In April 2014, the Borough of Hillsdale (Bergen County) agreed to pay $42,500 to its Construction and Building Subcode Official who sued the Borough and Borough Administrator Jonathan DeJoseph for discriminating against her because of her gender and for having reported the Borough’s violations of State rules concerning proper use of construction permit fees.

In her suit, Michelle E. Wood said that in 2002 she and the Borough, due to budgetary issues, to cut her salary by $24,000, with a corresponding reduction in hours, provided that the Borough continue to provide her with a full time vehicle and health benefits.  Wood claimed that the Borough was aware that she would be working part time in Saddle River to make up for the $24,000 salary reduction and would be using her Borough car for her Saddle River work.

Some years later, Wood claimed to have raised issues of Construction Code violations at the Pascack Valley High School as well as “improper use of Uniform Construction Code (UCC) fees for payment of salaries of” Zoning, Property Maintenance and Fire Prevention employees.  According to Wood, “the use of UCC funds is strictly limited to the Construction Department in accordance with N.J.A.C. 5:23-4.17 of the New Jersey Uniform Construction Code.” 

In 2011, Wood alleged that she reported that Mayor Max Arnowitz violated the International Residential Code at his home.  Specifically, Wood claimed that Mayor Arnowitz had failed to install the required guard/handrail when he had replaced his from entry steps.  She also reported that DeJoseph had violated the UCC by directing DPW officials to do work at Borough Hall without the proper permits.

These actions, Wood contented, caused the Borough to retaliate against her.  Specifically, she claimed that Arnowitz and DeJoseph, at an April 27, 2012 meeting, decided to strip her of her healthcare benefits and Borough vehicle.  During an August 2, 2012 meeting with DeJoseph and Borough Clerk Susan Witkowski, Wood claimed that she was told that “if she failed to leave the car at the office that day, she was being insubordinate.”  She claimed that she ultimately received a letter charging her with insubordination.

The case is captioned Wood v. Borough of Hillsdale, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. BER-L-9234-12 and Wood’s attorney was Joseph J. Bell of Rockaway.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Wood’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $42,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Hillsdale or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Hillsdale or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Wood $42,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]