Mayor's Seat Vacated
Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson dismisses Keith Hartman's complaint against the township with prejudice.
The Galloway Township mayor's seat is now vacant following a hearing before Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 26.
Johnson stated that because Hartman missed eight weeks of township business, including four council meetings beginning Aug. 23, the Municipal Vacancy Law came into effect.
The law states that any member of a governing body missing eight consecutive weeks of township business will lose his or her seat by rule of state law, unless that member has a legitimate excuse due to illness as viewed by the other members of the governing body.
Hartman had stated that he missed time because of threats to himself and his family. The township disputed that those threats were reason enough for his absences.
Hartman vacated his seat as of Oct. 18, the township discovered following an investigation requested by Councilman and Democratic candidate in this year's municipal election Jim Gorman.
A hearing for Hartman was scheduled for the council meeting on Oct. 25, but Hartman subsequently filed for an injunction to keep his seat when it became clear the council wouldn't rule in his favor said attorney Brian Tipton, who represented Hartman at Wednesday's Superior Court hearing.
On Tuesday night, Hartman withdrew his request for a hearing before the council.
"Mr. Hartman was required to ask for the consent of council and that was never done," Johnson said. "He could've put the whole thing to rest, but he didn't do that."
The seat is now vacant. The duties of the mayor fall to Deputy Mayor Don Purdy in the interim while the council determines how to fill that seat, Township Solicitor Michael Blee said.
The Atlantic County Republican Committee can now submit three names to council within 15 days. The seat will not be filled until after the election, which Hartman is still a part of.
Hartman was elected as a Republican, but is running an independent campaign in this year's municipal elections, to take place Nov. 8.
"I'm pleased with the decision," Blee said. "The judge confirmed my position on the issue that the seat was vacant."
Tipton had no comment following the hearing.
"Obviously, we are disappointed with the court's decision," Hartman said via text message. "It rewards a group of bullies who never had Galloway's, but only their own selfish political interests at heart. I recognized that today's events were set in motion by many of own choices, but I was compelled to stand up to the threats and intimidation tactics that were being thrown at and used against me, not only out of respect for the voters who elected me, but so that these same people would not be allowed to believe that their hateful and malicious acts would not go unchallenged.
"I hope to have the chance to earn the public trust and someday still serve this community, which has been my home these last 16 years."
Hartman said he hopes to get that opportunity on Nov. 8 when Galloway residents go to the polls to fill three council seats, including the one vacated by Hartman, who was up for re-election.
"Hopefully, the voters voice their opinion that dirty politics has no place in our town," Hartman said.
Other members of council, including those running for re-election as well as the other candidates in this year's election are looking forward to moving beyond this issue.
"The township will move on," Councilman Tom Bassford said. " ... The law is the law and he should've followed it. Hopefully we'll have a better 2012 than 2011 and put this situation behind us. I'm tired of it all. It's very aggravating."
"Having Judge Johnson rule on the case allowed it to be considered in the most objective forum," Councilman and Republican candidate in this year's municipal elections Tony Coppola said via text message. "My focus is on the township business and bringing stability back to Galloway. The last few months have been difficult and there is more work to be done. PBA contracts pending, shared services arrangements and 2012 budget considerations have got everyone's plates full.
"I wish Mayor Hartman the best."
Coppola and Brian Tyrrell are running on the Republican ticket this year.
"It frustrates me that he can still be in the race and not honor his obligations," Tyrrell said. "I can't verify if threats were made or what impact they had, but I sat in the municipal complex on Tuesday night and saw several professionals working for the township that I'm confident would rather be doing serious township business and were instead dealing with this nonsense. It's a waste of taxpayer resources.
"I believe elected officials should represent the people to the government, and what we've seen here are individuals acting as if they are the government and not representing the people."
Gorman, the lone Democrat on council, is running for re-election. His running mates in the Nov. 8 election are Kevin Krumaker and Jim McElwee.
"I don't want to put any salt in the wound, but it was the law, he voted for the law, and I don't understand why he would run for re-election if he didn't want the job in the first place," Gorman said. "The guy's having issues. There's no sense pouring salt in the wound. ... I want to see the township get back to business and back to normal."
"It's taking up a lot of the election time," Krumaker said. "I live here and I work here, and I get asked about it, and I'm growing weary of being asked about it. Hopefully, we can get past this."
McElwee attended Wednesday's hearing, along with Democratic Chair Michael Suleiman.
"The judge was fair and made his decision based on the law," McElwee said. "He could've ended it earlier, and he didn't. I hope this is a step toward getting past all this.
"He'll still be on the ballot (in November's election) and if people want to vote for him, they still can. I don't see how he can be effective given all that's happened. We need to get past this and concentrate on the issues. There's a lot of problems facing Galloway Township."
It will be up to the Atlantic County Republican Committee to now submit three names for council to choose from as replacements for Hartman. Galloway Republican League Spokeswoman Terry Lucarelli wasn't sure who would be considered for nomination.
"This whole situation is sad and tragic," Lucarelli said. "But it happened and as soon as we get that letter from the township, we're going to convene a county committee and select someone to replace him."
"His seat will depend on council," Township Manager Steve Bonanni said. "I expect they will appoint a mayor through the end of the year, and they'll do that at the next meeting."
Blee began the hearing by asking for a dismissal due to the events of the council meeting on Tuesday night, Oct. 25, referencing Hartman withdrawing his request.
"We put two items on our agenda about this situation, and Mr. Hartman was aware of those items," Blee said. "He withdrew his request and no action was taken.
"I struggled with if I should force a vote. ... If a member is going to be out, he has to request to have it excused ahead of time. I feel the case is over because he sought an excuse and he withdrew his request."
Tipton stated the request was withdrawn because it became obvious to Hartman there would be a denial of his request. He also stated council wasn't aware of all the evidence, including details of the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office's investigation into Councilman Dennis Kleiner and local union head Roy Foster, whom Hartman named as potentially responsible for the threats.
Tipton also felt that the events at Tuesday night's council meeting impacted Wednesday's hearing, but he was referencing Kleiner's comments about what Kleiner called Hartman's "political games" and alleged extra marital affairs.
"Mr. Kleiner went on his diatribe and he's now bringing other issues to light," Tipton said. "He has highlighted that he does have animosity toward Mr. Hartman, and I think that brings to light the need for a two-week discovery schedule.
Blee countered by stating that the election is Nov. 8, within that two week period, but that it also wasn't a matter for the court to decide, stating the violation of the Municipal Vacancy Law was the only matter in question.
Ultimately, Johnson ruled in favor of the township, dismissing the complaint with prejudice and declaring the seat vacant.