LAWRENCE — Talk about returning fire.
Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski has publicly scolded a small group of disgruntled cops who say Lawrence Township operated an illegal ticket quota system that extorted unsuspecting motorists to maximize local government revenues.
Lawrence Township has “many good police officers on our force,” Nerwinski said Wednesday on his blog, but some of the officers “have followed the lead of a few and have gone astray of their oath, and that’s a shame.”
Six township cops and the local PBA union filed a whistleblower lawsuit Monday in Mercer County Superior Court alleging they were threatened with negative performance evaluations and publicly shamed for not going along with Lawrence Police Chief Brian Caloiaro’s illegal ticket quota.
“The Township will defend this civil action because in my opinion it is without merit,” Nerwinski, a practicing attorney, said Wednesday on his blog. “I communicate this way by choice because I think it makes for more transparency. However, I will refrain from commenting any further on social media about this issue.”
In addition to his 1,800-word blog post, Nerwinski also commented on a private Lawrence Township Facebook page, which rubbed some members the wrong way.
“I think it would be in the best interest of all that the Township Manager reserve his opinion for the courts, rather than making claims that one side has integrity and one side doesn’t,” a member of the private Facebook page said Wednesday. “This is why we have courts, judges and juries.”
“My opinion will be shared,” Nerwinski responded. “It doesn’t serve your purpose, I know. But the community has a right to know….sound familiar?”
The Trentonian first reported this explosive litigation as online breaking news Tuesday and then published the article as Page One news in the Wednesday edition newspapers.
Nerwinski downplayed the significance of the lawsuit in his blog post.
“For the cost of $400, ANYONE and I mean ANYONE can (and often do) file a law suit in the Superior Court of New Jersey,” he wrote. “The Clerk of the Court simply stamps the complaint ‘FILED’ with absolutely no review of the truthfulness or accuracy of the allegations contained in it. So please do not be impressed that a civil action exists. Nor be impressed that the Trentonian made it a front page article.”
The official Lawrence Township website, www.LawrenceTwp.com, invites the community to follow Kevin Nerwinski on his weekly “Municipal Manager’s Blog,” providing a hyperlink to Nerwinski’s Blogger page.
“This blog exists to engage the Lawrence community in a more personal and substantive way,” Nerwinski states on his blog. “To inform residents about important issues affecting the community, and to provide my perspective and thought process so there is a clear understanding (whether you agree or disagree with me) of how or why a decision has been made. This blog does not represent the opinions of our elected officials unless I specifically indicate so.”
Police Chief Caloiaro and Lawrence Township are named as defendants in the civil-action complaint, brought on behalf of President Marc Caponi and Vice President Andres Mejia of the PBA Local 119, one of two police unions that represent Lawrence Township cops.
“I believe Chief Caloiaro is a good, honest hard working and dedicated police chief,” Nerwinski said in his blog. “I believe he is undeserving of this. If I believed the Plaintiffs, our officers, or that there was even close to the truth about these allegations, my actions would be swift on their behalf. I hate the fact that I am writing this article. I hate having been put in this position.”
Charles J. Sciarra, whose law firm represents the whistleblowing cops, suggested Nerwinski’s blogging activities will actually help the plaintiffs and hurt the township and police chief.
“Someone should verify whether the Township Manager’s social media was hacked because this post supports the allegations,” Sciarra said Wednesday via email. “They admit that revenue was down and needed to be increased. They admit the Court staff needed more work. They admit the storage lot was a ‘creative way to keep taxes down.’ And they confirm motor vehicle stops increase revenue.”
“The blog post,” Sciarra added, “if confirmed defendant actually wrote it, will be Exhibit A in the case. We eagerly invite more public comment by defendants.”
Lawrence PBA Local 119 represents many of the rank-and-file cops who serve on the township’s 62-officer police force. The union has been operating without a contract since December, according to union officials. The township hasn’t met with union leaders to negotiate since June, but union officials stressed the explosive ticket quota allegations are unrelated to the contract dispute.
Nerwinski suggested the complaint is directly related to the contract dispute.
“The law in the State of New Jersey is that it is illegal for police officers to strike,” he said in his lengthy blog post. “It’s a good law for good reasons. But the consequence to this law is that when rank and file membership become unhappy about how things are handled by the superior officers or, let’s say, a manager that does not offer them the money they want in their new contract, what they always have at their discretion is to put their uniform on, wear the badge, attend roll call…and then sit in their patrol cars all day and not do proactive traffic enforcement. Traffic enforcement that is designed NOT to create revenue but to keep our streets safe. Safe from speeders, erratic drivers, drunk drivers.”
Nerwinski fully acknowledges “requiring police officers to meet quotas is illegal” but said there are certain Lawrence Township cops who “come to work each day, sit in their patrol car and do no traffic enforcement” and then subsequently file a grievance if management confronts them over their “lack of productivity and the lack of work being done.”
As the municipal manager, Nerwinski is effectively the chief executive and chief administrative officer of the Lawrence Township government. But despite having CEO authority, Nerwinski says he cannot “suspend or fire officers that are clearly not performing their job.”
“They are protected by Civil Service and their union,” Nerwinski said of the disgruntled officers. “Statistical evidence will make this very clear. This concerned me so much here that I contacted the NJ Attorney General’s office several weeks ago to discuss what can be done about getting our officers back doing their job.”
The whistleblowing cops, according to their lawsuit, have refused to participate in “illegal revenue quotas,” refused to endorse the scheme and refused to abide by it, resulting in administrative retaliation, they allege.
Claiming a “hostile work environment,” the plaintiffs demand a trial by jury and seek punitive and compensatory damages. The whistleblowers also demand a court order forcing Lawrence Township to “cease and desist using summonses as an improper municipal revenue generator.”