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Freeholder board censures member E. Marie Hayes - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Freeholder board censures member E. Marie Hayes

Hayes fires back with allegations of nepotism in county government

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Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2019 1:51 pm

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – The Cape May County freeholder board voted to censure Freeholder E. Marie Hayes on July 9 for her alleged retaliation against a county employee and for conflicts of interest during an uproarious meeting brimming with accusations of nepotism.

Freeholders voted 3-1 to censure Hayes based on a retaliation claim made by board clerk Beth Bozzelli. Freeholder Will Morey abstained from voting on that censure, while Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, and Freeholders Leonard Desiderio and Jeffrey Pierson voted to censure.

Morey did vote with the board 4-1 on a second censure resolution alleging Hayes violated the county’s conflict of interest policy, while Hayes voted against the censure. 

The issue arose last October when freeholders voted to appoint Bozzelli both the board clerk and county administrator, combining the two positions. Hayes and Morey voted for tabling the resolution in order to give the board more time to examine and discuss the move, but the other freeholders rejected the motion and Bozzelli was appointed. 

On Oct. 23, 2018 Bozzelli alleged that Hayes retaliated against her. The next day, Oct. 24, 2018, the county director of human resources and training recommended that the county conduct an investigation into the complaint. 

The county retained attorney Kirsten Scheurer Branigan to investigate the reported allegations. 

The investigator found “credible evidence” that Hayes “inappropriately” made requests to Human Resources and department heads in an attempt to find a job for her son, a county employee, through transfers and posted positions.  

According to the censure resolution, “Hayes was viewed as someone who may have used her status as a Freeholder to [an employee[s] advantage, which undermines her credibility. Hayes’ recollection was reliable on certain issues but not others. She was viewed as biased and unreliable and having a motive that could impact her truthfulness as to issues related to her actions.”

The six-month investigation involved interviews of 17 county employees, including Thornton and produced a 114-page investigation report which has not been released publicly. 

 “No one employee or freeholder in the county should be put above anyone else. We don’t make this decision lightly. We feel we had to do what is in the best interests of the county government,” Thornton said. “This has been a particularly tough decision for myself. I have been a friend of Freeholder Hayes for many years. However we are confident of the integrity in the investigation and welcome any further investigation by the state into this matter.” 

Thornton said he supported releasing the report with redacted names, opening it to public scrutiny. 

Hayes, of Ocean City, who has served on the all-Republican freeholder board since 2013, said she had questions regarding combining the two positions and noted why Bozzelli couldn’t serve a probationary acting status as every other director did in the past. 

Hayes noted that Bozzelli referred to Hayes’ family member who works for the county as a reason she voted against Bozzelli’s appointment.

 “For transparency, my son is a county employee,” Hayes said. “He has been employed since 2012, before I became a freeholder. He is a laborer and makes just over $30,000 per year. He is the only member of my family employed by the county, so referring to him as a family member of mine made it obvious whom she was referencing,” Hayes said. 

Hayes said based on Bozzelli’s comments, her son is placed “in a precarious position as a county employee.”

“It is evident that my position has become a detriment to my employment and retaliation against him is a real probability,” Hayes said.

Hayes noted that county counsel Jeff Lindsay is Thornton’s stepson and creates an appearance of impropriety in itself.

“I’m being criticized for trying to assist in resolving issues with my son, yet permissible for Director Thornton to use his influence to lobby me for a raise for his stepson county counsel Jeff Lindsay on a way to an event telling me he needed more money to stay on the job,” Hayes said. “My problems began to escalate when the director suggested that his stepson occupy both human resource director and county counsel positions. I objected since I firmly believe that they should be two separate positions to avoid a potential conflict.”

Thornton replied that he frequently abstained from voting on matters regarding his stepson, including pay raises. He said Hayes did not recuse herself from voting on issues that affected her son’s employment. 

“We cannot find anyplace where Freeholder Hayes abstained on anything, any resolution her family member was on,” Thornton said, adding the report recognized Hayes as “not being credible over and over again.”

