OLD BRIDGE — Eight prominent township Republicans have filed a lawsuit against the municipality, demanding that its controversial early retirement ordinance be repealed.
The lawsuit was filed in state Superior Court by Old Bridge Republican Party Chairwoman Anita Greenberg, as well as the four GOP Township Council members — Mary Sohor, Richard Greene, Lucille Panos and Brian Cahill — Republican mayoral candidate Owen Henry, and council candidates Eleanor Walker and James Anderson.
Jordan Rickards, the attorney for the Republicans, said the case has been sent to state Superior Court in Monmouth County in order to avoid any conflicts of interest.
The Township Council adopted the ordinance inMay in a 5-4 vote, with the Democrats in favor and Republicans against. The ordinance reduced the amount of time an employee must have worked in Old Bridge from 25 to 15 years before they can retire and collect health benefits. The employee must have worked for another public agency for at least 10 years, for a total of 25 years of public employment.
Supporters and opponents of the ordinance have debated whether it will accomplish the stated goal of saving the township money as the work force is reduced through attrition.
The lawsuit charges that Councilman Bob Volkert, a Democrat, should not have been permitted to vote on the ordinance because his son is a police officer who could benefit from the ordinance.
“There’s an obvious conflict of interest with having Councilman Volkert vote in favor of an ordinance that so obviously benefits his own son,” Rickards said.
According to the township’s Conflict of Interest Policy, “a potential or actual conflict of interest occurs whenever an employee, including a township official, is in a position to influence a township decision that may result in a personal gain for the employee or an ‘immediate relative.’” The policy says an immediate relative includes a spouse or significant other, child, parent, stepchild, sibling, grandparent, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, grandchild, niece, nephew, uncle, aunt or any person related by blood or marriage residing in an employee’s household.
During the council’s discussions on the ordinance in May, Panos pointed out that Volkert’s son was among those on a list of 27 eligible employees who could take advantage of the ordinance, and asked the township attorney if his vote should count.
Volkert, in response to Panos’ concerns, said that his son would not be eligible until 2015 and he did not see why that would affect the vote.
The council then tabled the vote to a later meeting, when Assistant Township Attorney Carol Berlen informed the council that Volkert was indeed eligible to vote.
Berlen, in an advisory ethics opinion based on relevant statues, ordinances, codes of ethics and case law, wrote that Volkert should not be disqualified from voting because his son’s benefit from the ordinance would be “sufficiently remote and speculative at best.”
Also, in the four years before Volkert’s son would qualify for the benefit, the ordinance could be repealed, changed or amended, she wrote.
Berlen also noted that the state’s ethics statute, the township’s employee policies and procedures manual and “pay-to-play” ordinance all distinguish an immediate family member as one where the family member resides in the same household. Because Volkert’s son has not lived with him for many years, Berlen wrote that this further distances “the chances for an appearance of impropriety.”
“As such, the situation is too remote and speculative to warrant disqualification of the council member,” Berlen wrote.
But the lawsuit claims Berlen ignored the specific definitions of an “immediate relative” and that Volkert’s son would directly benefit from the early retirement ordinance.
Since the ordinance passed 5-4, and would have been a tie had Volkert recused himself from the vote, the lawsuit asks the court to void the early retirement ordinance.
Aside from the issue of the vote, Greenberg said the ordinance should be repealed because there is no proven cost savings, no age restriction on who can retire, and no limit on when the ordinance ends.
“Thiswill create a huge financial problem for the township,” she said. “It’s not sustainable. The township cannot afford to pay for people to get full health benefits after 15 years of service.”
Mayor Patrick Gillespie, a Democrat, said the lawsuit is partisan politics, and that it demonstrates that the Republicans have no real answers to the township’s financial problems.
“ … It just demonstrates that they’re not interested in providing leadership, they are only interested in providing partisanship,” Gillespie said.
Because the township will need to pay for legal services to defend itself against the lawsuit, Gillespie said that if it gets dismissed from the courts, he will direct the township to seek damages from the parties who filed it.
“It’s frivolous and completely without merit,” he said.