After a lengthy, contentious meeting that ran late into the night, the Little Egg Harbor Township Committee did not take any action against its administrator. Residents along with current and former officials spoke out and alleged that the entire 8-month investigation into the township’s police chief and administrator was politically motivated retaliation.
As expected, this month’s township committee meeting in LEHT was quite the display, as residents packed town hall amid a plot to fire the township’s administrator & police chief. In addition to the crowd, independent Ocean County Freeholder candidate John Novak, the Republican mayor of Barnegat, was even seen at the meeting speaking with residents and handing out literature before the meeting began.
The focal point of the meeting was potential disciplinary action being taken against the township’s administrator / CFO, Garrett Loesch.
At the meeting, a report produced over the past 8 months was presented by township lawyers hired to investigate the administrator and police chief. The meeting grew raucous at times, as some residents heckled and shouted from the audience during the public presentation of the special counsel’s findings.
Both Mr. Loesch and Chief Buzby elected to have their hearings held in public, as provided by their Rice notices.
Legal Bills Mounting From Davis & Gilmore
Thus far, the township has spent over $11,000 on legal fees with the law firm of Nehmad, Perillo & Davis – the firm of powerful Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis. The firm was hired to conduct an inquiry into the conduct of both Little Egg Harbor Police Chief Richard Buzby (who was not present Thursday night due to being on vacation) and Township Administrator Garrett Loesch. Mr. Loesch’s attorney repeatedly questioned whether the thousands of dollars spent on the extra lawyers was worth it for taxpayers. In addition to the Davis firm being hired as special counsel, the township’s general counsel Gilmore & Monahan continues to provide legal services in this matter. We filed an OPRA request to obtain that firm’s legal bills, and are currently awaiting a response from the township clerk, but can only imagine what the tab is up to on that end.
“We were requested by the township back in December to examine the conduct of different township employees,” said lawyer Salvatore Perillo, who presented the Davis firm’s report at the public meeting.
The Atlantic County lawyer said the purpose of the investigation was “…to determine whether their conduct was proper, and if it wasn’t what remedies the town has as a result of any alleged improper conduct.”
Investigation Centered On Propriety Of DPW Head Contract
At issue in the Nehmad, Perillo & Davis report was the validity of Loesch’s involvement in a contract executed with the township’s then-DPW director, who met the criteria for additional compensation due to a shared services agreement with a neighboring town.
In 2012, a resolution was passed authorizing the execution of a memorandum of agreement (essentially a collective bargaining contract) between the township and an employee association. Mr. Perillo pointed out that the collective bargaining agreement contained language that stated the township would have to provide additional compensation if a shared services agreement with another municipality would result in additional work for an employee.
The DPW contract also contained language stating that the mayor was authorized to act on behalf of the township. Mr. Perillo said that he did not believe then-mayor Arthur Midgley had the authority to sign the contract based on the wording of the earlier resolution. Loesch’s only role in the preparation of the contract was signing as a witness attesting to the validity of Mr. Midgley’s signature. Loesch told Perillo that he believed the contract was prepared by the employee.
But that wasn’t enough for Mr. Perillo.
“In my opinion the resolution did not give the mayor or Mr. Loesch the ability to give an employee retroractive compensation or additional compensation to their base salary in the future,” Perillo said. “There is a state law that says that can only be done by the governing body.”
In a letter to Perillo, Loesch, through his attorney took the position that the resolution did indeed give him the right to represent the township in negotiations with the DPW head, but any final approval of the negotiated terms would be deferred to the mayor and township committee.
Mr. Perillo said he wanted to meet with Loesch as a part of the investigation, however on the advice of his lawyer, Loesch declined. Perillo said that the administrator provided answers to his questions through his attorney.
Perillo made statements to the effect that Loesch did not have the authority to sign that contract and that he should have known better than to sign it.
The investigation report was created as a result of “records and documents” provided by the township. No employees were interviewed according to Perillo, but Loesch provided answers to questions provided by Perillo.
The most vocal foe of Loesch among Little Egg Harbor’s elected officials present at Thursday’s meeting was John Kehm. Kehm – who was recently the subject of controversy due to the 90% tax assessment reduction his home got – repeatedly pushed his colleagues to call in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and have them review Loesch’s conduct for any criminal wrongdoing.
Even Perillo didn’t immediately suggest that there was any criminality. Other committee members were hesistant to share in Kehm’s sentiment, and a resident got into a back-and-forth with Kehm over the propriety of his calls for prosecution.
Loesch’s attorney argued that Kehm was grandstanding by throwing around the word criminal, despite no evidence that Loesch had enriched himself or otherwise did anything unethical.
