At last Monday evening’s conference meeting, the mayor and council did not act after Councilman Joe Lopez requested the mayor and council to provide legal representation to defend him against charges stemming from a confrontation that occurred in the parking lot between him and members of the Chalet family after the previous week’s council meeting.
Lopez described the incident in detail prior to making his request. He stated that after the last meeting when he had made his argument regarding the charges against Councilman Chalet for allegedly accepting bribes, he, his wife and 70-year-old father had left the building and were in their car when the car was surrounded by several people. He said one of them held his phone camera to his face, shining a blinding light, and he couldn’t see who was outside the car.
When he realized there were several people around the car, he said, “At one moment I thought I was being carjacked.” He said he then realized it was “members of the Chalet family.” Lopez said he felt “threatened, harassed, intimidated, terrorized,” and was concerned about his wife and father’s safety.
He said he felt this was retaliation for his having taken a position against the charges against Councilman Chalet. “I have every right to request that… for him to step down…,” he added, “just as everyone else has the right not to accept it.”
He went on to say that his family feels threatened, because he said he had learned that the Chalet family member who approached his car “is a career criminal.” “You can look him up, see all the charges, the mugshots,” he added. Lopez was referring to Daniel Chalet, who was convicted in 2014 of a scam to defraud Home Depot out of almost $500,000 and is currently on probation.
According to police reports obtained by PolitickerNJ, Lopez said that he had opened the car door and knocked the phone from Chalet’s hand in self-defense, whereas Chalet claimed Lopez had purposely knocked the door into his knee and punched him twice in the face, a charge Lopez denies.
Chalet, according to PolitickerNJ, said he had filed assault and mischief charges with the Bloomfield Police against Lopez. Chalet’s statement was not taken by police until later on, at Mountainside Hospital, where he had gone for treatment.
Lopez explained to the council that he was requesting legal representation through the Township, since he said the incident and charges were in retaliation against him “as a public official.” He asked for the support of the rest of the council.
“From what I understand, the town ordinance does allow for legal representation, and I am going to fight this to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Township Attorney Brian Aloia told Lopez that it was appropriate under Chapter 16 of the Township Code to bring his request to the council, and said that he was within the ten-day time limit to do so. He requested that Lopez provide a copy of whatever complaint or summons he was served with to the Township Administrator.
Aloia said the mayor and council could decide whether to pass a resolution to provide a defense now, or wait until after the criminal proceedings are dismissed or result in a final disposition in favor of the official to pass a resolution to reimburse his legal fees. He said they could have someone monitor the situation.
Mayor Venezia asked if anyone wanted to move forward with providing the legal defense, but no one made a motion, so no action was taken at that time.
Lopez said, “By the way, I knew that was going to be the response.” He started to say,”There’s a saying, birds of the same feather flock together,” but the mayor cut him off, saying it was “a private matter,” spurring a heated back-and-forth discussion between him and Lopez.
Lopez accused Venezia of choosing “to side with criminals and thugs.” Venezia stated there were charges on both sides. He also said that an internal affairs investigation is ongoing in regard to the incident.
Lopez requested there be police presence in the parking lot after meetings, which Police Director DeMaio agreed would be provided.
During public comment, there was continued criticism by residents of the events stemming from Councilman Chalet’s arrest and the previous week’s incident in the parking lot.
Resident David Tucker, a former councilman who has announced his intention to run for a council seat in the upcoming election, asked, “What did happen to the nice quiet suburban community we used to have? Our government is now facing corruption charges, assault charges on both sides… What are we doing here? We’re supposed to be attracting new ratables and new people to Bloomfield. Who wants to come to Bloomfield when all this is going on? … We had criminals and thugs last week attacking somebody, and nobody has come out against it… We need to stand up and demand that things change.”
Ed Brasseur said that he was “an unhappy camper,” after watching the meetings on television and reading articles in the newspapers. He urged all involved to base their actions in a “fair and just manner… act as responsible individuals, so that this township can be proud to call you its own citizens. Let us not paint this township and its citizenry in a worse picture than is currently warranted,” he said.
Pat Gilleran said she was not giving out her home address as she and others had been threatened after last week’s meeting. She also said that Mayor Venezia had refused to answer questions at that meeting, and said to the mayor that there was “nothing stopping you from dialoguing with residents of Bloomfield.” She also spoke about ethics and said that Councilman Chalet had improperly discussed and voted on issues related to the Moon Palace Bar/Restaurant while he was the real estate broker for the property.
