The Rockaway Case that Went to Court

As state politicians continued to meet all day Friday in hopes of ending a budget stalemate, about 70 miles to the north in Paterson, Ernest Caposela, the Passaic County Assignment Judge, had a dilemma of his own.

“We have this ongoing thing in Rockaway,” the judge said to a battery of nine lawyers sitting before him.

Actually, it’s Rockaway Township, and the “thing,” as the judge eloquently described it, is a battle centered between Mayor Michael Dachisen and Council President Jeremy Jedynak.

This began as a dispute over health benefits for part-time council members, but has since morphed into something more than that. The case was in Passaic County, because former township mayor Lou Sceusi is now a state Superior Court Judge in Morris County.

The specific issue before the court this day stemmed from a resolution the council recently passed forming an investigatory committee to look into the actions of John Iaciofano, the town attorney, and Adam Brewer, the now-resigned township administrator.

Why?

The council majority contends that the lawyer and administrator improperly played a role in a suit that claims the mayor was improperly taking town health benefits. The judge previously had ruled that the mayor is entitled to the benefits.

But the suit and pending investigation are still on the table. In short, the council claims the attorney and administrator became involved in the mayor’s case after being specifically told by the council not to do so.

Some of this may have to do with how powers are allotted among council members and the mayor.

But simple politics probably plays a bigger role.

Council President Jedynak and Mayor Dachisen, both Republicans, nonetheless have been at odds for a long time.

The mayor sued to nullify the investigatory resolution, which prompted the hearing.

Josh Zielinski, who argued the case for the mayor, said this simply is a case of the council trying to usurp the mayor’s power and cripple the powers of the town lawyer.

Not so, said John Inglesino, who represented the council itself and Jedynak.

He said the issue had to do with potential wrongdoing and possible misuse of funds. All five council members named in the suit had their own lawyers, necessitating the crowded courtroom. Inglesino, by the way, is both a one-time Rockaway Township mayor and also a former Morris County freeholder.

The judge didn’t seem all that convinced.

He pointedly asked Inglesino precisely what anyone did wrong?

When Inglesino spoke of potential wrongdoing, the judge stopped him.

“You have no right being there,” he said.

By that, Caposela meant that if any genuine mischief took place, any investigation would be up to the county prosecutor’s office, not the council.

Inglesino, who was suddenly playing a bit of defense, countered that there is nothing unusual with separate, but distinct, investigations. While a hypothetical prosecutor’s investigation would look for criminal violations, a council, probe would look for transgressions that may not be criminal, but could – theoretically – lead to employee dismissals, he explained.

The judge was still a trifle skeptical.

He predicted, in fact, that no one would want to cooperate with the proposed council investigation committee. Inglesino said even if that’s true, that in itself is no reason not to allow it to go forward.

As the arguments continued – as we said, there were nine lawyers in the room – the judge dismissed individual complaints against the five council members. But the council itself remains a defendant. He also said that an injunction preventing the council investigation committee from beginning its work will remain.

His comments from the bench notwithstanding, the judge said he wanted to study the case rather than “shoot from the hip.”  He promised a ruling on Aug. 17.

So, this “thing” will continue a bit longer. 

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