Law Associate Collins drafts resolutions to 'invoke subpoena powers' for the Prosecutor's Office and request new State investigation over bipartisan public objections
HOLMDEL, NJ - "Peace on Earth, Good will Towards Men".
That may have been the refrain in Holmdel during the holidays for 2020, but not now. Peace in town hall has lasted exactly 28 days. It took an old hurricane to change that peace. The Hurricane was Irene from nine years ago. In 2020 it has landed the new Township Committee in an argument over raw sewage and fresh allegations over how old bills were paid on the matter.
In short, Hurricane Irene flooded a home with sewage and debris. Then resident (now Committeeman) Tom Critelli had major damage and filed a complaint. The town allegedly admitted fault. The town settled. The town paid. Fast-forward more than a half decade later in a controversial election year where a tipster called in to have an investigation done on how the bills were paid. The allegation was criminal intent of some type.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office did launch an investigation. In a letter - now made public - they have closed their investigation, citing no evidence of criminality. They further scolded the Township Committee to read their 'bills lists' and to become more familiar with and document their knowledge of the Local Government Ethics Act.
That ended it from the MCPO perspective (see letter in the Holmdel agenda HERE).
That didn't end it for the Holmdel Township Committee, however. Based on legal advice, on Tuesday night, Holmdel Township Attorney Michael Collins, of Archer Greiner Law, drafted two resolutions invoking aggressive investigatory powers for the Holmdel Township Committee - again - to now pursue an investigation of longtime resident and successful businessman, Township Committeeman Tom Critelli.
Both resolutions went beyond anything the MCPO requested. Collins and Mayor Buontempo referred to Township Ordinance 2-77 (Ethics) to back up issuing fresh subpoenas and starting new investigations.
However, the ordinance does not say that this is the next step in the Township Code. It's a choice. You can read the town code HERE.
The Township Committee was admonished by Republican and Democrat members of the public for continuing to fight with each other and were urged to get things done instead. Joe Hammer, speaking as a resident (he also serves on the Board of Education) said, "I know Tom very well. I worked with him on the board when he was the Mayor, and he's an honorable person. We have to stop the infighting with this town. There's so much fighting and there's not enough focus on what really matters like the fire department and the fight with the gas company. All these ethics charges and the shooting at each other. We've got to stop this and come together and start doing stuff and start accomplishing stuff with this town."
In Critelli's public letter, he stated that former elected officials, including now State Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso and now Freeholder Patrick Impreveduto "quickly responded after the disaster with a commitment to ensure that my wife and I would be justly compensated for the damages we suffered."
Barbara Singer, a Democrat and recent candidate for State Assembly, compared ethics issues with former Committeeman Mike Nikolis and his voting record on the Holmdel First Aid Squad. "We had Mike Nikolis on the Committee and votes came up regarding First Aid and he voted on them and nobody stood up and said 'hey it's an ethical violation'."
One Collins resolution specifically targets the Monmouth County Prosecutor (MCPO) with a subpoena for information. Yet, the MCPO just concluded an investigation, started by the tipster, and turned up no criminality. The other Collins resolution goes beyond the recommendation of the Monmouth County Prosecutor. Collins drafted the second resolution to seek a new investigation by the State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs for violations of the Local Government Ethics Act. This, too, goes beyond the recommendations of the prosecutor. Mayor Greg Buontempo voted in favor of the resolutions as well as the rest of the Committee. Critelli recused himself.
The Holmdel Township Committee is new for 2020. New faces, new goals and objectives and a new fresh start. Yet, one of the faces that is not new to the last several years and is not new to multiple, costly legal investigations. That face is town attorney Michael Collins.
Collins aggressive and expensive approach to investigating local elected officials is gaining attention from local residents. During the meeting, Ed Carranante, a neighbor of Critelli and relative, discussed the extensive damage in the storm so many years ago. "You can't imagine the devastation and the destruction unless you saw it. For anyone in this room to question any amount of money that was given to Tom to try to repair the damage that he incurred is downright crazy and the amount he settled for was far less than the damage he incurred as a result of the negligence and improper maintenance that the town is responsible for. The fact that this is coming up now obviously has ulterior motives of a political nature and that is disgraceful. You should all be ashamed of yourselves."
