LOWER TOWNSHIP - The executive director of the local Municipal Utilities Authority has been put on a two-month working leave of absence following allegations that he assaulted an employee.
LTMUA Chairman Nels Johnson said Matthew Ecker has been told to have no contact with employees other than managers during this time, but with the utility in the budget process and pursuing several other large projects, he is still working from his home and going to some meetings. He is being paid.
"Matt is on a working leave of absence for 60 days. Matt is a vital part of this organization. If there is a serious emergency, he will be there. He is still running the operation," Johnson said.
Ecker is accused of assaulting utility worker Jesse Matsinger, but no police report was filed.
Johnson said Ecker, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, admitted pushing Matsinger but later apologized.
Matsinger, however, said it was more than a push.
"He assaulted me in front of the time clock. He hit me in the chest with a fist," Matsinger said.
Earlier this month, about 60 people picketed at the Bayshore Road facility over allegations that Ecker has mistreated several employees who had cooperated with an investigation by the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office. Investigators are probing possible wrongdoing at the utility that handles water and sewer services for much of the township.
After the protest, Ecker would not specifically comment on the Matsinger case, or disciplinary action against several other workers, but admitted there had been some labor problems and said sometimes a strained relationship with management is inevitable.
Michelle Douglass, a Northfield attorney representing Matsinger and four other workers, said several were retaliated against for being whistleblowers. Douglass said she also represents William Dunn, Jania Bailey, Adam Witkowsky and Don Embs, who she alleges suffered retaliation for talking to investigators.
"Dunn was the first to talk to the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office and he admitted it to Ecker. Within four days there were four manufactured charges against him," Douglass said.
Johnson said the Board of Commissions that oversees the authority has decided to hire outside counsel to hear the cases and he expects them to be heard within the next few weeks. Ecker's case is on the alleged assault while Matsinger faces insubordination and misconduct charges.
"We want an unbiased process. Jesse Matsinger has a grievance hearing at the end of the month. He's alleging assault. There could be repercussions for both of them. The board takes insubordination and misconduct very serious. I'm not going to pull the trigger on anybody until I get all the facts," said Johnson.
Douglass said the utility is not taking Ecker's behavior serious enough.
"Why has he been given a 60-day paid vacation with a company car?" she asked.
Douglass has pressed Township Council at the last two meetings to take action. Mayor Mike Beck said the council appoints the commissioners but does not oversee operations. He said he has no contact with the commissioners but has to go to through a chain of command that starts with Township Manager Mike Voll. Beck noted the accused are innocent until proven guilty.
"We operate under the rule of law. It's set up for them to run the operation. It's not something where we can pull a string," said Beck.
Township Attorney Charles Sandman said the board has taken action. Following the picketing, he noted they called a special meeting, suspended Ecker, and hired three separate law firms to hear the grievance cases. He noted there is also the pending county investigation. Sandman said Douglass wants action before all the facts are gathered.
"They want to bypass the trial and move right to sentencing," said Sandman.
Douglass said council created the authority and when there are problems they have an obligation to "step in and do something."
"I don't think they want to touch this with a 10-foot pole," Douglass said.
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