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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Former Fairfield mayor contests a $100 ethics fine.

In her June 29, 2017 letter, Former Fairfield Mayor Viola Thomas Hughes has requested an Administrative Law Judge's review of a $100 ethics fine assessed against her by the Local Finance Board, the chief enforcer of the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL).

According to the Board's June 14, 2017 Notice of Violation, Thomas Hughes, while Deputy Mayor in 2013, voted to request state funding to resurface Thomas Drive when she owned property on Thomas Drive.  According to the Notice, Thomas Hughes' "ownership of the real property represented a direct or indirect personal or financial involvement which might reasonably be expected to impair one's objectivity or independence of judgment." 

According to the Board's roster of ethics matters, the case against Thomas Hughes was initiated by a complaint filed by former Township Mayor Michael Sharp.

Fairfield mayor, former deputy mayor, fight $100 ethics fines.

In a June 6, 2017 letter, Fairfield Township Solicitor John G. Carr advised the Local Finance Board, the chief enforcer of the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL), that his clients, Mayor Benjamin Byrd and former Deputy Mayor Troy Pitts, seek to have an Administrative Law Judge review $100 ethics fines that the Board levied against the pair in May 2017.

Both Byrd and Pitts were found to have violated the LGEL by supporting a request for $1,200 in Township funds made by an organization to which the pair had ties.  According to the Notices of Violations against Byrd and Pitts, both were present at a September 9, 2014 Township Committee work session when Maria Pietrowski, Executive Director of True Renaissance Organization, Inc., requested the funds to provide art education to the Township's sixth-grade students.

Pietrowski is reported to be Byrd's sister-in-law and Pitts' sister and Pitts and his wife were also reportedly members of True Renaissance's board of directors.  Both Byrd and Pitts spoke in support of True Renaissance's request, according to the Notices of Violation.

According to the Board's roster of ethics matters, the case against Byrd and Pitt was initiated by a complaint filed by former Township Mayor Viola Thomas-Hughes.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Fairfield Committeeman "reprimanded" and fined for violating Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act.

On October 25, 2017, the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) fined a Fairfield Township (Cumberland County) Committeeman $275 and reprimanded him for filing a campaign financing statement 609 days late.  A similar complaint against another Fairfield Committeeman is pending.

According to state law, candidates for public office are supposed to file various election-cycle reports that set forth contributions received and expenditures made.  Relieved from these filing responsibilities are candidates who run small campaigns in which less than $5,100 is spent and no contributions in cash or more than $300 from a single source are received.  Candidates who run such a small campaign are required only to file a simple one-page form known as an "Form A-1."

According to ELEC's May 10, 2017 complaint, Bernard Manson failed to file either his regular election-cycle-reports or a Form A-1 when he ran for a Fairfield Township Committee seat in the November 2015 general election.  On May 29, 2017, apparently after receiving ELEC's complaint, Manson filed his Form A-1 in which he certified that he met the small-campaign qualification that relieved him from filing the more complex election-cycle reports.  Because he failed to make any timely filing at all, ELEC reprimanded Manson and fined him $275.

ELEC's April 12, 2017 complaint against Committeeman David Gonzalez is similar except that it dealt with the 2015 primary election rather than the general election.  Gonzalez filed his Form A-1 on July 14, 2017 so it is expected that ELEC will issue its ruling shortly.  Those interested in searching ELEC's complaint database may access it here.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Arbitrator rules in Servais' favor and dismisses Wayne Byrd's claims.

In his 2014 lawsuit, Wayne Byrd, a Township employee from 2004 to 2008 and the brother of current Fairfield Mayor Benjamin Byrd, claimed that former Mayor and Township Committee member JoAnne L. Servais violated the terms of a confidential settlement agreement by disclosing that he was paid a settlement amount of $72,000 and that she disparaged him by falsely stating that he "filed suit against the Township following his suspension for alleged theft."  In a June 19, 2017 Decision, Arbitrator Nicole J. Curio found in Servais' favor and dismissed Byrd's claims. 