Collins has been a lawyer for six years and has cut his teeth on municipal law by working in Holmdel where he went to high school. According to his company biography, "Mr. Collins has served as Holmdel Township Attorney since January 2017, advising the Township on a variety of legal issues. His representation of the municipality includes a unique history with the Township. During his first year of undergraduate studies at age 18, Mr. Collins won a seat on the Holmdel Township Board of Education, making him the youngest person ever to serve on Holmdel’s school board, as well as one of the youngest people to serve in elected office. He served a three-year term, during which he chaired the Buildings and Grounds Committee. His broad range of experience includes state legislative affairs, election law, strategic advice and issues management, county and municipal government advocacy, and advocacy to regulatory agencies."
Collins markets himself as an expert on strategic advice, issues management and advocacy to regulatory agencies during his short stint as an attorney. Collins was deeply involved last year in drafting a resolution censuring former Holmdel Mayor Hinds, who is now suing the town for violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. Hinds, along with the former Township Administrator and Human Resources Officer were all caught up in a batch of investigations overseen by Collins last year.
The result of over $300,000 in taxpayer funded litigation and settlements included the Human Resource Officer going back to work and the former Township Administrator leaving in good standing with a significant financial and benefits settlement. All the investigations were coordinated through Collins along with additional attorneys such as Assemblyman Sean Kean. The legal costs in 2019 were estimated to be over $60,000.00. The cost of Collins' services on this newest investigation of an elected official is just beginning. Collins' new target is Tom Critelli. The Monmouth County Prosecutor township stated that they found no criminal activity with Critelli, and admonished the Township committee for not reading its bill lists.
Critelli has responded in a public letter to the editor:
From the Desk of Tom Critelli, Holmdel Township Committee
As many residents recall, on August 28, 2011 Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey. The Hurricane’s rainfall, which should have been routed safely through the storm sewers, instead inflicted devastating flood damage on my family’s home here in Holmdel. The cause of this flooding was due to Holmdel Township’s admitted failure to clean and maintain the storm sewers as confirmed by the Township’s own engineer.
By neglecting the storm water management obligation imposed by the Clean Water Act, our home suffered extensive flood damage from a clogged storm sewer. Instead of handling over 100,000 gallons of storm water that it was designed for, the failed system dumped devastating amounts of water, mud, garbage, and other pollutants into our home and surrounding property. A conservative cost to clean up and repair the damage was just under $79,000.
I immediately notified Holmdel Township of the damage on the date it occurred, as a private citizen, by email and again in person at the September 1, 2011 regular township committee meeting. My wife and I followed up with a letter to the Township on September 12, 2011 which summarized the issue. On September 21, 2011, I presented the Township’s claims adjuster with written evidence from our neighbors confirming that Holmdel was made aware of the drainage problem well before Hurricane Irene. We also filed the required Tort Claim Notice upon the Township on November 22, 2011 with proof of the damage suffered in support of our claim. In the interest of resolving the claim without the need for litigation, on January 6, 2012 my wife and I, still both private citizens at the time, made an offer to Holmdel Township to settle the claim for a payment of only half the cost of the damages we suffered. The amount was roughly equal the emergency clean-up costs of $37,950 billed by Danitom Development, Inc. back on September 29, 2011.
In early 2012, the Township admitted that it was at fault and agreed to settle the claim with us. In March of 2012, the claims adjuster for the Township’s insurance carrier offered $30,000. I spoke with the Mayor and advised that we would accept the settlement offer from the carrier if the Township agreed to pay the difference requested in our settlement demand. The Township agreed to this request, but only on the condition that we agree to be patient for the payment due to budgeting. While no timeframe was given it was our understanding that payment would be made sooner rather than later. Accordingly, and in my sincere desire to be a good citizen by making a good faith decision to work with the Township and its budgeting process, we sent a letter to Holmdel Township to withdraw our Tort Claim Notice and considered the dispute settled when we learned that the Township had agreed to make this payment.
