At Monday evening’s council meeting, held at the Franklin School, Mayor Venezia read a statement regarding Bloomfield’s animal shelter prior to the public comment period indicating the township is looking for an agency to temporarily take control of the shelter. The shelter is currently managed by the North Jersey Humane Society, with animal control handled by its sister organization, Bergen County Humane Enforcement.
The shelter was investigated on August 19, 2015 by the New Jersey Department of Health, and found to be deficient in a number of areas, including sanitation procedures, failure to provide proper shelter, improper food storage and inappropriate handling of wildlife, as well as for lack of construction permits for ongoing work, structural deficiencies in the building itself and more.
In addition, the New Jersey SPCA had charged the organization’s Director and Supervising Animal Control Officer (ACO), Vince Ascolese, with 14 counts of animal cruelty in connection with the euthanization of an injured fawn that was brought to the shelter at the end of June, according to a NJSPCA press release. Ascolese allegedly slit the deer’s throat to euthanize it via exsanguination (blood draining), according to the charges, which is not a permitted form of euthanasia in New Jersey.
Ascolese is to appear in municipal court on October 14, 2015 regarding these charges, which have not yet been adjudicated by the court. The inspection report and other charges were made public last Friday and received press coverage in several newspapers, including the Star Ledger.
The mayor’s statement read in full:
Like many of you I was deeply shocked and saddened to hear about the accusations and charges brought forth against Bergen Humane.
Rest assured we have already gotten permission from the State to enter into an emergency agreement with another organization. We are acting as swiftly as possible and as of 5:00 pm we currently do not have a replacement for Bergen Humane.
It is a top priority for this administration to ensure a smooth take over and transition in order to do what is best for the animals who reside and future animals of the Bukowski Animal Shelter [as it was known prior to NJHS taking over].
This council is also committed to passing the Companion Animal Protection Act legislation.
This will be on the agenda for our conference meeting on October 19th, with first reading in November and 2nd reading coming in November.”
Venezia said that newly-hired Township Administrator Matt Watkins had been on the phone “all day” on Monday working to identify an appropriate organization and finalize an agreement but that it had not yet been finalized.
During public comment, a number of people spoke about the shelter. Pat Gilleran questioned what kind of checks had been run on Ascolese’s organization prior to accepting their bid for the shelter management. She also questioned why the organization took over the shelter in mid-November of 2014 but didn’t have an approved contract until the beginning of June. Township Attorney Brian Aloia said there had been negotiations going on during the interim to address issues that had to be resolved.
Gilleran also said the township should have known back in August that the shelter was being investigated since Health Officer Mike Fitzpatrick accompanied the state inspector to the shelter. Venezia responded that the Health Department operates autonomously.
Dr. Wellington, the veterinarian who owns Well Pet Animal Hospital in Cedar Grove, one of the veterinarian practices used by the North Jersey Humane Society for the shelter animals, also spoke about the shelter. He stated he had concerns because many animals were presented to him days after their injuries or illness began. He also mentioned there had been a cat hit by a car that was brought in by a “caring ACO,” which had a fractured pelvis and femur. He stated the ACO said the cat had been sitting in a cage for three days without care. He said there were “many cases beyond this.” He also spoke about $10,000 in back payments that he was owed for care of animals at the shelter, and that Ascolese said the township was responsible. Mayor Venezia said [Township Administrator] Matt would try to get it settled as soon as possible and would figure out “who owes what.”
Amanda Ham, a former ACO of the East Orange shelter, said, “I am completely disgusted and appalled,” saying that the Bloomfield inspection report was “just as bad, if not worse” than the East Orange inspection reports. She said she would be more than willing to be an ACO or manager for the Bloomfield shelter if the town decided to take it over. She spoke about prior experiences with Ascolese when she was an ACO and as a volunteer with a local rescue called the Ferndog Rescue Foundation, which pulled an emaciated older dog named Sunshine from the North Jersey Humane Society Rescue Center in Bloomfield in January. “He’s obviously not doing the right thing and he should be convicted,” she said.
Robin Caputo, a former shelter employee who stated she was working at the shelter when NJHS took over its management, stated that Ascolese would not take Sunshine to a vet. She also said there were other incidents where vet care was delayed. “Nobody is making anything up,” she said.
Councilman Joe Lopez tried to present a motion to terminate the contract with North Jersey Humane Society, but Mayor Venezia cut him off, saying this is not the time. Lopez continued to speak as Venezia tried to move forward with the meeting agenda. “Not only does he come in late,” said Venezia, referring to Lopez, “but he speaks out of turn.”
After the meeting, when questioned, Mayor Venezia confirmed that the town had no intention of taking over the shelter again and was committed to seeking another organization that could run the shelter in the interim before a permanent solution is found.
