By Ron Leir
A longtime Kearny umpire is contesting a call made by the town, tossing him from his work on the basis of a prior criminal conviction.
Steve Nash, 49, a veteran of some 30 years of umpiring and officiating Kearny sports events, was barred from further participation in early April by Police Chief John Dowie, according to Nash’s attorney William Rush.
“At some point in approximately 2010 (Nash) pled guilty to a charge of theft for writing bad checks,” Rush wrote in a June 7 notice of claim for damages against the town. Since then, Rush said, Nash “has fulfilled all probationary obligations and has made full restitution.”
But Rush points out that the town never formally required criminal background checks for recreational employees and volunteers until May 24 – more than a month after Dowie’s directive – when the mayor and Town Council voted to introduce an ordinance mandating such checks. That ordinance, which was adopted June 26, lists “theft” as one of the crimes for which someone can be barred as a recreation employee or volunteer. It also specifies that the requirement “shall apply to umpires and referees.”
Rush says that his client was never “asked to submit an application for a background check for approval to umpire or officiate Kearny athletic events,” nor was anyone else asked to do so. And, when the town did the background check, Nash “had not been scheduled to umpire or officiate any Kearny athletic events.”
Rush notes further that the ordinance provides for no appeal process, which, he says, “is in clear violation of the New Jersey Rehabilitated Convicted Offenders Act.”
So far as it’s known, Rush adds, Nash “is the only person that Police Chief Dowie elected to review and recommend barring from future athletic events” even though he believes that two other individuals with prior criminal convictions are “still umpiring or officiating games.”
Therefore, Rush argues, “The Town and certain Town officials and employees have clearly and intentionally acted in a discriminatory manner towards (Nash) and further engaged in an organized and systematic plan to conceal its discriminatory behavior.”
Mayor Alberto Santos said the town would have no comment on Rush’s allegations because the matter is in pending litigation.
Rush said he can proceed “on two (legal) tracks.”
First, the town now has six months to “settle or disclaim” his client’s complaint or, failing that, “then we can go forward with a lawsuit against the town.”
An alternative course of action that Rush said he might pursue is to challenge the ordinance in state Superior Court “as a violation of state law.”
Rush has more than a professional relationship with his client. “Steve umpired my games when I was in Little League,” the attorney notes.
Nash, who says he started umpiring during his senior year at Kearny High School, characterized the town’s penalizing him as “very political. No other town that I’m aware of looks to do background checks (for umpires and referees). Even the state Department of Education, in its rules and regulations, is very clear that umpires and referees are exempt. … How could I be knocked down even before the ordinance was in place?”
As for the bad checks, Nash said: “I’ve made some mistakes in my life but I have never done anything to harm children.”
It’s not that he opposes background checks, Nash said. “I want them done if there’s a serial molester around. I have a daughter and she plays sports and I want her protected but there’s a process to follow – it can’t be arbitrary.”
As for his theft record, Nash said that if he were serving in a sensitive financial position, like the treasurer of the Little League, for example, it would probably make sense to ban him from participating. But to bar him from umpiring makes no sense to him.
Nash, who played football and baseball for Kearny High and coached for 10 years, said he hadn’t intended to “go public” on his plight but, in the end, he felt he had no choice. He said he was working in sales but lately he hasn’t been up to par, and, with three children in college, he will miss the income from officiating.
Because of the action taken by Kearny, some other communities have been reluctant to renew his employment.
“I’m also concerned about any repercussions against my kids,” Nash said.
“I’ve been umpiring 32 years,” Nash said. “I’ve done it without incident all these years. I’m a very good umpire; I’ve always gotten high evaluations wherever I’ve worked. This is not right.”
Dowie wouldn’t comment on the complaint filed by Rush but he said that the town has had a background check system in place for a number of years. He said the town Recreation Department has arranged for its employees and volunteers to get checked by the State Police and, if anything comes back indicating a prior criminal record, it gets red-flagged by Recreation and sent to him, Dowie said.
Dowie said he had no knowledge about any other people with prior records officiating for local athletic events.
Under the ordinance adopted by the governing body last week, “every current and prospective (recreation) employee or volunteer” must get a “name only” background check through the State Police and a federal fingerprint check. All fees charged for those checks will be paid by the town.
Applicants must “also agree to be fingerprinted by (a private) entity retained by the Town at a time and place in Kearny designated by the Town,” the ordinance states, “unless that person has been previously fingerprinted for employment or other service with the Town and those fingerprint records are available in the Kearny Police Department.”
Councilman Michael Landy, who chairs the Recreation Committee, estimates there are, over the course of a year, between 250 and 300 employees and volunteers who will be impacted by the ordinance.