In her 11-page ruling, Curio found that Servais' "alleged theft" remark, which appeared in a October 31, 2012 letter to the editor, was not disparaging. "Mr. Byrd was suspended and he was alleged to have committed theft," Curio wrote.  After noting that the parties stipulated that Byrd was never convicted of theft, Curio wrote "Therefore, this statement is true."  Curio also noted that "Ms. Servais clearly includes the word 'alleged' and follows it by the fact that he settled the suit which would lead to the conclusion that he was never found to be a thief." 

Curio found that Servais' letter to the editor "was meant as a political piece in an effort to discredit Ben Byrd and was not aimed at Wayne Byrd."  Servais was competing with Ben Byrd in a Township Committee election at the time the letter was published.

Curio also pointed out that Wayne Byrd testified that what he "was really upset about was the fact that the article mentioned he had received $72,000."  Byrd said that he experienced "paranoia, pain and suffering" out of worry that "someone would now know that he had money and would come and try to 'get him.'" According to his testimony, the prospect of being harmed by a thief caused Byrd to shower with a knife and check and re-check the locks on his doors.

Curio wrote that the parties acknowleged that the confidentiality clause in the settlement was unenforceable and that Byrd's settlement was already common public knowledge.  As to the non-disparagement clause, Curio found that "the foundation of [Wayne Byrd's] claim for damages is that the letter publicized that he had received money. There is no connection between any alleged 'disparagement' and the claim for damages." Accordingly she dismissed his claims.

The prior lawsuit, filed by Byrd in 2008, allegesd racially hostile and discriminatory treatment by William Ridgeway. That lawsuit settled for $72,500 and that settlement agreement contained the confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses that are the subject of Byrd's more recent lawsuit discussed in this article. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Former Interim Superintendent for Fairfield's (Cumberland) school district files "whistleblower" lawsuit.

On August 14, 2017, the former Interim Superintendent of the Fairfield Township (Cumberland County) School District filed a Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) or "whistleblower" lawsuit against the school district claiming that he was denied a three-year contract because school officials were displeased that he would not get excused from jury duty.

In his lawsuit, James Ruffin said that he was hired as an Assistant Principal on September 2, 2015 and the school board's meeting minutes from December 17, 2015 are the first to show him in the position of Interim Superintendent.  Ruffin said that on June 8, 2016, he received a summons requiring him to report for grand jury duty once a week for eighteen weeks.  At about the same time, Ruffin said that he agreed to a three-year contract as Interim Superintendent but that the school district did not submit the contracts to the County in a timely manner.

Ruffin's lawsuit claims that he was again offered a three-year contract in August 2016 which he signed in October 2016.  He said that beginning in October 2016, he had "numerous conversations and disputes with the Business Administrator and the President of the Board of Education" and that both officials "voiced displeasure with [Ruffin] having to serve grand jury duty and both repeatedly requested that [he] get himself excused from same."  The minutes from that period show that Michelle Kennedy was the Board President and that Janecia Smith was the Business Administrator. (Michelle Kennedy is the wife of Fairfield Township Democratic Municipal Chairperson Marion Kennedy.  Mr. Kennedy, a former mayor of Fairfield, presently serves as a Class II member of the Fairfield Township Planning & Zoning Board.  Mrs. Kennedy is a member of the Fairfield Township Democratic Executive Committee.)

Ruffin claimed that he "advised [Kennedy and Smith] that he reasonably believed it was illegal to penalize an employee with respect to employment and/or threaten or otherwise coerce an employee with respect to employment because the employee was required to attend court for jury service."  He said that the following month, he was advised that the district would begin a search for a new superintendent.  His lawsuit alleges that in December 2016, "his work schedule was being reduced to two days per week and that $800.00 was being deducted from his weekly paycheck."