Kobryn Confirms: Gormley And Kehm Were Behind The Entire “Investigation”
Mayor Eugene “Gene” Kobryn confirmed what Ocean County Politics reported earlier this week – that the inquiry was led at the behest of Republican Committeemen John Kehm & Ray Gormley.
“It was stated in the memo that the governing body requested this meeting,” he said. “We did not participate in that discussion, that request for a Rice notice.”
In the days following the issuance of the legally required notice, the mayor said he spoke with Committeewoman Lisa Stevens and Deputy Mayor Dave Schlick to ascertain whether they requested the issuance of the notices, and they both said they had no part in it, he announced.
“If the three of us did not request this, who did?” Kobryn questioned.
“The initial request came from Committeeman Gormley,” admitted Robin LaBue, the township’s attorney, of Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore’s firm.
Rice notices must be sent to an employee when their employment is going to be discussed by the governing body. The notice gives the employee the right to demand an open, public hearing where they’ll be allowed to be present, rather than a closed-door executive session determination.
Both Loesch and Buzby chose the public option, allowing the public a chance to see deliberations that are normally off-limits and behind closed doors.
Lawyer: Loesch Blew The Whistle On Sandy Fraud Involving Elected Official
Mr. Loesch’s lawyer, Christopher Gray, made the shocking allegation that the entire investigation into Loesch’s conduct as township administrator was a politically motivated witch hunt orchestrated by Committeemen Ray Gormley & John Kehm at taxpayer expense in retaliation for his Loesch’s past whistleblowing on Sandy fraud involving elected officials.
“They’re going to come after me, it’s only a matter of time.”
Mr. Gray said “Things that really concern me is the township was aware and counsel was aware in March of 2015 that members of council were going to retaliate against Garrett Loesch who was a whistleblower for some fraud that happened during Hurricane Sandy regarding a council member.”
Loesch’s lawyer quoted an email that Loesch sent to the township attorney before the investigation began, in which he articulated his fear of retribution. “They’re going to come after me,” Loesch wrote in an email. “It’s only a matter of time pretty much. What protections do I have?”
Gray said that the township committee should end the investigation since it yielded no evidence of wrongdoing on Loesch’s part.
“Just put this to bed, you can’t show that Garrett did anything wrong,” he said
“We’ve now all wasted our entire evening tonight, sitting through this back-and-forth for nothing.”
Demands Release Of Davis Report
Mayor Kobryn and Loesch’s lawyer both pushed for the release of the full report that contains the allegations and supporting evidence cited by Perillo in his presentation. “The public’s right to know is now,” said the mayor, who repeatedly argued for greater transparency. Loesch’s lawyer, claiming that his client has “nothing to hide” immediately consented to the full release of the report despite it normally being a document that is not a public record under state law due to personnel exemptions.
The report was only provided to members of the governing body. Neither Loesch nor his lawyer were able to learn the contents of the report until the night of the meeting.
The earliest the public would likely have a chance to get a copy of the report would be after the September 8th meeting, and versions released to the public could end up being redacted according to Township Attorney Robin LaBue.
John Barrett Calls Attempted Loesch Ouster A “Circus”
John Barrett, former Little Egg Harbor financial consultant and past Brick GOP mayoral candidate said that the politically motivated inquiry to remove Township Administrator Loesch has turned into “… a circus of never seen before efforts.”
Mr. Barrett said he was not reappointed as the township’s financial consultant for “mostly political” reasons after not being reappointed for the current year.
“There’s a few selected council people up here who have organized this effort to attack a good man,” Barrett said of the plot to remove Loesch.
Even though the township committee did not rehire Barrett, the Brick man can often be seen in town hall on the weekends volunteering his time. Mr. Barrett said that he felt it would be important to assist Loesch with some of the financial transitions currently happening with the township.
Barrett said that those criticizing him for donating his time were “hypocritical” after getting into a back-and-forth with a heckler.
Throughout the meeting the township committee engaged in numerous back-and-forths among themselves and with residents speaking during the public comment portion. The committee moved their executive session to closed-doors to review some contracts, and after they returned to the dais, took no formal action based on what was presented, with the decision being made to carry everything to the next public meeting.
Next Performance Set For September 8th
Like most successful soap operas, the displays of Little Egg Harbor’s elected officials are broken up into episodes. The next meeting, currently set for September 8th at 7:30 p.m. will see Police Chief Richard Buzby likely get the same treatment as Loesch and a possible vote from the township committee on the fate of both of them may take place. Buzby was on vacation and unable to attend Thursday’s meeting.
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