LACEY – The last round of township residents cited in a court case filed by Board of Education President Frank Palino for disorderly conduct have been dismissed.
The complaints regard residents refusing to wear COVID-19 protective masks during Board meetings earlier this year. The recent dismissals were from complaints filed by Palino against Richard Bidnick, Cheryl Armato, the wife of Board member Salvatore Armato, whose charges were dismissed earlier, Guy Ewen and Jessica Charterina.
Those dismissed complaints conclude a matter that began during the beginning of the year and prior to Palino becoming board president. He filed a complaint in January with the Prosecutor’s Office toward Armato who was an incoming Board member at the time, as well as other residents.
Governor Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 251 required everyone – adults, children, staff, visitors – to wear masks inside any school building where instruction is conducted, no matter what reason they are in the building. It also applied to school board meetings conducted in classroom buildings.
Bidnick told The Southern Ocean Times on the morning of the case’s dismissal, May 23, “our cases were heard in the Lakewood Court as there was a conflict of interest with Palino having it heard in Lacey Township.”
Palino is a retired police officer and had to present the case against Armato to the County court system. The hearing was held in a Zoom format. Lakewood Township Prosecutor Ian Goldman spoke to each of those charged in the disorderly persons offense and according to Bidnick the judge noted how “no other communities in New Jersey that had people refuse to wear masks at Board of Education meetings had complaints involving the courts.”
“Instead of bringing people together this divided them even more. Today’s case closes things and our records were expunged,” Bidnick said.
The fight over Governor Phil Murphy’s mask mandate in school buildings disrupted several Lacey Township school board meetings with numerous residents attending Board meetings and refusing to wear masks during those sessions. This led to meetings being dismissed and rescheduled via virtual format.
Palino said at that time that he filed the charges as a private citizen. He said their refusal to wear masks during school board meetings was a violation of the executive order mandate and that the school district was obligated to follow the law.
“This is on my dime. This is on my time,” Palino clarified during one Board meeting held early in the year. Later in the year School Board members met in a hybrid format – masked Board members in person and those who did not wish to mask up watching it at home via Zoom.
Had the Prosecutor’s office determined there was probable cause, the complaints could have been remanded to municipal court or handled in Superior Court in Ocean County according to Palino earlier in the year.
Palino said he refiled charges toward some repeat offenders during the last BOE meeting held before Governor Murphy’s lifting of the executive orders made masks optional.
Palino told The Southern Ocean Times he was disappointed in the Prosecutor’s decision to dismiss the charges and is strongly considering an option to file charges for other meetings involving the same individuals who refused to wear masks at meetings.
“I have up to a year to do that and I just might,” he said. “I’m disappointed of the why – not the how – of the Prosecutor who said he felt sorry for them because they had clean records. So basically, he (Goldman) said causing disruption in our lives and their acting like children was okay. It wasn’t that they weren’t guilty.”
The Board president said what the individuals did in disrupting the prior Board meetings was “rude and selfish. I might file them again and I may get a different court.”