Ruffin claimed that he applied for the superintendent's position in February 2017 but the position was given to someone else.  As of this writing, the district's website shows Dr. Michael Knox as superintendent.  The latest minutes that show Ruffin as Interim Superintendent are from April 13, 2017.

In his lawsuit, Ruffin seeks restatement to his position, back pay and attorney fees.  He is being represented by Arthur J. Murray of Alterman & Associates, LLC of Marlton. 

Ruffin's lawsuit consists of allegations.  Nothing has yet been proven and the burden of moving forward is on Ruffin.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Acting Fairfield Township CFO was fired for improperly paying herself the CFO salary instead of $12.75 per hour.

At its public meeting on February 3, 2015, the Township of Fairfield (Cumberland County) passed Resolution 62-2015 that terminated Keyanna Jones' employment with the Township.  The actual decision to terminate Jones was made during a January 20, 2015 meeting, the minutes of which are available at the above link.  According to those minutes, the decision to fire Jones was "based upon the analysis and decision found by [attorney] Steven S. Glickman" who investigated disciplinary charges against Jones and recommended that she be fired.

An Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request caused disclosure of Glickman's January 6, 2015 decision in the matter.  According to the decision, Jones attended a disciplinary hearing on December 19, 2014 to respond to charges of insubordination, conduct unbecoming a public employee, official misconduct, misuse of public property, failure to perform duties and "potential criminal charges possibly including theft, theft of public funds and/or official misconduct."

Glickman first dismissed the insubordination, misuse of public property and failure to perform duties charges after finding that there was no basis upon which those charges could be sustained.  He also dismissed the "potential criminal charges" because of want of jurisdiction.  He then merged the remaining charges into one charge alleging that "Jones paid herself at the unauthorized rate of the Chief Financial Officer's position." 

Glickman found that Jones started her employment with Fairfield in February 2014 as a part-time Land Use Board secretary and was on May 14, 2014 told by Acting Administrator Jacqueline Green that she was to be hired as Assistant Director of Finance and be paid $12.75 per hour.  Along with her other job with the Land Use Board, Jones would be working full time and thus eligible for employee benefits.  Jones countered with an offer to work the position for $17.75 per hour for 30 hours per week, but it appears that Jones ultimately accepted the position at $12.75 per hour. 

According to Glickman's decision, the Township's payroll record showed that Jones was paid during May 2014 "at the rate of the Township's former Chief Financial Officer (CFO)."  This rate of pay, presumably, is much more than $12.75 per hour and Jones being paid at this rate is central to the disciplinary charges against her.

Jones testified at her hearing that then Fairfield Mayor Viola T. Hughes offered her the CFO's position on April 17, 2014 and introduced her to the public as the Acting CFO on April 26, 2014.  She said that the Township had received state approval to allow her to work as the CFO on an acting basis provided that she obtained her state certification for that position within one year. 

Hughes, who also testified that she told Jones that she would receive the higher CFO salary only after she passed the CFO certification exam and that "she specifically told Jones that her hourly wage would remain at $12.75 while she was training for the CFO position." 

Glickman, in making his decision, heavily relied on Jones having not even attempted to contradict Hughes' testimony.  He wrote that Jones' "'silence' on certain issues speaks volumes" and ruled that Hughes' uncontradicted testimony "must be credited."  Since Jones did not deny that she was supposed to receive $12.75 per hour until she passed the CFO exam and also did not deny that "she was responsible for giving the authorization to payroll to compensate her at the CFO's salary rate." Based on this, Glickman ruled that the charges against Jones were sustained.

Turning to the proper quantum of discipline to be imposed, Glickman found that Jones betrayed the trust that the Township Administration and Fairfield residents had placed in her.  Glickman found that "while it is impossible to conclude that Jones intended to defraud the Township, there is no disputing the uncontroverted evidence that Jones intended to grant herself the CFO's salary contrary to the direction of Mayor Hughes; without Township authorization to do so; and without providing the Township's Administration with notice of same."  Given these circumstances, Glickman ruled that Jones be terminated.  He wrote: "Jones betrayed the public trust for her own benefit, and to return Jones to any position of employment with the Township would send the wrong message to other township employees."