Hayes suggested the board adopt a “nepotism policy” and define courses of action for employed family members.

“The public might be interested in knowing how many positions in the county are taken by freeholders’ friends and families, also raises to friends that were not authorized or requested by department directors given by the now administrator,” Hayes said.

Hayes noted she was “disappointed” that Desiderio, the mayor of Sea Isle City, brought forth the censure resolutions.

“A look at the Sea Isle City government would let you know he is not practicing what he is preaching tonight,” Hayes said. “Perhaps Mr. Desiderio would state on the record tonight his family members who are on the payroll in that municipality.”

Hayes, a retired detective with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office with 29 years of experience, noted that the censure motion was politically motivated. 

“The public should know as the result of my vote, I became the subject of an investigation. That is the reason for tonight’s vote, to publicly censure me based on false information, baseless conclusions and an incomplete investigation,” Hayes said. “It is clear to me that what is taking place is a clear signal to discourage me from holding office unless my office is a certain way and consistent with Mr. Thornton.”

Thornton and Hayes, both Republicans, are on the same ticket for the Nov. 5 freeholder election. She said she would not resign nor drop out of the race. 

Hayes said she plans on pursuing further action against Lindsey with the disciplinary board and New Jersey Attorney General Gubir Singh Grewal regarding potential official misconduct. 

Hayes said she and her family have “been through hell” for the past seven months.

“Please understand I am not embarrassed by what is taking place tonight. I believe a majority of people know what is happening and why it’s being done. It’s the good old boys dirty politics playbook, Cape May County politics at its worst,” Hayes said. 

Desiderio called Hayes’ alleged actions a violation of the county’s conflict of interest policy, and said the report raises details that the freeholder board “cannot turn a blind eye to.”

“No one wants a workplace investigation, but it is imperative when a credible accusation is made, it be investigated to the fullest extent,” Desiderio said. “The investigation not only found that there was likely retaliation, it also found there was intervention on an employee’s behalf several times and the level of interaction was out of the ordinary and not done by any other freeholder.” 

Freeholders voted to send the report to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Local Finance Board’s ethics commission for review. 

Freeholders rejected a motion Morey made to table the censures and seek mediation from a retired judge and “give hope a chance” to work the issue out. 

“At the end of the day I’d like to see us all come out in the shortest period of time in a process that moves us forward. Voting on these censure resolutions tonight will not do that. They will bring us into more friction, more contest, more money and I don’t think that’s what our taxpayers and residents signed up for,” Morey said. 

Morey noted the investigation cost nearly $60,000 and caused bitter feelings between board members and county employees. 

“This is torture to these staff members. To me, if we care about these staff members, we’ll take this process. If we don’t take this process we will be fighting this battle for the next six months to a year,” Morey said.

Bozzelli said she’s being “demonized” for her role in the process and credited that to Hayes’ supporters showing up to the meeting.

“I exercised the right that I had, and I know it’s unpopular in this room, to express what has gone on in the workplace,” Bozzelli said. “Freeholder Morey, when you say it’s been very difficult for the employees, no one knows that more than I do.”

“I don’t buy that,” Morey replied, and told Bozzelli the matter was “an elected official call to make.” 

The motion to table the resolutions failed 2-3, with Thornton, Desiderio and Pierson voting against tabling and Hayes and Morey voting affirmative.  

Pierson called the censuring a “difficult decision” and noted the county will send the report to the ethics board. 

“Let the ethics board review it and if they think we’ve screwed up as freeholders I’ll accept that,” Pierson said. 

Bozzelli characterized the personal attacks as “diversions.” 

“This minimizes my allegations, and what I have been through in the workplace for over a year. It is not about Freeholder Director Thornton, any political agenda or any gender-based action, and I am extremely troubled with this diversion of the real issue at hand,” Bozzelli said. “It is about my claim of retaliation in the workplace which has been found to have occurred. That is the issue.” 






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