By Ron Leir
For the past nine years, in deference to his lengthy prior service with the Lyndhurst Police Department, having retired as deputy chief, his colleagues on the township governing body have accorded Commissioner Robert Giangeruso oversight of the Department of Public Safety.
Now, however, that is no longer the case.
At a special meeting held Sept. 29, the township Board of Commissioners voted to redesignate Mayor Giangeruso as director of the Department of Public Affairs and Commissioner John J. Montillo Jr. as director of the Department of Public Safety.
Voting for the switch were Commissioners Theodore Dudek, who remains in charge of Revenue & Finance; Matthew Ruzzo, who stays on as Public Works director; and Montillo. Commissioner Tom DiMaggio (Parks & Recreation) abstained and Giangeruso voted against it.
The vote followed a 45-minute private meeting.
There was no substantive discussion of the move during the public portion of the meeting but one source familiar with the matter said that the township insurance risk manager had advised the commission that Lyndhurst was facing a big hike in its insurance fees or being dropped from its South Bergen JIF (Joint Insurance Fund) coverage because of pending litigation against the township and Giangeruso in his capacity as public safety director.
Several lawsuits and/or notices of intent to sue allege that Giangeruso has interfered with the management of the Lyndhurst Police Department and, as a result, those accusations – though not to this point proven – expose the township to potential payouts that could stem from negative verdicts and/or settlements from these lawsuits, the source said.
One way around this dilemma, the commissioners were advised by their lawyers, is to remove Giangeruso as public safety overseer and place him in charge of some other municipal department, according to the source.
The Observer filed an OPRA request with the township in hopes of reviewing correspondence between the risk manager and local officials to learn more details on the subject but the request was rejected on that grounds that, “Information which is a communication between a public agency and its insurance carrier, administrative service organization or risk manager office are not disclosable.”
The Observer also called Philip Bogle, the insurance risk manager for Lyndhurst, for further enlightenment but he declined comment.
When the commissioners emerged from their private caucus for the vote, they did briefly debate the proposed resolution making the departmental switch.
The Observer wasn’t at the meeting but had access to a tape recording made by the Township Clerk. “Where do we go from here?” wondered Commissioner Montillo, to which Commissioner Dudek responded, “We have to do the right thing for the people of Lyndhurst: redesignate public safety and public affairs.”
A skeptical Commissioner DiMaggio griped: “This is something that has been thrust on us at the last minute. I’m not sure if there are other options. Now we’re in this situation. I know I’ve done everything I could to save this township money. I need some time to think about it. Especially something serious as this.”
And Mayor Giangeruso registered his displeasure, saying, “I’m notifying the Attorney General. This is an illegal meeting – [the department redesignation] was never put on the agenda. I’d like an open vote for the public meeting Oct. 14.”
Township Attorney Richard DiLascio reminded the mayor that the vote on the proposed resolution was being taken in open, public session.
DiLascio, who, in May 2012, stepped down as mayor with a year to run in his term in favor of Giangeruso, found himself a target of the new mayor’s wrath as Giangeruso fumed about his ex-running mate landing a new job as the attorney for both the township and school board and, in Giangeruso’s eyes, trying to control things with CFO Robert Benecke.
“It’s nothing personal, Bobby,” DiLascio told the mayor. “It’s to protect our insurance. You got legal advice. The board [of commissioners] is making a decision in conjunction with your risk manager and the JIF.”
“I want to know why the [police] chief’s not being asked to step down,” Giangeruso asked.
“Because he’s not part of our insurance agreements,” said DiLascio.
During the public portion of the meeting, on the advice of counsel, the commissioners – not without some grumbling from Giangeruso and DiMaggio — unanimously authorized holding a Columbus Day Celebration on Oct. 12, “subject to the approval of the selection process in naming the vendors by the [township’s] purchasing agent and CFO.” DiLascio said case law involving events held on municipal property dictates that the township take steps to ensure “that it doesn’t look like we pointed our business to a particular [vendor]. For next year, let’s put out an RFQ (Request For Proposals] and then we’re in compliance.”