HOWELL – Members of the Howell Township Council passed resolutions at the March 6 meeting to appoint counsel for each individual member of the town council as part of an ongoing lawsuit between Howell Township and Congregation Kollel.
According to Township Attorney Joseph Clark, Congregation Kollel, an Orthodox Jewish community, filed a lawsuit against the township and zoning board on the grounds that the council was burdening their rights to free exercise of religion.
The issue stems from Congregation Kollel’s application to build a school and dormitory 344 Old Ford Road, first proposed back in 2015. The plan for the project was to build a school building along with a dorm building, made up of seven, two-story buildings, for Orthodox students, according to the lawsuit.
After the application was rejected, Congregation Kollel filed a lawsuit against the town, believing the decision to be motivated by discrimination against the Orthodox community.
“In connection with the lawsuit previously filed by Congregation Kollel, the Department of Justice initiated an investigation last year into whether any actions by the Township burdened Congregation Kollel’s rights to the free exercise of religion,” said Clark. “As part of that investigation, the DOJ has asked for emails from the private accounts of current governing body members and a former mayor.”
Clark said that the council’s emails will be searched for keywords and reviewed for relevance. Each of the current governing body members – Mayor Theresa Berger, Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro, Councilman Robert Walsh, and Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell – as well as former Mayor William Gotto, requested individual counsel to monitor the email searches.
“As current and former elected officials, State statutes entitle them to have individual counsel at this time,” he said.
At the meeting on March 6, the resolutions appointing counsel were approved; however the individual counsel will be subject to a cap of $150 per hour for a total of $2,500 per council person.
Clark noted that the township intends to seek reimbursement from its insurer for the cost of the additional counsel. “In terms of reimbursement, we will submit the bills for individual counsel to our insurer for their review,” he said.