WAYNE, NJ – This week’s Wayne Town Council meeting featured a verbal confrontation between Fifth Ward Councilwoman Fran Ritter and several fellow council members along with Mayor Chris Vergano.
On the Administrative agenda was a proposal to extend the contract with Mathew Cavaliere, a partner in the law firm Cavaliere & Cavaliere, who currently serves as the Township’s Planning Board Attorney and represents the town in litigation involving affordable housing matters.
Ritter was eager to discuss this resolution but may not have realized how incensed some of her fellow members and the Mayor would become at her remarks.
The Fifth Ward Councilwoman read a prepared statement:
“In 1992 Paul Cavaliere of the law firm of Cavaliere & Cavaliere, father and then law partner of our current Township Planning Board Attorney Matthew Cavaliere, went to jail for facilitating and accepting bribes involving Wayne Township land use decisions while serving as the Township’s Planning Board attorney.
In 2012 current Township Planning Board attorney Matthew Cavaliere of the same law firm of Cavaliere & Cavaliere was found guilty on ethics violations by the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics. Those violations occurred while Matthew Cavaliere was representing Wayne’s planning board in matters involving land use decisions.”
Ritter went on to say that there were “plenty of well-qualified attorneys” from law firms where partners did not go to jail while also serving Wayne Township, nor who were found guilty of unethical behaviors.
She continued: "It is clear that The Township is currently facing the most complex land use decisions of its time, affecting present and future generations of Wayne residents and their property values including its revised master plan, its affordable housing obligations and the major surge of new development that residents are witnessing throughout this Township.
For these reasons I will be voting no on extending this contract to Matthew Cavaliere of Cavaliere & Cavaliere, and respectfully request that our Mayor and our Administration seek to retain replacement counsel with no connection to the 1992 Wayne land use scandal and with no history of ethical violations while representing Wayne Township."
Councilman-At-Large Joe Schweighardt was not happy with Ritter’s remarks. “I take strong exception to the statements I just heard,” he said. “The sins of the father should not be visited on the child.” Schweighardt spoke in a strong voice, his ire showing in his body language and tone.
He finished by saying Ritter’s “disparaging comments” were not warranted and that Cavaliere was a good person and Schweighardt has complete confidence in Cavaliere representing the town.
First Ward Councilman Rich Jasterzbski added: “I’ve known Matt and his family for the last twenty years. He’s done nothing but good for this town.”
Ritter, who is a practicing attorney, replied: “As a matter of law, the misdeeds of one partner is imputed to the entire partnership.”
Councilman-At-Large David Varano has served on the planning board and has worked with Cavaliere for the past two-and-a-half years. He spent a moment attesting to the service and dedication of the embattled attorney, then called Ritter’s remarks as “fairly unprofessional” and “somewhat classless.”
Mayor Chris Vergano also serves on the planning board and has worked with Cavaliere for the last thirteen years. “I have full faith in Matthew Cavaliere. I think he does an excellent job. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t recommend that we hire him year after year.”
“Sometimes things get nasty in this room,” added Vergano. “Tonight, that happened.”
In an admonishing tone directed at Ritter, Vergano finished with: “I am very disappointed because I don’t play those games and I’m sorry that you do.”
Ritter had another turn on the microphone, saying that although there were remarks defending Cavaliere, no one talked about his ethical violations. “I’m an attorney-at-law and I am bound by a canon of ethics. I would be violating my own ethical code as a lawyer If I had this information and did not consider it. I don’t know how that gets ignored.”
To Varano, Ritter said: “To say that what I had to say was ‘classless,’ I find that highly insulting.”
The business of the council went on and almost an hour later, during council comments, more back and forth over the subject continued.
Councilman Varano spoke, saying: “Matthew John Cavaliere was censured for two ethics violations in 2012. Nothing to do with what happened in 1992 with his father. To me, to bring this to our attention and to tie those things together is for shock value only and that’s what bothered me.”
Ritter responded to Varano, saying: “As a councilperson, I have an ethical responsibility to let the whole council know what I know. I would rather be called classless than unethical.”
Hoping to have the last remarks, the Mayor stabbed at Ritter with: “I have never intentionally tried to ruin somebody’s career while sitting here. And that’s something we heard tonight.”
Ritter would not let that sit and asked to speak again: “To ascribe motive and intent to me Mayor, I find insulting and disingenuous. I was merely laying out facts. Even Councilman Schweighardt put on the record that these are facts; undeniable facts.”
Staring hard at the Mayor, Ritter finished with: “Please don’t ever ascribe motive to me like that again.”