By RICHARD DEGENER
LOWER TOWNSHIP — Local MUA Executive Director Matthew Ecker was suspended without pay Friday and told to turn in his company car, cell phone, radio and other equipment.
Ecker was arrested last week for allegedly tampering with a witness and obstructing the administration of the law in the latest turn of events surrounding an investigation by the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office into township Municipal Utilities Authority operations.
Ecker had been accused of intimidating utility workers who have been cooperating with the probe by the Prosecutor’s Office. This included alleged verbal attacks and one alleged physical assault on a worker at a water cooler in the Bayshore Road facility.
Ecker had been serving a two-month paid leave of absence before the authority’s Board of Commissioners held a special meeting Friday morning and suspended him without pay. He was also ordered to stay away from LTMUA facilities.
The board went into closed session for more than an hour before returning and voting 5-0 to suspend Ecker. They also voted 5-0 to allow William Dunn, one of several workers Ecker is accused of intimidating, to return to work Monday. Dunn had been suspended from work without pay for alleged work violations.
Authority Attorney Jeff Barnes said Dunn’s return would not influence any disciplinary actions or judicial proceedings in the case.
“The disciplinary charges are still pending,” Barnes said.
A court case is also still pending. Several workers, including Dunn, contend they were penalized for being whistleblowers and they have filed a civil suit in New Jersey Superior Court.
Ecker had said Dunn, who does water and sewer repairs, was suspended “for not doing his job.” Ecker blamed the situation on “labor problems.”
Dunn, who attended the meeting Friday, said he plans to return to work Monday.
“I feel great. I’m going back. I’ve been out since two weeks before Labor Day, without pay and without a hearing, on totally bogus charges. I can prove he intimidated me,” Dunn said.
Asked if the lawsuit would go forward, Dunn said it is up to his attorney, Michelle Douglass. She could not be reached for comment Friday.
Craig Loper, who is the licensed sewer and water plant operator at the utility that serves about 20,000 customers, will be the acting director and run the plant, Board Chairman Nels Johnson said.
Ecker called the latest development “an unfortunate situation.”
“This is a surprise. I’m not sure what new information has come to light. Certainly, it was nothing provided by me. I’m proud of the work I’ve done at the LTMUA and hopefully will continue to do. I always thought I had the board’s support,” Ecker said in an interview immediately following the meeting.
The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office in recent weeks has interviewed authority workers and collected more than 1,700 pages of documents at the plant. Prosecutor Robert Taylor has not disclosed what his investigators are looking for, but Barnes said records from several large projects involving water lines, a solar array, a new building at the Bayshore Road plant and a new municipal well have been turned over.
Ecker said he is scheduled to meet with county investigators on Nov. 7, and he plans to talk “but with counsel.”
“Certainly, I do have my side of the story. I’m looking forward to be able to sit down with my attorney and folks with the Prosecutor’s Office to try and resolve this as quickly as possible.”
Ecker said he was treated very well by county detectives when they arrested him at his Linwood home last week. He was released on his own recognizance.
“They extended me a lot of professional courtesy. I was not handcuffed. There was no holding cell. They were very gentlemanly,” Ecker said.
Besides the county probe, Johnson said the authority is doing its own internal investigation.
Johnson said the latest development would not keep the authority from its work, including finalizing a budget that will be voted on at the Nov. 6 meeting that contains no rate increases for water and sewer customers. Johnson said they are also moving forward on a project to extend 4,000 new water hookups to the Town Bank area while also working on a cooperative project with the township to repave streets in those neighborhoods.
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