A township council meeting exploded into a shouting match between Council President John Ducey and Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis before the governing body passed, in a 4-3 vote, a controversial pair of ordinances that will both eliminate and create positions in township government.
In a meeting that spanned more than four hours – most of which was dedicated to a sometimes-raucus discussion of the restructuring plan – township officials battled over whether the restructuring would save money or cost money, promised lawsuits and accused each other of handing out political patronage jobs.
Acropolis promised a veto of the ordinances, which his administration says will cost taxpayers approximately $130,000 and lead to “political hacks” being appointed to at least some of the newly-created positions.
Council President John Ducey said the move will eliminate $418,000 in salaries by eliminating five salaries and eight positions – some of which are not filled – and allow township government to become smaller and more efficient.
But Township Attorney Jean Cipriani warned the council for a second time that enacting the ordinances – which they eventually did – could lead to lawsuits by employees as well as a finding that the township violated the Open Public Meetings Act via the state’s Rice Law, which allows employees notice before their jobs are to be discussed at official meetings.
Cipriani, at the direction of the mayor, read a lengthy statement citing the state’s Faulkner Act – the law that sets forth Brick’s governmental structure – as well as case law, and explained in advanced legal language how portions of the law may violate that act and could be thrown out in court.
Acropolis also said some of the people whose jobs are being eliminated could be bumped to Civil Service jobs with higher salaries than they are collecting now.
At one point during the meeting, Acropolis took aim at Republican Councilman Dan Toth’s motivations for siding with council Democrats in spearheading the restructuring law (see separate story), implying he favored the law because it would eliminate the position held by Deputy Business Administrator Juan Bellu. Acropolis implied Toth wanted to eliminate Bellu because he would not adhere to requests from Toth to help business clients receive favorable treatment in opening liquor stores.
Toth would later say he was merely helping business owners after they contacted him, as he has done with those he has no business relationships with.
Ducey – Acropolis Altercation
The discussion turned especially sour when, during a public comment period, Ducey accused Acropolis of refusing to allow council members to speak with Business Administrator Scott Pezarras and others in his administration.
“That’s a lie,” said Acropolis.
“I’m running the meeting and I didn’t recognize you,” replied Ducey.
When Acropolis began to explain his position, Ducey banged his gavel, repeatedly telling Acropolis that he runs the meetings and Acropolis should not speak. The pair’s voices grew louder and louder until they were shouting at one another, at which point Ducey asked a special police officer to remove Acropolis from the council chambers.
“If anyone puts their hands on me, if you put your hands on me,” Acropolis said, at which point Ducey cut him off, shouting, “He’s threatening an officer! You can’t threaten an officer!”
“Vinnie, if you put a hand on me, I'll sue everybody here,” said Acropolis, referring to the officer.
“If you're gonna lie, Mr. Ducey, that's it, we're done,” Acropolis then said, briefly sitting in the regular audience section of the meeting room before leaving, along with Cipriani and Pezarras, who he instructed to exit the council chamber.
At a later point in the meeting, Ducey read a number of e-mails from township officials saying they could not answer questions about the restructuring plan because the mayor had instructed them not to.
However Acropolis provided to Brick Patch an e-mail dated Sept. 19 instructing Pezarras to “Please answer the Councilwoman’s questions in a timely manner,” referring to questions submitted by Councilwoman Susan Lydecker about bill resolutions.
Acropolis also provided a copy of a similar e-mail from Sept. 13 instructing Pezarras to provide information to Councilman Jim Fozman.
“Some quieter times and some [cooler] prevailing heads should probably take place,” said resident George Scott, following the exchange.
“What's going on here tonight is a lot of politicking and a lot of grandstanding,” said resident Nan Coll.
Ramifications of Restructuring
Eight senior positions – some unfilled – which amount to five salaries in township government, including those held by Deputy Business Administrator Juan Bellu and Recreation Department Head Dave Francese, will be eliminated under the plan. The job of the council's secretary will also be eliminated and will be replaced by a deputy municipal clerk.
The departments of Recreation as well as Community Development and Land Use would be eliminated entirely, with their operations rolled into other departments.
Deputy department head positions for the Finance Department and the Tax Assessor would be created under the plan. A deputy township clerk position would also be created.
During the meeting, Acropolis took aim at Ducey over the elimination of Council Secretary Jennifer Hartmann’s job.
“You want to get rid of her not because of her [job performance], but just because you want to create another position for a political hack,” said Acropolis, who then alluded to rumors former Democratic Councilwoman Kathy Russel or Democrat George Cevasco – who recently dropped out of the Ocean County freeholder race – might get the job.
“This does two things: it goes after two members of the administration who were department heads, and creates a $90,000 position in the clerk's office that will be filled with a Democrat politico,” said Acropolis. “It's smoke and mirrors. You say you're eliminating positions that have nobody in the positions.”
The entire exercise may end up in court eventually, some surmised.
Cipriani said there is a chance employees could sue the township, or the administration could end up facing off in court against the council over whether the ordinances are in accordance with the Faulkner Act or not.
In that case, the administration would be represented by Cipriani – a member of a Republican-aligned law firm – and the council would presumably be represented by Democrat-aligned attorney Charles Starkey, who authored the restructuring ordinance.
Council members Toth, Ducey, Fozman and Lydecker voted in favor of the ordinances. Council members Bob Moore, Domenick Brando and Joseph Sangiovanni voted against them.
Those in favor of the restructuring defended the measure, saying it will lead to smaller government in Brick.
Fozman said “too many unnecessary management positions” were created by the administration and the measure marks a “crucial step towards savings hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“We want to cut back,” explained Ducey. “We want to change the structure of government.”
“We couldn’t do it earlier” than now, Ducey said, because if the restructuring had been proposed earlier the mayor could have interfered in the passing of the township’s 2012 operating and capital budgets.
“Business and Finance had meetings, and we had to have our own attorney,” said Ducey. “We're trying to do what's right, we're trying to make the cuts that we think are needed.”