On November 28, 2016, after I first received Glickman's decision, I wrote to Cumberland County First Assistant Prosecutor Harold B. Shapiro and furnished him with a copy of Glickman's findings.  I wrote in my letter to Shapiro that Glickman's findings "could support or at least suggest criminal charges against Jones [so] I am reporting this to you in case no one else has already reported it."  To date, I have received neither an acknowledgment nor a response from the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Fairfield ordered to pay $93,570.57 in unpaid compensation to former employee.

In a June 30, 2016 opinion, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Geiger found that Fairfield Township failed to establish good cause for terminating its former Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer and was liable to the same employee for $93,570.57 in unpaid compensation, unused vacation and sick days and for fourteen hours of lunch time.

In a written decision that followed a one-day bench trial held on June 27, 2016, Judge Geiger found that Robert R. Hulitt, Sr., who worked for the Township from March 2006 until he was terminated on March 12, 2014, was not properly compensated for having worked as temporary Township Administrator from July 1, 2009 until Joseph Veight replaced him on January 1, 2011.  The court also noted that the Township violated state law by appointing Hulitt informally instead of by an appropriate authorizing resolution.

Judge Geiger found that Hulitt, who had no prior experience as an administrator, should be paid $35,000 per year for 549 days plus an additional 90 days as required by statute.  He found that since Hulitt had "no formal training or certifications for the position of municipal clerk" and could not prove that he carried out the role of the clerk, he was not entitled to additional compensation for any clerk duties performed.

The next issue the court decided was whether Hulitt was properly terminated from his position as Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer for having issued an allegedly unauthorized $508.16 check to Edward Kimley for reimbursement of an escrow deposit relating to a land use application.

Judge Geiger found that the Township failed to establish good cause for Hulitt's firing.  Therefore, since he was typically appointed as Code Enforcement/Zoning Officer for one year terms, the Township was ordered to pay him from the the date of his firing--March 13, 2014--through to December 31, 2014.

Finally, Judge Geiger found that Hulitt was entitled to be paid $19.55 per hour for 204 hours of unused vacation and sick time and for 14 hours that the court found were docked against Hulitt without justification.

Hulitt's lawsuit was filed in October 2014.

On July 7, 2016, in response to an OPRA Request, the Trico JIF (Fairfield's insurer) stated: "We have no information on any settlement.  Coverage was declined under the GL policy and also declined by Summit Risk.  The town may have handled this themselves, and you may go directly to them for any possible information."  Accordingly, the $93,570.57 appears to have been paid entirely by Fairfield Township taxpayers.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Much of taxpayers' shouldering of Sharp's $75,000 settlement was avoidable.

Had Fairfield Township been compliant with its insurer's "Plan of Risk Management" requirements at the time of the acts that led to former Mayor Michael Sharp's lawsuit, a $20,000--rather than a $100,000--deductible would have applied.  With the lower deductible, Fairfield taxpayers would have paid $31,000 (i.e. $20,000 plus 20% coinsurance on the remaining $55,000) toward the Sharp settlement rather than shouldering the entire $75,000. 

As I wrote in an August 30, 2015 article, Fairfield (along with Elk and Upper Pittsgrove) were penalized by the Municipal Excess Liability Fund (MEL) with a higher deductible and larger coinsurance requirement due to the Township's failure have current policies on the books governing matters such as sexual harassment, employee complaint investigations and conflicts of interest and for not making claim-avoidance training available for Township officials and employees. 

As shown by the Township Committee's March 15, 2016 closed meeting minutes, the Township taxpayers had to shoulder the entire $75,000 settlement because of the $100,000 deductible and Robert A. Baxter, the Township's lawyer, warned that if the Township didn't settle, the amount could have "turn[ed] into $100,000 dollars or more."

