Sea Bright appoints special counsel to dispute legal bill

Parties argue over who should pick up tab for case to appoint Scriven

BY SUE M. MORGAN Staff Writer

Staff Writer

SEA BRIGHT — At least all six members of the Borough Council and the mayor agree that the town’s taxpayers should not be stuck picking up the legal tab for the governing body’s recent day in court.

But that’s about all the governing body, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and GOP Mayor Jo-Ann Kalaka-Adams can agree on.

Now, the $10,000 question is, who is supposed to pay for the governing body’s court challenge last month to the Municipal Vacancy Law?

To answer the question, the council, by a 3-1-2 vote, has decided to hire special counsel to settle the $10,000 application for payment sent to borough offices by Paul Josephson, the attorney who represented the Sea Bright Democrats, the party’s local branch, in their successful courtroom battle against an all-GOP majority that initially refused to fill the seat vacated in April by former Democratic councilman William Gelfound.

During a special meeting on Thursday night, the council tapped Dennis A. Collins of Wall to file a legal brief on the borough’s behalf in the dispute over the application for attorney fees submitted by Josephson, of Princeton, in the aftermath of the May 16 hearing in Monmouth County Superior Court, Freehold.

Collins, the municipal attorney in neighboring Monmouth Beach, was selected to work with Borough Attorney Scott Arnette, who had represented Kalaka-Adams and the borough council majority, namely Councilmen William “Jack” Keeler, Clark Craig and Brian Kelly, all Republicans, during that court hearing.

The appointment is contingent upon Collins’ acceptance of the duties and a check for any potential conflicts of interest with Arnette’s duties, said Kalaka-Adams, who indicated that she had called Thursday’s special meeting for the sole purpose of naming special counsel.

Collins could not be reached for comment at press time.

For his work, Collins will be paid an hourly fee ranging from $100 to $200 an hour, the standard rate for a municipal attorney allowed by the town’s laws, said MaryAnn Smeltzer, the borough clerk.

Collins was selected over Marianne McKenzie, a private attorney residing in town who also chairs the local GOP organization.

Craig initially nominated McKenzie, but later withdrew the nomination when Keeler raised Collins’ name.

Council President Maria Fernandes, who with Councilwoman Dina Long had hired Josephson to represent the Sea Bright Democrats in court against the council, noted that she was suspicious after reading a proposed resolution to authorize hiring McKenzie at $75 per hour to fight Josephson’s charges.

“I thought that seemed a bit dicey,” said Fernandes, a Democrat.

Long told Kalaka-Adams that with Collins’ hiring, the town’s legal fees will just keep adding up a taxpayer expense.

“We’re going to have Scott’s fees, a likely judgment and another lawyer’s fees,” said Long, who with Scriven chose to abstain from the vote.

“We shouldn’t be here today to get Dennis Collins to defend your breaking the law,” Fernandes said. “You have to hire him.”

However, because Smeltzer as a borough employee was named as the defendant in the case, Josephson’s charges and their resolution is a council matter, argued Keeler.

With the case filed by the Democrats stating that Smeltzer refused to swear in Scriven on May 3, even though she had not been authorized by the council to do so, the governing body must go to bat for its employee, Keeler explained.

“That is why you are here,” Keeler told Fernandes. “It’s a council matter. Not a personal matter.”

The $10,000 application for attorney fees submitted by Josephson and received in Borough Hall early last week was left unsettled at the time of last month’s Superior Court hearing before Judge Lawrence Lawson, according to Kalaka-Adams, who had attended that proceeding accompanied by Arnette and McKenzie.

Josephson’s request breaks down to about $425 per hour for 20-plus hours of work on the case plus the work of a paralegal, said Kalaka-Adams, who added that she contacted Long upon seeing the statement herself on June 14.

“I told [Long] I thought it was outrageous,” Kalaka-Adams said.

Long confirmed that she spoke with the mayor and agreed to talk to Josephson to negotiate a lower fee.

Although Josephson put in 40 hours and charged the Democratic organization $425 an hour rather than his standard rate of $450, Long said she believes the attorney can be convinced to charge only for that time related to the May 16 court appearance, not for the filing of the legal briefs a few days before.

Still, Long is taken aback by Kalaka-Adams’ move to hire special counsel to dispute Josephson’s charges in light of Lawson’s finding that the council majority and Kalaka-Adams, all members of the local GOP organization, broke the Municipal Vacancy Law by refusing to fill Gelfound’s vacant seat with Scriven.

Arnette had even advised Kalaka-Adams, Keeler, Craig, and Kelly to fill the seat so as to comply with the state law, Long recalled.

“The members of council were given the right advice,” she said. “They didn’t follow it.”

When Lawson finally heard the case, he ordered the mayor and council majority to grant “immediate relief” for the Sea Bright Democrats by seating Scriven as soon as possible, Long continued.

Since the council, specifically its three GOP members, and Kalaka-Adams were found to be in the wrong by Lawson, they should have their party organization, not the Sea Bright Democrats or the borough taxpayers, pick up Josephson’s tab, Long pointed out.

“If the judge ruled in favor of the Democrats, the Republicans should pay,” Long said.

Scriven was then seated in Gelfound’s former seat on May 17 with Kalaka-Adams swearing him in to office.

Thursday night’s meeting rekindled the tensions between parties that first surfaced in the wake of Gelfound’s April 12 resignation, which then left Long and Fernandes as the council’s two remaining Democrats and essentially the minority against the three GOP members.

Though Gelfound was up for re-election this year, he had previously announced that he would not seek a sixth consecutive term because of his plans to relocate to California later this year.

Earlier this spring, Scriven, a newcomer and member of the Sea Bright Democrats, filed to run in Gelfound’s place with Fernandes, who is also seeking re-election.

When Long and Fernandes, as Democratic party members, attempted to pass a resolution to fill the vacancy with Scriven at public meetings on April 19 and May 3, Keeler, Craig and Kelly all voted against the move in light of reports by Kalaka-Adams that Gelfound was forced out of office by the Sea Bright Democrats.

Gelfound had been asked to resign by the Democrats in order to give Scriven the advantage of running as an incumbent in November, Kalaka-Adams said during both council meetings.

Long and Fernandes then accused Kalaka-Adams and the council majority of violating the state’s Municipal Vacancy Law and subsequently filed the paperwork in Superior Court to contest the governing body’s decision.

Kalaka-Adams still maintains that stance and reiterated that view during Thursday’s meeting in order to justify the hiring of the special counsel.

She even read aloud a certified signed statement from Gelfound dated June 16 in which the former councilman detailed the Sea Bright Democrats’ efforts to persuade him to step down.

“This would never even be at this point if [Gelfound] was not forced to resign from council,” Kalaka-Adams said after reading Gelfound’s sworn statement aloud. “We would never even be at the position we are.”

Gelfound has not returned telephone calls seeking comment.