Skirmish erupts at Kearny council meeting


Last Tuesday’s meeting of the Kearny Town Council started out in good vibes with the celebration of two Fire Department promotions but later dissolved into dissonance as school and municipal officials verbally tussled with each other.

After the governing body observed a moment of silence for the 49 victims killed at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, the council voted to elevate Firefighter Joseph Ferraro to the rank of captain at $105,137 a year and to increase Juan Barroso’s pay as provisional fire official to $111,000.

Both are military veterans – Ferraro served as a Marine Corps sergeant in Iraq and Barroso was in the Army eight years – and their spouses are both expecting newborns, Jodi Barroso in July and Maria Ferraro in October, said Fire Chief Steven Dyl.

A member of the KFD’s Technical Rescue Team, Ferraro has been an acting captain since June 1 and, in that capacity, “has demonstrated a lot of leadership skills,” Dyl said. “You can throw pretty much any obstacle at him and he responds well.”

Dyl credited Barroso with handling his firefighter duties during the day “while going to school at night” to gain his fire prevention specialist credential and is now completing his fire official certification. Dyl said Barroso recently applied his training as a first-responder by successfully performing CPR to revive a woman “who happened to be the niece of one of our retired firefighters.” And he has devoted two decades as a volunteer at Camp Fatima for special needs children, the chief said.

A bit later, things began to heat up when Councilman Michael Landy, who chairs the recreation committee, wondered whether preferential treatment had been afforded “someone related to Councilwoman [Marytrine] DeCastro” named to fill a slot on a rec baseball travel team over a boy who failed to make the cuts.

And that happened, Landy said, even though the new player “didn’t try out” for the squad. Adding that player to the team in such a circumstance “sends a horrible message to our kids.”

Because of this incident – in concert with another DeCastro relative being hired as a part-time rec security guard – Landy said, “Our council needs to question this.”

But Mayor Alberto Santos immediately came to DeCastro’s defense, saying that, “Her children have applied [for jobs], just like anyone.”

As for the team issue, the mayor – who had apparently researched the matter before the meeting – conceded that the selection of the player to fill a vacancy on the team probably could have been better handled.

“I agree,” Santos said, “that the coach should have reached out to the child who was cut … as the first person to be called” in a situation like this.

But the mayor chided Landy for bringing the issue out in public when “both of you [Landy and DeCastro] have children on that team. You should talk to the recreation administrator about that.” [Lyla DeCastro Lawdanski, the councilwoman’s sister, heads the town’s Recreation Commission.]

Still, Landy persisted, saying that, “Five parents came up to me to complain. … Most parents would be outraged.”

Santos repeated that neither Landy nor DeCastro should be talking about the situation because both were conflicted. The mayor said it was up to the Recreation Commission to address the “shortcomings” of the procedure involved.

At this point, it appeared that DeCastro was about to speak but she remained silent after the mayor advised her, “Don’t comment.”

So ended that confrontation.

Another ensued during the meeting’s public portion when Barbara Cifelli-Sherry, a member of the Kearny Board of Education and former Second Ward councilwoman, stepped up to the podium to talk about a letter that appeared in last week’s issue of The Observer written by Landy who was, in turn, responding to a prior letter by Cifelli-Sherry complaining about criticism of the school board leveled by several council members concerning what he perceived as a “cavalier” attitude toward the lack of progress on the high school construction project.

Dismissing Landy’s premise as “not valid,” Cifelli-Sherry took issue with Landy and several of his council colleagues for unfairly “bashing” school trustees. “We’re hard-working, honest people,” she added, who care very much about the project for which “we’ve saved a ton of money in production costs.”

As for the turnover in architects and contractors associated with the high school job, Cifelli-Sherry said: “I take responsibility from day one that I was elected to the board [in November 2013] but I will not take responsibility for the actions of others. I won’t be the whipping boy” [for those “others.”]

In his letter, Landy faulted the board for allowing itself to be distracted from the project by focusing on personnel issues like firing the former superintendent, restoring an administrative secretary to her former post and re-hiring a custodian with a minor felony record.

Cifelli-Sherry retorted: “We didn’t sacrifice one thing for another.”

She said the former superintendent lacked the “educational certification” for the job, that the secretary who “had 25 years of service with an unblemished record” had been “treated shamefully” by her ex-boss and the custodian, “when he was a kid, made a mistake, a youthful transgression that was expunged openly.”

In summary, Cifelli-Sherry said, “we should be working together – not throwing bombs at each other.”

Landy then interjected that it was “very frustrating” to have seen so little movement on the high school, especially having a son “now finishing his sophomore year” at the school. But even more distressing, he said, was what happened to another son who was a fourth-grader during the 2013-14 school year when his teacher reported out sick more than 60 days while allegedly working elsewhere.

“We asked you [and other trustees] for help but we got no comment, no phone call,” Landy said. “You abandoned my child and that has skewed my view of the board.”

Cifelli-Sherry said: “You as an educator [Landy is a middle school principal in Harrison] know that it’s not easy [to remove a teacher].”

Santos, looking to mediate the dispute, offered that, “We’re proud of our school district, giving an opportunity to about 5,000 children – many of whom are getting their only shot at going up the ladder. But the high school project is a disaster.”

Still, the mayor said, now that a contract has been awarded to complete the job, “there should be a workable plan to go forward.” From now on, he said, the board needs to make every effort to provide “disclosure to the public” on the job’s status. As for any prior hiccups, he added, “we can’t go back and undo it.”

The final words on the subject were provided by Councilwoman Eileen Eckel who griped that, “The words I said [at the last council meeting about the project] were taken out of context. There shouldn’t be one side against the other.” Referring to her prior service as a school trustee, Eckel said that when problems arise: “It’s never black and white. We [the council] love this town. You [school board] love this town. You’re fighting the same fight. We need to figure it out and deal with it like mature responsible people.”

Attending the council meeting as silent spectators supportive of Cifelli-Sherry were BOE colleagues President James Doran Jr., Vice President Samantha Paris, Bernadette McDonald, Cecilia Lindenfelser and Bryan Granelli.

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