Bloomfield Council Votes to Settle Memphis Case Before Court Date

Editor’s note: Commenters have been passionate about their feelings regarding Memphis, the pitbull at the center of a controversy in Bloomfield since late July, but on many comment threads, the discussion has turned ugly. On the Save the Bloomfield Bukowski Shelter facebook page, started by volunteers dismissed by the Bloomfield Health dept., a disturbing photoshopped image using the face of of Bloomfield Health dept. acting director Karen Lore, appeared, showing her dressed in Nazi garb. It later disappeared, when it was removed by administrators, soon after it was found and mentioned in comments on Baristanet. Discussion regarding this horrific image and the nature of the Memphis discussion on comment threads have gone in such a negative direction, we’ve had to close commenting on several threads. Please respect the opinions of others when commenting on this latest item and related items, or we will remove comments and close down commenting. Thanks.

The Bloomfield council voted unanimously at last night’s conference meeting to negotiate a settlement in the lawsuit brought by the Lexus Project that would allow Jeff and Diana Coltenback to take possession of Memphis.

The Lexus Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Coltenbacks and Memphis earlier this month against the township, Bloomfield Health Department, Acting Director Karen Lore, and the animal shelter for not acting in Memphis’ best interest. The case is currently scheduled to go to court on October 5.

Memphis, a stray pit bull mix, was brought into the Bloomfield Animal Shelter in February and deemed “unadoptable” after an evaluation in March. He was then held at the shelter until local businessman and dog trainer Jeff Coltenback offered to take him for training in late July. After 8 days, Coltenback was asked to return Memphis to the shelter due to his having socialized the dog with children, something the Health Department claims violated the terms of the contract he had signed, which Coltenback denies is the case. Since that time the Coltenbacks have been trying to adopt Memphis without success.

Most recently, the Board of Health made a decision to sequester Memphis in an undisclosed location and is not communicating his whereabouts or any information about his health or status to Coltenback or the public.

During the public comment period last night, members of the public spoke urging the council to take action to override the Board of Health’s decision pertaining to Memphis and to put an end to the long controversy.

  • Joseph Matthews of Clifton said, “Please explore all your options,” stating, “We are devoted to this. We will not give up on this.”
  • Mary DeLorenzo said the issue is “affecting the entire town.”
  • Joseph Del Guidice said he was proud of the town, and that the situation “will undo all the good” that everyone is working for. “The chaos has to stop.”
  • Pat Gilleran said, “I’m hoping you step up to the plate. You appointed the Board of Health – you can dismiss them.”

Several people spoke about the Health Department’s policies, including the requirement that visitors to the animal shelter allow the shelter workers to photograph their picture IDs, a practice BOH member Joel Elkins asked to have stopped during the BOH meeting on Thursday. One speaker confirmed that this practice has stopped, as she was not required to allow her ID to be photographed when she visited the shelter on Saturday.

Others spoke about the difficulty of obtaining information from the Health Department through the Open Public Records Act.

Several speakers criticized Health Department Acting Director Karen Lore and the Board of Health for various actions.

  • Danielle Loffredo of Bloomfield questioned why attendees at the Board of Health meeting were not allowed to take pictures, why allegations of abuse at the shelter were not being addressed, and asked why action has not already been taken. She also asked, “Don’t we legally have the right to know where he [Memphis] is and how he’s being treated?

Jeff Coltenback spoke last, and pointed out he himself is not the plaintiff in the lawsuit that was filed, although he is referenced in the suit. He expressed his desire to settle the suit before it goes to court. However, he ended by saying, “My lawsuits have not yet been filed.”

Councilman Bernard Hamilton had put the subject of Memphis on the agenda. Before discussion took place, Township Attorney Brian Aloia advised against discussing pending litigation except in closed session. Hamilton went ahead against his advice and made a motion to settle the case to let Memphis go to the Coltenbacks, to loud applause from the audience. After some discussion as to the wording of the motion, Councilman Michael Venezia seconded it.

The roll-call vote was unanimously in favor of asking the township’s Legal Department to negotiate a settlement with the Essex County court and the Lexus Project that gives the dog to the Coltenbacks, a result that was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd.

There was a short discussion about whether or not the council needed to put the resolution on the agenda for formal approval at the next regular council meeting. Township Attorney Aloia stated that the Law Department would be able to proceed on the vote taken at last night’s meeting.

After the vote, Hamilton also spoke about the Board of Health, saying “We need to take a critical eye in regards to the Board of Health… My hope and wish is that we can become one town again.” He said the people who serve on the Board are volunteers and they need to learn “how to minimize conflict.” Hamilton also said that the focus on the animal shelter was taking attention away from many important issues facing the town.

Councilman Venezia stated the council needs to explore shifting the responsibility for the animal shelter from the Board of Health to the Township Administrator/Mayor and Council.

After the meeting, Attorney Aloia explained that there is still much work to do in negotiating the settlement regarding Memphis. He said the settlement must be agreed upon by the Board of Health attorney, the township attorneys, and the Lexus Project.

Coltenback was cautiously optimistic after the meeting. On his Facebook page, he stated, “The Lexus Project, the 2 town attorneys and the Board of Health Attorney would all need to agree on a resolution. This is good news, but by no means does this suggest Memphis is coming home any time soon. This is merely a positive step. It appears that the Board of Health would be the only road block to this happening. At least that is my interpretation. ”

In other business, the council discussed the Lion Gate property, and agreed to plan to spend “not more than $500,000″ on improvements to the portion of the property that the township has bought to keep as open space. The discussion grew contentious when Councilman Nick Joanow suggested that the other portion of the property, which is currently owned by a developer who plans to build townhomes on it, be repurposed by the town to accommodate a need for more recreation fields for children or another type of open space.

Joanow said the project to build townhomes was approved most recently in 2007 and that Bloomfield’s needs had changed since that time. He said eminent domain could be used to take the property if it were to be used for a public purpose. Joanow proposed a committee be formed to study different options for the use of the property.

Mayor McCarthy objected, saying , “What you have is a potential lawsuit.” He said the developer plans to build on the property and said there would likely be a “lawsuit of $5-$10 million if you want to take it by eminent domain.” However, he did agree to let a committee form to discuss it.

In other business, Township Engineer Paul Lasek asked for a resolution to apply for four NJ Department of Transportation grants. The grants, if awarded, would go toward improvements in the Watsessing Train Station area and on Essex Avenue, the addition of a bike path on Broad Street, among other transit-oriented work.

At Councilman Joanow’s request, Lasek also gave some information about the upcoming Watsessing Stakeholders meeting being held this Thursday, September 27, at 7 p.m. in the Bloomfield Civic Center on Broad Street. He said the purpose of the meeting was to understand what local business owners, neighborhood groups and residents would like to see developed in the area surrounding the Watsessing Train Station.

The council approved the purchase of 6 police patrol cars and one SUV. Councilman Joanow asked whether the SUV would be a hybrid. Police Chief Goul explained that the Ford Interceptor  model that is being purchased is specially made for 24-hour police use and a hybrid would not be feasible for this use. However, he said the vehicle would get 20% better gas mileage than previous similar vehicles owned by the town.

The next council meeting will be held on Monday, October 1, 2012, in the council chambers at 7 p.m.


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