinance was not listed on the meeting agenda.
Municipal governing bodies are required by law to set aside a portion of every meeting for public comment. At this time, the public has the opportunity to comment on issues or concerns or ask questions.
At the Feb. 8 mayor and council meeting, Borough Attorney Carter Corriston said Parisi was in violation of the law by not opening the meeting for public comment, but believes it was an oversight.
Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow asked Corriston to look into this matter at the Jan. 18 mayor and council meeting.
"I believe it was an inadvertence," said Corriston. "An innocent inadvertence."
Parisi apologized for not opening for public comment at the reorganization meeting and said it would not happen again.
"As for the reorganization meeting and not opening to the public, I as I said, I admit I should have requested the council to open the meeting to the public, but in fact none of the council members requested to open the meeting," said Parisi. He added that he is going to ask the council to withdraw the motion to hear the ordinance regarding dissolving the board at the next council meeting. Instead, he is going to ask the council to reintroduce an ordinance, however, the public will not be able to comment on it until the next scheduled meeting.
Porrino does not see the apology as an adequate solution.
"I cannot in good conscience remain silent and witness the dissolving of our independent Board of Adjustment while Mayor Parisi violates the Open Public Meetings Act in the process," said Porrino. "There must be consequences to stifling the rights of the public to speak at a public meeting and the residents of Englewood Cliffs deserve to know the details of what is happening behind the scenes."
Porrino said Parisi knowingly adjourned the reorganization meeting without opening for public comment and that the public was restrained from speaking at the meeting "as to stifle any negative comments from the public regarding the proposed dissolving of the Board of Adjustment."
Porrino also alleged that Parisi violated the Municipal Land Use Law by swearing in Steve Duffy and Vincent Surace as alternate members of the Planning Board on Jan. 12. Both Duffy and Surace were members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment and did not submit resignations to the Board of Adjustment.
"This lawsuit is frivolous and a political ploy because the consequences would be to redo what was done and I pay the one hundred dollar fine, which I'm willing to do," said Parisi.
However Porrino said there is nothing political about this lawsuit. "What it is all about, is an elected official violating the law and expecting no resident to speak out," said Porrino.