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.

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.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

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

New Jersey Watchdog,, has published two articles under the heading Where Does the Buck Stop for NJ Pensions?  The first, posted on April 2, 2012 at, 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  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,

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,, 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."

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.

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."