HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Township officials spent more than $6,500 investigating Committeewoman Aline Dix, issuing a Feb. 20 report they have refused to make public.
The township’s 30-page report by attorney James R. Birchmeier — obtained by The Press of Atlantic City through a subsequent lawsuit by Dix — recommended Dix be formally investigated for violating township policies toward harassment, whistle-blowing and workplace violence after she repeatedly criticized township Administrator Michael J. Jacobs.
Birchmeier’s report stopped short of recommending penalties.
The report revealed that Dix’s mismanagement accusations led Jacobs to resign last fall. Jacobs withdrew his resignation only after township Solicitor Robert Sandman CQinterceded, Birchmeier wrote. Sandman’s mediation between Dix and Jacobs included at least one session at his house.
“While no formal complaint has been filed as of the date of this report, given the escalation of the comments made,” Birchmeier wrote, “it only appears that it is a matter of time before a formal complaint is lodged if these incidents are not investigated properly.”
It was not clear if the township has opened a formal investigation into Dix.
The Township Committee hired Birchmeier at its Dec. 2, 2013, meeting, according to a resolution, paying him $135 an hour to serve as “conflict labor attorney.” He was hired without bidding, under the state’s professional services exemption.
Township records show the committee unanimously approved the vaguely worded resolution with no abstentions. This included Dix, township Clerk Joan Anderson confirmed.
Sebastian Ionno, Dix’s attorney, said Wednesday she did not know Birchmeier was being hired to investigate her. He said Dix would have recused herself if she had known the matter involved her.
Committeeman Rodney Guishard made the motion, but said this week he could not remember if he did so knowing Birchmeier would be investigating Dix.
Both attorney Randolph Lafferty, hired by the township for Dix’s suit, and Mayor Roger Silva declined comment. Deputy Mayor Amy Gatto and Jacobs did not return calls seeking comment.
Ionno declined comment on the report. Instead, he said he and the township had recently taken “positive steps” to resolve the dispute and wanted to continue that process.
Dix’s suit named Silva, Gatto, Jacobs and others, claiming that escalating tensions with officials led her to be banned from the township building during business hours.
Hamilton Township denied a public-records request for the Birchmeier report this month from The Press, claiming “personnel and client privilege.”
The Birchmeier report identified three other issues with Dix, and suggested training in each instance.
First, both police Chief Stacy Tappeiner and township Chief Financial Officer Lea Brower alleged Dix violated their Rice notice rights, Birchmeier wrote. These are state requirements that mandate public employees both have reasonable notice before a public agency discusses their employment, and the option for a public or closed-door discussion.
Birchmeier recommended training for when discussions about municipal employees can be made public. He wrote that Dix seemed unaware the township had issued Rice notices to the pair.
Second, Birchmeier suggested Dix should be counseled regarding her interactions with other township employees. He wrote that Sandman had also previously looked into “several incidents” that the report left unspecified.
Birchmeier said Dix asked a township police officer this winter why he left his vehicle running for an hour. She also questioned why a person, later revealed to be Atlantic County Tax Administrator Margaret Schott, was in Hamilton Tax Assessor Bill Hamilton’s office.
Township code designates the administrator be the liaison between municipal employees and elected officials, Birchmeier wrote. He added “it would appear to be inappropriate” for officials to directly address employees.
Third, Birchmeier also wrote that Dix apparently violated his investigation’s confidentiality, telling township employees and others she was “under investigation.”
In hiring Birchmeier, township officials took steps that seemed designed to limit the public’s ability to know what it was doing.
The Dec. 2 contract, signed by Birchmeier and then-Mayor Gatto, generically described Birchmeier’s duties, stating, “There exists a need for the township to obtain counsel to provide legal services to the township.”
The contract further authorized Birchmeier and the firm to “provide the township general legal services on an ‘as needed’ basis.” Their responsibilities are to “be the legal advisors to the township,” and they “shall prosecute and defend actions by and against the township.”
This contract was to last until the “completion of all required work,” determined by Jacobs. At another point, the mayor and committee would conclude the contract “upon completion.” While his most recent bill dates from Feb. 26, Anderson said she still considers Birchmeier employed by the township.
Birchmeier’s bills similarly offer little insight about the work. These bills totaled $6,502.60, and he did not appear to have responsibilities beyond a “Pre-Investigation Fact Finding report” that is repeatedly referenced.
However, these billing records, provided to The Press following a public records request, included nearly four dozen redactions across 11 pages. These eliminate many references to or about whom Birchmeier was talking.
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