While the wisdom of the Township's decision to settle for $75,000 is debatable, Mayor Byrd's and the Committee's need to get in the insurance carrier's good graces and lower the Township's $100,000 deductible to $20,000 is a no-brainer.

I wrote to the Township about this issue on August 31, 2015.  The last time I checked with the Township's insurer on January 5, 2016,  I learned that Paul Forlenza, the Trico JIF's Deputy Executive Director, "has had several telephone conversations with Fairfield’s Solicitor, John Carr, in regards to the necessary steps to bring Fairfield into compliance with the MEL’s Program."  But, as of June 7, 2016, Fairfield still is being penalized with the $100,000 deductible and more costly coinsurance requirements.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Wayne Byrd's lawsuit against Servais and the Township moves to binding arbitration.

On April 6, 2016, Superior Court Judge Richard J. Geiger issued an order dismissing Wayne Byrd's lawsuit against JoAnne L. Servais and Fairfield Township without prejudice.  The Court clerk's June 21, 2016 letter that accompanied the order explained that while the file was marked "settled" when the matter was called to trial on March 28, 2016, "the attorney indicated binding arbitration."  This suggests that all parties to the case have consented to privately arbitrate their claims instead of employing the court's services.

In his lawsuit, Docket No. CUM-L-539-14, Byrd claims that former Mayor and Township Committee member Servais violated the terms of a confidential settlement agreement by disclosing that he was paid a settlement amount of $72,000 and that she disparaged him by falsely stating that he "filed suit against the Township following his suspension for alleged theft."

The prior lawsuit, which bears Docket No. CUM-L-1027-08,  which alleges racially hostile and discriminatory treatment by William Ridgeway, settled for $72,500 and contained a confidentiality agreement.  It is this confidentiality agreement that Byrd accused Servais of violating in his subsequent lawsuit.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sharp nets $75,000 in discrimination lawsuit settlement.

On March 17, 2016, Fairfield Township paid a former mayor $75,000 to settle his lawsuit that accused another former mayor and others of calling him "boy" and referring to other members of the Township Committee as "monkeys."

In his lawsuit,former Mayor Michael Sharp accused Joanne Servais's late husband Richard and her son Joseph, along with local resident and frequent meeting attendee Russell Pierce, of violating the Township's civil rights policy by referring to Sharp as "boy" in mid-2013.  Sharp also alleges that Pierce referred to current Mayor Benjamin Byrd and his running mate, Deputy Mayor Troy L. Pitts, Sr., as "monkeys."  Sharp, Byrd, Pitts and Defendant Michael Morton are African-American while the rest of the defendants are Caucasian. He alleged that the comments "served to humiliate and degrade" him, Byrd and Pitts.

Separately, Sharp alleged that Joanne Servais maliciously prosecuted him by filing a harassment complaint against him that lacked probable cause.  He claimed that the complaint was dismissed on June 2, 2014 by the Millville Municipal Court.  Sharp alleged that Joann Servais, after the court dismissed her complaint, "began to make threats against witnesses who were present to testify" on Sharp's behalf and accused the judge of being "related in some fashion to Ms. Servais' political enemies thereby indicating that the Court was biased against her."

Sharp's lawsuit also took issue with a November 20, 2013 report by Moorestown attorney Kathleen McGill Gaskill that determined that the "boy" and "monkey" comments were insufficient to support a claim of racial harassment under the Township's civil rights policy. In his suit, Sharp calls Gaskill's report "wholly contrived," "founded upon specious analysis" and intended to exculpate Defendants.

Also named in the suit were former Committeeman Michael Morton, Don Taylor and Viola Thomas-Hughes.

The case is captioned Sharp v. Township of Fairfield, et al, Cumberland County Docket No. CUM-L-162-15 and Sharp's attorney was John C. Eastlack of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Sharp's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Fairfield, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Sharp $75,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.