In April of 2012, we did in fact receive payment of the $30,000 due from Holmdel’s insurance carrier.
Thereafter, my wife and I patiently awaited payment of the remaining amount due. In response to a subsequent request by the Mayor for an invoice with the remaining amount of the settlement agreed to during our discussions, in October 2012 I emailed him a statement from my company that performed the cleanup, Danitom Development, Inc., for $9,872.50. I was assured that the payment would be forthcoming as agreed once the statement was received.
As every Holmdel resident at the time was aware, the Township began dealing with massive devastation and power outages inflicted by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012. Although I was not an elected official at the time, the Township’s sole focus was to recover from this disaster. This process took several months and consumed countless hours of the Mayor and Committee. My issue rightly took a back seat.
Due to my own experience suffering through a significant flood loss just one year prior, my sole focus upon taking office between January 2th and March 1st of 2013 was spearheading and organizing the Township’s charity event for the residents of Keansburg. With countless hours put in by myself as well as the many volunteers, the event was an overwhelming success that raised over $100,000 for victims still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. All the then members of the Township Committee, including Mayor Buontempo, new first-hand of my commitment of time and energy to that worthy cause.
Unbeknownst to me, payment to my company was included among the 130 other bills payable on the consent agenda for the Township meeting held on February 5, 2013. At that time, it’s worth noting that the Township was operating without the benefit and guidance of our Township Administrator, Andy Katz, who had resigned shortly before I took office. Being brand new to public office and in only my third committee meeting, I relied upon, and expected, the Township Attorney to advise on matters of legal compliance and procedure; advisement concerning committee meetings, both as to my obligation voting on consent agenda matters as well as when I should recuse myself based on any actual or appearance of a conflict. Without such advisement, I regrettably voted in favor of the items included in the consent agenda. Had I been made aware of this being an issue, I now know that the procedure is to simply ask that the one item be pulled from the consent agenda and then abstained from voting on it.
Now, an astonishing seven years later, and despite all of this information being available at all times to each committee member, one or more elected officials saw fit to notify the Monmouth County Prosecutor of my vote on the February 2013 consent agenda in an obvious pursuit of a political vendetta. Given that my settlement was negotiated and resolved long before I ever became a public servant, it defies logic that I would ever risk jeopardizing the payment owed. However, since the payment was also approved by a unanimous vote of three other committee members at the time, any oversight in following procedure on my part amounted to no more than a harmless error.
I express immense gratitude to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office for conducting a very extensive investigation of this issue. The final determination confirmed what I, and everyone else involved knew all along; I am innocent and there was no criminal wrongdoing by anyone. I also thank the Township Committee members serving in 2011, such as Deputy Mayor Serena DiMaso and Mayor Pat Impreveduto, who quickly responded after the disaster with a commitment to ensure that my wife and I would be justly compensated for the damages we suffered.
I welcome the referral of the matter to the Local Finance Board and look forward to being exonerated of any intentional wrongdoing once again. Until then, I will continue to focus my time throughout the remainder of my term representing the residents of Holmdel Township that elected me.
Committeeman, Tom Critelli
Based on the public meeting (video available on the township website). Collins, apparently, isn't accepting the MCPO recommendations and in his capacity as Township Attorney drafted two resolutions to go beyond the MCPO and further investigate the matter with subpoenas to be sent to the Monmouth County as well as file a request for an investigation with the State of New Jersey Division of Local Government Services. Investigations with NJDLGS take years which virtually guarantees that Collins' resolution and related legal expenses may stay with the new governing body for most of the year.
Notwithstanding the Collins resolutions, the Township is off to a great start. Agendas are sent out earlier, public comments are welcome on agenda items prior to them being voted upon and township meetings are now being recorded professionally for all to view the day after the meeting. Visit the Holmdel Township website to learn more HERE.