Tension Rises at Clark Meeting As Residents Call For Resignation

By KATIE MOEN
For Union County HAWK

CLARK — Tensions that have been building for more than six weeks came to a head on Monday when two outspoken members of the public were escorted by police from a regular meeting of the Clark mayor and council after repeatedly calling for the immediate resignation of Mayor Sal Bonaccorso. Mayor Bonaccorso, who faces allegations of racism and mismanagement dating back to 2018, said Monday that while there may come a day when he is ready to speak publicly about his alleged indiscretions, “today is not that day.”

Clark resident Michael Shulman and former council member Bill Caruso were both escorted from the proceedings during the public-comment portion of Monday night’s meeting, which saw repeat outbursts from both members of the crowd and Mayor Bonaccorso himself.

“Six weeks have gone by. More news has come out, more news will continue to come out, and yet, this so-called leadership…still says nothing. But we’re still spending money on this. We learned two weeks ago that we had to hire special counsel because we have to deal with the aftermath of the tapes [a set of incriminating recordings that were released to numerous media outlets earlier this year that highlight snippets of derogatory conversation between Mayor Bonaccorso and several township police officials], the aftermath of the disclosure, settlements…it’s endless,” Mr. Shulman said Monday, referencing an agenda item from two weeks ago that allowed the township to enter into a “non-fair and open contract” with attorney Robert Varady of the Union-based law firm La Corte, Bundy, Varady & Kinsella. According to Clark Township Attorney Mark Dugan, Mr. Varady has been retained at a rate of $300 per hour to help Township Clerk Edie Merkel deal with the large number of Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests that have been piling up since the tapes were released.

“As I explained at the last meeting, it was a decision made by the business administrator. He saw how inundated the clerk was [with OPRA requests], and it was decided that we should bring someone else in to help,” Mr. Dugan said, adding that Mr. Varady’s pay rate was not negotiated due to the immediacy of the situation. There is no set cap on Mr. Varady’s contract with the township, Mr. Dugan said, but he noted that “he is limited by the number of years he will be in retention.”

“There is no way for us to predict how many OPRA requests will come in, how many lawsuits will be filed…it could take time,” Mr. Dugan said Monday.

Mr. Shulman continued, noting that according to his research, the township has only received about 20 requests for information since the tapes were released back in March.

“The money keeps draining out because of this problem,” Mr. Shulman said. “You sit there, and you smile, and you nod, and you pass resolutions about recycling…and all of that is very important, but there are rumblings in this town, and even the most apolitical citizens…this is on the forefront of their minds. Address it.”

Mr. Shulman was asked to leave the proceedings following an interaction with another speaker, William Vastine, who suggested that the residents should “put away their torches and pitchforks” and accept Mr. Bonaccorso’s apology.

“In all the time that I have known the mayor, and that’s over a decade now, I’ve never once heard anything like what was said on those tapes,” Mr. Vastine said. “[Mayor Bonaccorso was] someone who was interested in not only improving the lives of the residents of Clark but improving economics, efficiencies, providing more services for every dollar. I’m not here to defend what was said. The mayor himself has said that he regrets those things. But rather than the drama and hysterics, we ought to be thinking about moving on.”

Other local residents, however, said fallout from the incident and its subsequent national news coverage has started to affect the community in negative ways.

Mary Semler, a longtime Clark resident, said that she moved to the area because she found the right house to meet the needs of her aging parents. But, Mrs. Semler continued, Clark’s reputation as a “very racist community” had always left her feeling uncomfortable with her decision. She shared a story from several years back in which a Black home health aide who had been hired by the family was allegedly wrongfully targeted by Clark’s police department.

“She was wonderful, and she was kind and she was caring,” Mrs. Semler said of the woman, “but, unfortunately, her skin was Black.”

Mrs. Semler said the woman was pulled over and harassed by police on multiple occasions, which kept her from tending to her duties as a home health aide. The woman eventually chose to quit her job, Mrs. Semler said, not because she was unhappy but because she felt that she was being targeted for the color of her skin.

“This is a reflection on us. You represent us. You owe us a duty to make sure that we do not continue down this path, because anything good that has ever been done for this town by Mr. Bonaccorso or by the council will not be remembered,” Mrs. Semler said, noting that she has come to resent her connection to Clark in recent weeks. “This is not how I want to be known,” she remarked.

Another resident, Ellen Pettenato, said her child, who is a student in the district’s middle school, has experienced incidents of bullying in connection with the numerous allegations that have been levied against the township.

“I’ve lived here almost 20 years, and I agree with most of what has been said tonight. The remarks were disgusting. You should be ashamed. You should resign,” she said. Mrs. Pettenato went on to note that children from a nearby municipality had been outwardly cruel to Clark athletes during a recent soccer game.

Mayor Bonaccorso interrupted the speaker to dispel rumors that one district had gone so far as to cancel scheduled matches against the Crusaders softball team, but later apologized to Mrs. Pettenato for his outburst.

Mr. Caruso, meanwhile, said Monday that while he had been pleased to help get Mr. Bonaccorso elected to his first term as a council member at large, the mayor had changed too much since those early days to retain his seat as an elected official any longer.

“The mayor can say what he wants, but he can’t hide the truth,” Mr. Caruso said, adding, “Be a man. Stand up and say, ‘I quit.’ Do it for your mom, do it for your beautiful children…”

“Get my family’s names out of your mouth,” Mayor Bonaccorso interrupted, speaking forcefully from his seat near the dais. “You have a problem with running your mouth like this; you did it with the former mayor, you’re not going to do it with me. Your opinion is your opinion, but it’s slander…”

The two men continued to shout over each other despite repeated efforts by Council President James Minitti to regain control. Mr. Caruso was not removed at the time, but was later gaveled out by Mr. Minitti for speaking out of turn.

“There is a lot of conversation here, and I’m not going to comment on it all,” Mr. Bonaccorso said, “but I am going to comment on the sports programs. I am in touch with presidents and coaches from every league in town and I haven’t heard any of this. A lot of things have been said about different things that I won’t get into tonight, but I will get into it eventually.”

For now, on the advice of Mr. Dugan and his firm, the members of the township council are not directly commenting on the situation.

“I hope this community works together and talks so that we can work out our issues and our problems,” Councilman Brian Toal said Monday. “Yes, there are problems, but we can have a conversation and find a way to resolve them.”

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