PLUMSTED – A call for censure of a township committeeman was put on pause during a recent Township Committee meeting. There was also related discussion of an outdated ordinance pertaining to solicitation in public.
Committeeman Dominick Cuozzo challenged the enforcement of the “Do Not Knock” ordinance. Police Chief Earl Meroney has said it was outdated and should be changed to be in compliance with federal law. He defended his officers’ enforcement of the ordinance as it was on the books but stressed during a recent Township Committee meeting that the ordinance led to conflict.
Police body camera footage shows Committeeman Cuozzo responding to a neighborhood where members of his First Bible Baptist Church, where he is pastor, are speaking with police. The police were responding to a call in the neighborhood stating there was solicitation at homes there including homes marked as “no knock.”
The township’s ordinance prevents, even with a permit, religious groups from soliciting on Sundays from noon to 2 p.m. which fell into the time of the incident at 12 Ivins Drive on April 23.
The body cam footage captures Cuozzo stating to the officers, “I don’t appreciate you hassling our guys. We have a permit to do what we are doing. We are inviting people to church. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing. In fact, there is no time frame in doing what we are doing.”
“What you are talking about is soliciting. We do not solicit,” Cuozzo said. He told the police he responded to the scene after Justin Kissam and two other members of the church were stopped by police, “I felt like making sure that the police did not hassle us. That is why I talked to the chief about it. I said here is what I don’t want to do, I don’t want you guys confused that we are soliciting.”
He added, “I do not want you guys not to be expecting we are coming so I filled out the permit so you guys would know so we wouldn’t have moments like this but now we won’t have it again, right? Perfect. Nice to see you guys. Please excuse us we are going to continue.”
The officers warned Cuozzo that if they did continue that would be a violation of the ordinance to which the Committeeman responded, “there will be no citing. You are not going to cite us. You are not going to do that alright. You guys are going to exit.”
“You are not our boss. You are not going to tell us what to do,” the officer responded.
Committeeman Cuozzo replied, “Actually, I am your boss.”
The footage also shows an unidentified uninvolved man who said he was a former police officer from Hamilton Township joining Cuozzo. He was also questioning the officers at the scene prior to Meroney’s arrival. Later, the chief asked the man “why are you giving my officers a hard time?”
At the latest Township Committee meeting, Chief Meroney said his officers did what they should do, but that the “no knock” ordinance needs to change.
“The officers that were called for service by residents were going by the current ordinance. I went on scene and in speaking to Committeeman Cuozzo and some other individuals, I did some research. The ordinance is what caused the whole situation,” Meroney said.
“I have seen the video but the ordinance should have been on here (the night’s agenda) because the ordinance is what put everyone – including my officers – in this situation,” he said, stressing his officers “were doing what the ordinance said in good faith.”
The issue stems from solicitation by religious and political groups being permitted to solicit within the community. “I am the one who brought it to counsel (township attorney). I don’t want my officers to be in that predicament again.”
“The ordinance does need to be changed. It was anticipated to be on this agenda but it will definitely be on the next agenda,” township attorney Jean Cipriani said.
During the meeting, Christopher Kissam of Browns Mills, who is the Assistant Pastor of Bible Baptist Church, said he was speaking on behalf of his son Justin who was unable to attend. “That night my son – after being verbally accosted by a grown man who is also a township official, told my son to quote get the “F” off the property and tell your pastor to “F”ing kill himself. My son was then detained by law enforcement officers for allegedly soliciting without a permit.”
“I’m sorry sir but that is not true. You were not at the scene. Your son was cordial. The officers did not detain him,” the chief said from the audience. Cipriani cautioned him not to have an exchange as Kissam had time left in his five-minute public comment before the Committee.
“I am appalled as to how my son was treated,” Kissam added. He had not yet seen the body camera footage.
Chief Meroney returned to the podium to say, “they were not detained. The officers spoke to them and advised them of the township ordinance. They were upholding the ordinance. They were doing their job. You will see when you see the video that they were free to go. I have no political gain in this at all. I am here to protect everybody.”
There was no body camera footage that showed the type of exchange between police and Justin Kissam that was Christopher Kissam had described.
The resolution for censure was pulled from the agenda as several committee members had not yet seen police body camera footage. Mayor Robert Bowen had the resolution added to the agenda but during that meeting, requested it be pulled.
He explained that after conversations with fellow Committee members, they wanted to review the footage and information surrounding the incident.
Committeeman Cuozzo, however, made a motion for a vote on the resolution, numbered 2023-190. That motion was seconded by Committeeman Michael Hammerstone.
Mayor Bowen said “there are four committee members who have agreed that they are not prepared and would like to move it to a special meeting or the next meeting so that they can discuss it in full.”
Deputy Mayor Herb Marinari said he didn’t want it to go to June “as this is an important issue that needs to be resolved as soon as we can. I have not seen the video nor heard the audio and I can’t make a decision without that. I want to hold this off at least until the rest of us know exactly the situation that took place.”
“I have seen the video but I will respect the desires of my colleagues that are not prepared for this,” Hammerstone said.
Cuozzo said he could not speak about the content of the resolution during an executive session that took place prior to the general meeting. “I was present for these things and I believe the quotes are being taken out of context and the discussion we were having was not for anything except for a First Amendment definition of what it means to solicit.”
He accused the mayor of “making a decision about something and promoting it as if it has already happened to our entire community. I don’t think that is the way this committee should operate. It is the prerogative of the committee to censure members of the committee. However, the way this has been handled is not right.”
Township Attorney Cipriani clarified that the motion before them was whether the censure resolution be voted on. “That is the primary motion.”
Mayor Bowen said, “We have said at many previous meetings to make sure these types of issues are handled independently – they go directly to counsel (attorney). This item went directly to counsel. They reviewed it.”
He added that a meeting was held that included himself, the deputy mayor, the police, the business administrator and the township counsel.
“I want to know how anybody found out about this? How did it happen?” Cuozzo asked.
“The police knew about it so they contacted labor counsel as they have the right to do. Labor counsel reviewed it and sent their recommendation and findings and wrote the resolution. When you say it is political, you are saying our counsel is political,” Mayor Bowen responded.
“Yes, that is exactly what I am saying,” Cuozzo replied.
Mayor Bowen said, “we have had many OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests for this. We wanted to do it in an orderly and timely basis. We were concerned that it would be another month of people requesting the video and posting it all over the internet and doing whatever they wanted to do as far as editing it and reposting it so we thought it would be appropriate and fair to you to do it in an orderly basis before all that happened.”
“You moved to pull it from the agenda. You can’t have it both ways. Which way is it mayor?” Cuozzo said.
“My colleagues have asked that it be deferred – and I respect that – so they can be prepared to discuss this serious matter,” the mayor replied.
Cuozzo voted yes to vote on the resolution during that meeting. The rest of the governing body voted to wait.
Committeeman Cuozzo also recently faced a request of censure by 53 Plumsted residents in March. That request was reviewed by Cipriani who recommended to the Committee last month that the requests not be acted on.
She stated that the complaints made in those requests were not applicable to Cuozzo’s role in public office and noted that the censure had to be in line with actions and commentary made as member of the governing body and that was not found to be the case.