By Ron Leir
A little more than a year after she died, the Township of Belleville named a park in her honor.
Belleville High School established a memorial scholarship in her name.
She is lauded as the longest serving municipal clerk in Belleville’s extended history.
Yet now, the family of Mary Lou Hood is suing the township to collect money they say the township owes her.
In a lawsuit fi led Dec. 2011 the township, initially in Essex County Superior Court, but since transferred to U.S. District Court in Newark, Hood’s estate and heirs are seeking “judgment for compensatory and punitive damages, treble damage, counsel fees, costs of suit and interest….”
The complaint, filed by local attorney Frank J. Cozzarelli, says that when Hood died, in late November 2002, she “had accumulated approximately 509, plus or minus, sick, vacation and compensatory days.”
Hood, who was appointed as the municipal clerk in 1979, was still a township employee at the time of her demise.
As of last week, when interviewed about the litigation, Cozzarelli slightly revised that calculation, reporting that Hood had amassed “244 sick days, 152 vacation days, three personal days, and 43.75 compensatory days,” all unused.)
Cozzarelli estimated that that the aggregate amount of time had a potential cash value of “about $102,000.”
At any rate, according to the legal complaint Hood’s estate first solicited payment, through counsel, for the accumulated time in March 2003 but it wasn’t until November 2011 that the township, ultimately, “denied payment.”
Asked about the prolonged lag time between the initial request and the township’s response, Cozzarelli offered the following explanation: “When (Hood) passed away, unlike all the other situations where they’ve had people with accrued vacation and sick time, the township took the position she wasn’t entitled to (any payments) because she died – she didn’t retire.” And, therefore, the township reportedly reasoned, the estate wasn’t entitled to anything, Cozzarelli said.
In response, Cozzarelli continued, “we filed a (Superior Court) complaint in 2008 and we actually were in negotiations and close to settling matter and then the budget crisis hit (the township), and we agreed not to press the matter.”
But, the attorney said, “Eventually, it became apparent that the township, due to its financial situation, wasn’t willing to settle under the terms we’d been discussing and I elected to file a new complaint.”
Ultimately, Cozzarelli said, “My hope was we could get back to the bargaining table with the township.”
The lawsuit asserts that the township has “misinterpreted and misapplied” local ordinances to deny the estate the money to which Hood was entitled.
In November 2011, the lawsuit says, the Township Council “attempted to pass a resolution that would have clarified the misinterpretation of the Belleville ordinances governing the payment (of) sick and vacation time.”
The expectation was, according to Cozzarelli, that the council would “have a determination made by the Township Manager as to what the overall calculation was (for the time owed Hood) and then to pay it out. That didn’t happen.”
The proposed resolution ended up tabled, the lawsuit contends, “because the council was advised that the presentation of the resolution or any law regarding the matter would have resulted in the indictment of any elected official that voted in favor of such an enactment.”
In fact, the lawsuit says, “The free will of the elected officials involved was suppressed and otherwise inhibited by the Township Manager in contravention of the Faulkner Act whereby the power to adopt legislation and to interpret legislation is vested in the elected officials and governing body,and not in the appointed manager.”
Instead of allowing the elected officials to act, “The Township Manager has obstructed and otherwise destroyed the rights of (the estate). Further, Township officials misrepresented that their true intention (was) to budget sufficient funds to pay the (estate’s) claim,” the lawsuit alleged.
Victor Canning, who was Township Manager at the time of these discussions, denied giving the governing body any input. “It was the township attorney (Tom Murphy) who gave legal advice,” he said. “Victor Canning never had an opinion about it.” Canning, who now works as Montville Township Administrator, recalled that Councilman Kevin Kennedy, who had a personal relationship with Hood, urged the council to act on Hood’s behalf.
Murphy declined to talk about the matter.
Cozzarelli said he has refiled his complaint in federal court, alleging “deprivation of constitutional right to due process.”
“We have every interest in resolving this,” he said.
Cozzarelli noted that Hood’s family “goes way back to the early history of Belleville. Her father was an employee of Belleville and at least three of her children served the township. Her son, Charles, is a recently retired deputy police chief who now works in the township’s IT department; another son, Jack, is a police captain; and her daughter, Annemarie Krusznis, works for the municipal court.”
Charles Hood has also been a longtime participant in the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics; he’s been an active participant with the Belleville Soccer Association, as longtime coach and president, and with the Metro Youth Soccer League; and has also coached Little League.
An obituary tribute attributed to Councilman Kevin Kennedy says that Hood, who was 66 when she passed away, “held the town together” as the form of local government changed from commission to council. Hood was “beloved by all in the county and state and helped all.”
Hood was one of the three founding members of the Belleville Irish Association when it was created in 1989.
In 2003, the Belleville Township Clerk’s Office was named in her memory and in January 2004 the governing body adopted an ordinance naming the playground at 10-44 Riverdale Ave. (Fairway Park) as the “Township Clerk Mary Lou Hood Memorial Park.”