Chaotic NJ borough council meeting ends in multiple firings
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. (AP) — A raucous, nearly five-hour meeting, punctuated by a police response and multiple firings, started off the new year for a Borough Council that has been riven by political tensions for months.
By the end of Thursday morning’s meeting, the council had severed ties with the borough attorney and borough administrator, along with other professionals.
Republican Mayor Mario Kranjac was repeatedly rebuffed as he tried to appoint people to borough jobs, for everything from attorney and administrator to posts in the Municipal Court and on the recreation board. Most were rejected by the council, which is now made up of five Democrats and just one Republican.
The meeting got especially heated when, after the reappointment of Borough Attorney Anna Marie Rizzuto was rejected, Councilwoman Ellen Park moved to terminate Rizzuto’s employment effective immediately.
“The legal opinion you have given us in the past, whether correct or incorrect, has been completely biased,” Park said. “I don’t think you represent all of us. You’ve only represented a few.”
The vote to end Rizzuto’s employment took more than 20 minutes to occur, because members of the public continued to speak out of turn. The uproar led Kranjac to press the emergency button under the dais to summon police.
The scene was remarkable even for Englewood Cliffs, where clashes have erupted over issues including the naming of Borough Hall and stigma-free designations, and where lawsuits have been numerous.
Multiple officers responded and wanted to know what the emergency was. Kranjac explained the situation, and Capt. Brian Murphy, who is facing disciplinary charges in the wake of the release of recordings made by Police Chief Michael Cioffi, told the mayor that the meeting was not an emergency.
“My concern is my men coming in here for emergencies. That button is used for emergency purposes,” Murphy said. “You have been told numerous times.”
Borough Administrator James Barberio’s reappointment was also rejected. A resolution was passed to terminate him, effective immediately. Barberio pointed out that under his contract he gets paid for 90 days from the termination and would need to come back to clean out his office.
“I’ve been a mayor and been a councilman,” he said on his way out. “I know how this works.”
The council approved a new borough attorney, Albert Wunsch III, a fifth-generation Englewood Cliffs resident who has been practicing law in the area for 30 years. Among his clients are Palisades Park Councilman Henry Ruh, whose racist and sexist email chain letters were uncovered after a public records request by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey. Borough Clerk Lisette Duffy will serve as part-time administrator.
Another point of contention was the proposed new bylaws for the borough presented by Park, Councilman Edward Aversa and Councilwoman Gloria Oh. They argued with Rizzuto and Kranjac about bringing the new bylaws forward during the organization as opposed to a regular meeting. Rizzuto also called the bylaws a clear “challenge of the mayor’s authority.”
Ultimately a motion passed to present the bylaws as the first reading of an ordinance. New Councilman Jimmy Song abstained from the vote, while the rest of the Democrats voted yes. Councilman William Woo voted no.
“I think it’s an improper motion. We are changing the laws, the first document that governs our town, and we are doing that on a whim,” he said.
Before the annual organization meeting started, the council held a meeting to conclude business for the outgoing council, called a “sine die.” Kranjac spoke briefly about exiting council members Mark Park and Mary O’Shea, as well as Carrol McMorrow, who resigned in October.
While Park’s comments focused on the events and highlights of his time in office, O’Shea took the opportunity to bring up the surreptitiously recorded tapes made by Cioffi.
“I have seen firsthand how Democratic councilpersons can put politics ahead of doing the right thing,” she said. “They have tried to adopt incorrect minutes to ignore the wrongdoings of borough employees and Police Chief Cioffi.”
Recordings on which Cioffi can be heard insulting council members and saying he would “like to kill” McMorrow surfaced last year. Cioffi is on suspension and is scheduled to retire this month.
State Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson were on hand to acknowledge the outgoing council members. During their turn at the microphone, Kranjac again brought up the tapes and asked them to condemn the behavior heard on them. Both demurred, saying they hadn’t listened to them.
“This is a reorganization meeting, so we are here to congratulate and thank the outgoing council members for their service,” Huttle said. “I hope moving forward the tensions here will resolve themselves in an amicable way for the good of the people in Englewood Cliffs and for the interests of the residents.”
Johnson, who stayed to swear in Oh as council president, said, “This is local government at work, and that’s the way they do it,” he said. “They all have their own personalities and their own idiosyncrasies. It’s no secret that there has been conflict here.”
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com