BRICK – An anonymous letter sent to Mayor John G. Ducey and to members of the council in early January was the subject of the elected officials’ comments during the most recent Township Council meeting.
Township attorney Kevin Starkey determined that the letter should not be disclosed to the public, mainly because township employees are identified by title and department in the letter, and it contains grievances filed by or against specific employees, which is information exempt from disclosure under the Open Public Records Act.
(While the contents of the letter were not revealed, after the meeting Mayor Ducey said that the letter was largely critical of the management style of township business administrator Joanne Bergin during union negotiations).
During the council meeting, Bergin, reading from a statement, said there is nothing she wouldn’t do to support the staff, learn from them about what they do, and show her respect for their hard work.
“Recently, I have been made to suffer by those who lack the common decency to recognize inappropriate behavior, mean spiritedness, and seek to do harm for personal agendas. The anonymous letter discussed at the last council meeting illustrates that,” she said.
She said the job of business administrator is to implement changes in policies and practices that are outdated, unnecessary, and unable to be financially sustained.
“The person in this position must be firm, but also fair, and I know in my heart, I have led with compassion. I push back on anything that isn’t right,” Bergin said. “I hold our workforce accountable, just as I hold our outside contractors accountable, and I always, always hold myself accountable.”
She said her goal as business administrator is to create a supportive, productive workplace that includes addressing and resolving problems and issues and not letting them fester.
“Whoever orchestrated the letter did so for the sole purpose of hurting me, and to those people I say, mission accomplished,” Bergin said. She apologized to other township employees who were pulled into the letter by default.
Ducey said the anonymous letter had been delivered to his home and it was filled with “mean, hurtful statements regarding this township’s administration, our policies, our leadership, and our employee morale.”
His immediate reaction was to throw the letter in the trash since “when people hide behind the curtain of anonymity the motivation is not usually pure or genuine,” he said.
“I knew there were outrageous, made-up things in the letter because they didn’t happen,” the mayor said, but added that since he is a public entity, he recognized the need for transparency and treated the letter as something that needed further attention.
“It was politically motivated, and would find itself in the public dialogue, and surprise – it did find its way into the public dialog,” Ducey said.
During the Jan. 8 council meeting, Councilman Jim Fozman first brought up the letter, and made a motion to pull a resolution approving a four-year contract with Transport Workers Union Local 220 from the agenda until an internal investigation could be completed. No other council members seconded the motion, so the resolution went through.
Since that meeting, Ducey said that he, along with township attorney Kevin Starkey and Council President Andrea Zapcic have investigated the contents of the letter.
The mayor said they had spoken to union representatives and employees that were part of the contract discussions, decisions and meetings referenced in the letter.
He said the three concluded that the allegations were baseless and the letter “should have gone immediately into the trash as I anticipated.”
Ducey said the letter was a political stunt, and said that hiring Bergin as the business administrator was the greatest decision he has made as mayor.
Attorney Starkey said that after working in Brick for many years, he has never seen employee morale in the township as high as it is now.
“I attribute that to the mayor and council, but really in large part to Joanne Bergin,” Starkey said. “She can be tough on people, but she is always fair…she is an exceptionally good business administrator.”
What followed were comments from the council members, township clerk, council secretary, each supporting Bergin.
“You left out about 100 things you do for this town that you don’t get credit for,” said Councilwoman Marianna Pontoriero. “If there were ever a person I would stand beside and go to war, it would be you,” she said to Bergin.
Councilman Art Halloran noted that, looking around the council meeting room, “no one has had a professional career longer than I have…and with my experience of working with various managers…I can tell you that [Bergin] stands out as one of the greatest managers I’ve worked with. She has the highest integrity and the greatest honesty and compassion to all people.”
Halloran said that during the Jan. 8 council meeting, when Fozman made a motion to pull the resolution approving the TWU contract, the motion was to stop the vote on the contract, not to stop an investigation into the letter.
“That’s why we didn’t stop the vote on the contract, the investigation went through,” he said. “And I find that the continuation and the persistence of trying to make something out of nothing is telling about people who would do that.”
The only dissenting voice was lone Republican Jim Fozman, who said that the Brick Police Department encourages anonymous tips over the township internet using TIP411 so there is no way to identify the sender.
“Just like the Neighborhood Watch, the people feel safe calling in, knowing that the police officer is not going to tell their name,” Fozman said.
He said other townships launch special investigations on anonymous letters, and Brick should do the same.
“People care. Somebody writes it because they don’t want people to find out who they are so nobody can retaliate against them,” Fozman said.
“Let’s do an [independent] investigation,” he said.