Michelle Davidson said she wished that Councilman Chalet had chosen to take a leave of absence while he dealt with the charges against him.
Ethics Board and Pay-to-Play Legislation
Township Administrator Matt Watkins said that he had provided the governing body with a draft ordinance to establish an ethics board. He said he had consulted with several colleagues to research towns that had created local ethics boards. He said that of the three he looked at, originally the boards that were created were different from what the state had created, but over time they changed their boards to match the state regulations.
He said his recommendation is to create a municipal ethics board consistent with the state program. He said the draft is “pretty much boilerplate” based on the state ordinance. The mayor and council voted 6-0 to move forward with the ordinance, which will be voted on first reading at the January 25 meeting. Councilman Carlos Bernard was absent.
Watkins also discussed the proposed Pay-to-Play legislation. He said the township has practices they follow already. Township Attorney Aloia discussed the practices that are already in place. He stated the township already has a requirement for all fair-and-open contractors (those bidding on a public request for proposal) to include a disclosure form listing all political contributions the contractor had made. If a contractor is being considered for a non-fair-and-open contract, they require them to fill out the disclosure form. If a consultant is selected for a non-fair-and-open contract, they are required not to have made any reportable contributions for 12 months before and pledge not to make any contributions during the duration of the contract.
Watkins said that he knew the council is anxious to do this, but said he’d like to do a little more work on it. “At minimum, we should take what we do as a practice, and get it into law.” He requested more time. Mayor Venezia asked to have a draft for first reading on January 25.
The Administrator also announced there will be two ethics training sessions held for staff, council members, and board/commission members, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, on January 28, 2015. He urged all members of the council to attend.
Emergency Authorization for Payment for Sewer Main Replacement
Township Engineer Paul Lasek asked the council to approve a payment of up to $400,000 to J. Fletcher Creamer & Son, Inc., for the replacement of a sewer main at Belleville Avenue and JFK Drive, which was completed on January 7 , 2016. The initial sewer backup was reported on December 23, 2015, and after other measures failed to ameliorate the problem, it was determined that a 10-inch clay pipe had collapsed and that a 75-foot length of pipe had to be completely replaced.
Lasek explained that failure to replace the pipe would have resulted in sewage backup into people’s homes, and “effluent flowing into the groundwater.” The mayor and council voted 6-0 to authorize the payment.
The mayor and council voted to approve several board appointments, as follows:
- Tabitha Schroll will be appointed to the Library Board, replacing Susan Carter, who has resigned.
- John Zitka will be reappointed to the Planning Board, Greg Babula will move up to take Ric Stefan’s vacant spot on the board, and Paul Lasek will be the municipal representative.
- Joel Elkins and Toni Rodriguez will be reappointed to the Board of Health.
- Vincent Mesolella will be appointed to the Parking Authority.
- Steve Jenkins and John Marek will be reappointed to the Bloomfield Board of Recreation Commission.
- Izabella Van Tassel, Jessica Wells, Pat Copeck and James Wollner will be reappointed to the Oakeside Board of Trustees.
Other pending appointments will be made on January 25.
Councilman Lopez suggested other security measures be implemented, such as adding video surveillance cameras in the parking lot and the addition of metal detectors at Town Hall entrances.
Township Administrator Watkins said he would talk to Police Director DeMaio and look into putting additional surveillance cameras in the parking lot.
Director Demaio, in response to the suggestion of metal detectors, said they had increased security by placing a desk in the front lobby manned by a police officer five days a week. He said currently the only metal detector is used for those entering the Municipal Court on court days. However, he said they would consider adding metal detectors at the main entrance to Town Hall. He said there would be a cost aspect to it, and two police officers would need to be on duty instead of just one in order to manage the screening.
In response to a question by Councilman Lopez, Municipal Clerk Louise Palagano confirmed that there will be a hearing for Moon Palace at the next regular council meeting on January 25, 2016, to address their continuing violations.
The next council meeting will be a regular meeting, to be held in the Council Chambers at 7 p.m. on Monday, January 25, 2016.
CORRECTION APPENDED: David Tucker will be running for a council seat in 2016, not the First Ward council seat (which would be in 2017) as originally posted.