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Back in 2007, me and my blog-mates at Blue Jersey received the Laurel Hester Prize for Citizen Courage from Garden State Equality. GSE praised BlueJersey’s fierce advocacy on behalf of Laurel Hester, an Ocean County cop who spent her dying days (2005-2006) fighting to secure her pension benefits for her domestic partner Stacie Andree.
Marriage wasn’t an option for gay people back then. So after spending her career protecting the people of Ocean County, Laurel’s final battle was to ensure her widow didn’t lose the home they shared.
It didn’t have to be that way.
But a backward-thinking Ocean County freeholder board spent part of two years depriving an increasingly frail and dying woman her dignity and her pension. There weren’t many legal protections for gay couples back then. Laurel’s case demonstrated that domestic partnerships were an inferior and insufficient legal arrangement compared to actual marriage equality.
Close to death, the Ocean County freeholders finally gave in and released Laurel’s pension to her surviving spouse proving a triumphant, tragic Hollywood ending. There’s an Oscar-winning documentary and a full-length movie (both called “Freeheld”) that remind us how new all this LGBT progress really is.
I’m proud to tell anyone who’ll listen about Laurel Hester, an LGBT rights icon whose death changed hearts and minds and laws. I’m also happy to remind the world how rotten-hearted Ocean County freeholder Jack Kelly was throughout Laurel’s ordeal.
Fellow freeholders Joseph Vicari and Gerry Little – freeholders then and now – ultimately bowed to pressure and finally voted to release Laurel Hester’s pension. Gerry Little may think pot’s more dangerous than cocaine and sure, Joseph Vicari settled a $550,000 lawsuit for being creepy around women, but at least they voted Lauren’s way in the end.
Jack Kelly famously held out, determined to brandish his contempt for gays till the bitter end.
So what’s Jack Kelly doing now? Well, for one, Kelly’s the freeholder liaison to the Ocean County Correctional Facility in Toms River that’s at the heart of a sexual harassment scandal. The prison is actually overseen by the Freeholder Board.
Several women allege a hostile work environment with male instructors staring at their “tits” and asking if they “f**k black guys” and like to “suck (expletive).”
Perhaps more ominously, female guards allege their male colleagues undermine them in front of prisoners. That’s pretty scary if you think about it. If that weren’t enough, these women were overlooked for promotions and training.
If you’re like me, you’ll watch Briana Vannozzi’s coverage and your blood will boil.
All five women in the suit are sergeants and continue to work for the department with careers spanning between seven and 23 years. The lawsuit lists roughly 30 alleged violations of federal and state law by corrections workers. Prioli says the women started speaking up after realizing the pervasive sexual harassment had been going on for years.
Of course when this sort of behavior leads to law suits, the money’s not coming out of the defendant’s pockets. And once again, Freeholder Jack Kelly is up to his eyeballs with another avoidable scandal that’ll end up costing taxpayers lots of money to settle.
Shortly before she died on February 18, 2006, Laurel made one last emotional appeal to the Ocean Freeholders to do the right thing. This coming Monday, is the 13th anniversary of her passing. When the gang at Blue Jersey won the Laurel Hester prize the next year, we vowed to ensure the world never forgets Jack Kelly’s unique brand of incompetence and cruelty. We helped doom his chance to go to Congress in 2008 and we kaiboshed his pension-boosting appointment to to the parole board in 2016.
Nothing in Jack Kelly’s professional experience or education qualifies him for a position on the Parole Board. And nothing about him suggests he has the judgement to have that kind of power over the future of incarcerated people – or the safety of communities. This won’t even be his first patronage windfall or the first job this hack got that he had no qualifications for.
Jack Kelly is freeholder liaison to the Ocean County Correctional Facility with a sexual harassment scandal on its hands right now. So with the anniversary of Laurel’s death just days away, I’m here to remind you that her chief tormenter Jack Kelly is back in the news for unseemly reasons.