During a telephone interview, Peter Willis, the attorney representing ACO Ascolese, provided a statement in response to the accusations against his client and the North Jersey Humane Society, as follows:
In regard to the criminal charges, he [Vincent Ascolese] is pleading not guilty, because he is not guilty. The facts that will come out at the trial will be favorable and will result in his being acquitted.
The other issue is, what does Bloomfield do with the contract? We say Bloomfield should wait and give Mr. Ascolese the opportunity to defend himself and they shouldn’t make a decision until the criminal case is resolved.”
The contract between the Township of Bloomfield and Bergen County Humane Enforcement covering both animal control and shelter services, which was finalized on May 29 and approved by the council on June 1, 2015, includes a termination clause requiring either party to give the other “90 days advance written notification by certified copy of its intentions to terminate the Agreement and setting forth the proposed date of withdrawal.”
The meeting had initially started off on a celebratory note, with eight proclamations honoring various people.
The first was for Joseph North, a lifelong Bloomfield resident, who passed away in June of 2015. North served numerous positions in the Bloomfield municipal government in the past, including Town Clerk, Director of Planning and Development, and Township Administrator, retiring in 1986.
Councilman Pomares then introduced seven proclamations honoring Eagle Scouts and their volunteer teams for work they had done over the summer to clear debris and brush from portions of the Morris Canal that are still extant in Bloomfield on Oak Lane to create a portion of the Morris Canal Greenway that the public can enjoy. These proclamations included Julian Londono, Kyle Richards, and Andrew Alexander Nieves and their teams. Anthony Anderson was honored for his community service work at Clark’s Pond, and Stevelle Lloyd was honored for the cleanup of a building at Wright’s Field (the beginning of the designated Morris Canal Greenway) in preparation for its use as a public art mural depicting scenes from the Canal, as well as other cleanup work in that location.
Councilwoman Nina Davis read a proclamation declaring the week of October 4-10 as Mental Illness Awareness Week.
During the public comment period, Pat Gilleran and her husband Greg Sabol also spoke about water damage in the Children’s Library. They urged the council to do a more thorough analysis of the paint peeling in the building to ensure children were not being endangered by exposure to lead paint. Sabol went through some of the effects lead paint can have on the human body. Gilleran said former Township Administrator Ted Ehrenburg had agreed in 2013 that the Children’s Library was in poor condition.
A bond ordinance providing for the acquisition and improvements to land at 13 Clinton Street, which appropriated $250,000 for the purpose (including issuance of $237,500 in bonds), passed unanimously on second reading.
Consent resolutions passed giving approval to submit grant applications for improvements to JFK Drive and for the Watsessing Station Safe Streets Improvement Project.
Controversy erupted over a resolution to renew the liquor license for Moon Palace, Inc., a local bar and restaurant that has been plagued with problems for several years. Councilman Joe Lopez objected to the renewal given the owner’s history of violations. It was explained that Moon Palace had finally been sold to a new owner, and the closing was to be in mid-November.
Lopez continued to object, saying Councilman Chalet, who he said had advocated in previous meetings for more lenient sanctions (rather than closing the place down, as Lopez had wanted) had a “conflict of interest,” since he was the listing broker for the sale of the business and should have recused himself from all matters pertaining to Moon Palace.
Councilwoman Davis stated that the council had struggled with this issue, and objected to the “insinuation that we’re somehow swayed” by anyone. She said, “It’s inappropriate…we have an opportunity to maintain a license…” and stated that Lopez’s attacks were “unnecessary and politically motivated, and undermine the work this council is trying to do.”
Chalet expressed outrage at Lopez’s accusations, saying the broker listing expired four months ago and Moon Palace’s owner was no longer his client. He added that Lopez is “someone blinded by his ambitions to run for mayor” and exhorted him to “say something on your own, instead of reading what was written for you.”
Chalet went on to say he had “his name, his family’s name and his own honor to uphold.” Addressing Lopez directly, Chalet said, “Since you became a councilman you’ve done nothing for this town…Bring something to the table, show some kind of leadership, before you attack anyone, especially me…You chose to disrespect yourself and every one of us. Shame on you!”
The council voted to approve the license by a vote of 5-1, with Lopez voting no. Councilman Carlos Bernard was absent.
Before the meeting adjourned, Councilman Nick Joanow announced the DPW Department/Recycling Committee Paper Shredding Event would take place Saturday, October 10, 2015, from 9 a.m. to noon at the Board of Education parking lot.
Councilman Pomares reminded civic groups they should sign up for the upcoming Civic Showcase event, run by the Bloomfield Cultural Committee, which will take place on November 12, 2015.
The next meeting will be a conference meeting, and will take place on Monday, October 19, 2015, at 7 p.m. in the Mayor’s Conference Room on the second floor of the Law Enforcement Building.