Freehold Borough settles legal issue with former chief financial officer

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FREEHOLD – A settlement agreement has been reached between Freehold Borough municipal officials and a former employee over allegations the employee was improperly dismissed from his position.

On Aug. 1, Borough Council members passed a resolution approving an agreement that acknowledges Richard Gartz, the borough’s former chief financial officer, resigned from his position in good standing.

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Gartz served as the town’s chief financial officer (CFO) from 2010-22.

Borough Council President Margaret Rogers, Councilman Michael DiBenedetto, Councilwoman Annette Jordan and Councilman Adam Reich voted “yes” on a motion to approve the agreement.

Councilwoman Sharon Shutzer and Councilman George Schnurr voted “no” on the motion.

The settlement agreement was passed in the 4-2 vote.

According to the resolution, the agreement follows a complaint Gartz filed in New Jersey Superior Court in March.

Gartz’s complaint was filed against Freehold Borough, the Borough Council, Business Administrator Stephen Gallo, Mayor Kevin Kane, Borough Clerk Traci DiBenedetto and unidentified individuals associated with Freehold Borough.

The complaint stated Gartz was removed from his position in January and alleged the removal was illegal because Gartz had obtained tenure and could only be removed under just cause and after a public hearing on written charges against him was held. Gartz was instead removed from his position by a letter that referenced the borough’s employee manual.

As stated in the complaint, Gartz had no set hours as the CFO, no required hours during normal business hours and a minimum of 15 hours per week until he became required in 2022 to be present in Freehold Borough two days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The complaint alleged borough officials were taking retaliatory action against Gartz for lawful disclosures, objections and refusals.

In his complaint, Gartz asked the court to void his removal as CFO; order borough officials to expunge his personal file and other applicable files/information subject to the removal; reinstate Gartz as CFO with the salary and benefits he previously had; and order the borough to issue back pay from the date he was removed through his date of reinstatement.

Gartz also sought an injunction to restrain alleged violations of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protective Act (CEPA).

Borough officials responded in April with a motion to dismiss Gartz’s complaint for failing to state a claim.

The town’s motion argued Gartz was considered to have abandoned his position, and was not terminated, because he was absent for five consecutive business days without giving proper notice and under borough statute, he was deemed to have abandoned the position and resigned as CFO.

The motion asserted that altering Gartz’s working hours was not an adverse employment action and was not a retaliatory action. The motion noted Gartz was allowed to choose which days he could report to Borough Hall.

Gartz filed opposition to the borough’s motion to dismiss his complaint and argued he had demonstrated CEPA violations by borough officials and claiming the motion downplayed his alleged whistleblowing.

Borough officials responded with their own opposition to Gartz’s filing and reiterated that Gartz was considered to have abandoned his position and had not been removed as CFO.

The borough also filed a reply brief to Gartz’s opposition which argued Gartz’s actions did not amount to whistleblowing.

According to the council’s Aug. 1 resolution, borough officials denied liability in Gartz’s complaint, but desired to avoid the cost and expense of further litigation.

Gartz and borough officials negotiated settlement terms to resolve the claims of the initial complaint in exchange for Gartz releasing his claims against borough officials and dismissing the complaint with prejudice, which will prevent it from being filed again.

Under the terms of the agreement, borough officials acknowledge Gartz’s resignation in good standing from his employment with Freehold Borough, while Gartz understands and acknowledges he is waiving his rights to future employment with Freehold Borough.

And, borough officials retroactively reappointed Gartz as a commissioner on the Manasquan River Regional Sewerage Authority (MRRSA) for a five-year term that began on Feb. 1, 2022 and will end on Jan. 31, 2027.

Gartz is one of Freehold Borough’s two commissioners on the MRRSA. The borough’s other commissioner is former mayor Michael Wilson.

Following the passage of the council’s resolution, the motion to dismiss Gartz’s complaint was withdrawn on Aug. 4.

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