Hightstown: Mayor seeking $150K settlement

Mayor Steve Kirson is seeking a settlement of $150,000 from the borough to avoid a future court battle over his defamation claim against Police Director James LeTellier, according to a letter from Mayor Kirson’

By Amy Batista, Special Writer
 HIGHTSTOWN — Mayor Steve Kirson is seeking a settlement of $150,000 from the borough to avoid a future court battle over his defamation claim against Police Director James LeTellier, according to a letter from Mayor Kirson’s lawyer.
   Jesse DeBrosse of Long Marmero & Associates of Woodbury are representing Mayor Kirson in the case.
   ”It is in the borough’s best interests to settle this matter early before the case increases in value and cost,” said Mr. DeBrosse in a letter dated Sept. 18 addressed to the council members.
   According to the letter, once the claim is filed, the borough will be forced to incur the costs of defending the suit.
   ”Since the claim is not frivolous, there will be no hope of recouping the attorney’s fees,” Mr. DeBrosse said.
   According to the letter, Mayor Kirson “wishes to resolve this matter expeditiously without further media controversy.”
   ”Although Mayor Kirson is a public figure, he will be able to prove the elements of defamation at trial,” Mr. DeBrosse said. “Director LeTellier’s statement was ‘slander per se’ because it accuses the mayor of criminal actions. There is no question whether the statement was ‘published’ since it was made at a public meeting and later published in newspapers.”
   At the March 4 meeting, the discussion turned into a heated debate over confirmed code violations at the temporary police station on Mercer Street as allegations of employment intimidation also emerged.
   ”Quite frankly, I have been put in a position that when I respond to council members’ questions, the mayor doesn’t like it,” said Mr. LeTellier during that meeting.
   According to Mr. LeTellier, he was being “threatened.”
   Mayor Kirson claimed the allegations were all “false.”
   ”Whatever the allegations are, I categorically deny having had any conversations,” Mayor Kirson said March 7. “It never happened. They are all false.”
   ”The mayor has gotten in my face on several occasions — to the point where we now have a hostile relationship,” Mr. LeTellier said at the Borough Council meeting on Monday. “If this upsets people — so be it. I am being threatened, and (if) I am being served with the Rice notice of termination of my job — then so be it — but do so because I’m not doing my job as the director, not because I’m not playing politics.”
   Mayor Kirson only needs to prove that he was never threatened Mr. Le Tellier’s job, according to Mr. DeBrosse.
   ”Aside from the Mayor’s own direct testimony, there is a wealth of supporting circumstantial evidence,” Mr. DeBrosse said in the letter.
   According to the letter, the “real question” is the value of a damaged political career.
   ”We believe $500,000 is a reasonable ballpark, and the proof will be further developed during the discovery process and perhaps the use of an expert witness,” Mr. DeBrosse said. “The borough will be responsible for these damages under its role in hiring, supervision and retention.”
   ”Given the parties’ mutual interest in a quick resolution of this matter, the mayor is hereby offering to settle the claims for the amount of $150,000,” Mr. DeBrosse said adding for the council to consider the offer and respond at their earliest convenience.
   Borough Attorney Frederick Raffetto announced the suit at the June 3 council meeting, the day before primary elections.
   ”I’m not of the mindset that this causes a conflict of interest for the mayor to continue to serve in his capacity — as mayor or as the presiding officer,” said Mr. Raffetto adding that the Borough Clerk, Debra Sopronyi, forwarded the claim to the borough’s insurance carrier, Mid-Jersey Joint Insurance Fund, for appropriate action at the insurance carrier’s end.
   According to Mr. LeTellier, he never received the notice of the claim.
   ”For the record, I did not receive that notice,” Mr. LeTellier said. “I was unaware of this,” adding he would have appreciated a heads up in order to seek legal council.”
   Councilwoman Gail Doran read Mayor Kirson’s claim during the June meeting.
   ”The mayor has provided a Notice of Tort claim against the Director, Councilman Thibault, and the Borough of Hightstown and its entities regarding — if I paraphrase — because Director LeTellier injured the reputation of claimant, the mayor, and exposed him to hatred, contempt and ridicule, and a loss of good will and confidence,” said Councilwoman Doran.
   Mr. LeTellier said he was officially served June 4.
   Mr. Raffetto requested the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the allegations, which they did and no charges were filed.
   ”Our office investigated the accusations and found no evidence of criminal conduct,” said Casey DeBlasio, spokesperson for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office on June 5.
   Mr. LeTellier was hired in February 2012. He became the first civilian to helm the Hightstown Police Department after Chief James Eufemia retired effective Sept. 1, 2011.
   His retirement came after a weekend of flooding from Hurricane Irene.