Bergen County Exec’s race: Attempt to add two freeholders to county police merger lawsuit fans family ties flames

HACKENSACK – The ongoing legal battle related to the proposed merger of the Bergen County Police Department and the county’s Sheriff’s Office took another twist last week when County Executive Kathleen Donovan, the Republican incumbent seeking re-election in November, attempted to add an ethics complaint against two Democratic freeholders into the police merger lawsuit. 

Donovan has struggled with the freeholder board over plans to merge the Bergen County Police Department and the county Sheriff’s Office. Donovan is opposed to the plan, while the majority of the freeholder board, now controlled by the Democrats by a 5-2 veto-proof margin, supports the move. The final decision depends on the outcome of ongoing legal battles related to the merger proposal. 

As part of this wider struggle, Donovan has called on two Democratic freeholders, Steve Tanelli and David Ganz, whose son and daughter respectively are employed by the Sherriff”s Office, to recuse themselves from law enforcement issues. 

Tanelli, whose son Dan is an investigator with the crime scene unit, and Ganz, whose daughter Pam works a a clerk for the sheriff, declined to do so.

In a court filing dated March 18, Donovan responded through her attorneys, filing an amended complaint asking Bergen County Superior Court Judge Menelaos W. Toskos to make “a declaration that Freeholders Ganz and Tanelli violated the [2004 Bergen County] Ethics Ordinance, New Jersey’s Ethics Law and common law by participating in the vote and veto override related to [the county police merger].” 

“It goes to the entire case,” said Jeanne Baratta, Donovan’s chief of staff, when asked by why Donovan filed the amended complaint, which will be decided on by Judge Toskos within the new few weeks. “You’ve got freeholders that are voting on these ordinances, and according to the [Bergen County] ethics ordinance that was passed in 2004, they shouldn’t be voting on these issues.” 

But Ganz, who sponsored the county ordinance in 2004, said the measure did not apply to hiring by a constitutional officer, such as the sheriff. 

“The law states that we can’t regulate who the county sheriff, clerk, prosecutor and surrogate can hire or fire,” Ganz said. “The county executive knows this is true. The real question is why the county executive is fighting so hard to prevent the taxpayers from benefiting from moving the county police to under the sheriff’s jurisdiction. It will save $200 million over a period of 25 years, at a minimum. The numbers are good, we’ve worked them nine ways ’til Sunday.”

“I think it’s disgraceful that [Donovan] continues to mention my son in government business when it has nothing to do with the lawsuit or ethics in Bergen County,” Tanelli said. “My son was employed [at the Sheriff’s Office] for four years, including three years before my name was even bandied about to be a [freeholder] candidate. The fact that she’s bringing my son into this is a sign of desperation from somebody who is running for re-election.”  Bergen County Exec’s race: Attempt to add two freeholders to county police merger lawsuit fans family ties flames