CLARK — At a crowded and contentious governing body workshop meeting held Monday at the township’s municipal building, members of the public directed a heated series of questions and comments towards Mayor Sal Bonaccorso and the township council in relation to recent allegations of misconduct.
The tense atmosphere followed the release of a story by NJ.com about the township of Clark paying $400,000 to Police Lieutenant Antonio Manata (Mr. Manata received a payout of $275,000 while his attorney was paid $125,000 in legal fees) in order to cover up audiotape of Mayor Bonaccorso and other township officials making racist remarks. This meeting was the first public appearance by the mayor since the news was released.
Several members of the Clark public spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting to express their distaste and outrage at both the mayor’s remarks as well as the use of taxpayer money to pay off Lt. Manata and the salaries of two officers on paid leave, totaling over $1 million.
Rob Pettenato, a resident of Clark, addressed the mayor and council. “I just want to say it’s really disgusting that I had to listen to tapes of our mayor and the racist remarks…It’s appalling to have someone like that say something and really think nothing of it. And what’s more appalling is the council who approved the payment to hide the fact that, unfortunately, our mayor is a racist and sexist.”
He called on the mayor and council to resign for their actions in 2020. “If you can cover up that, what else are you doing that you shouldn’t be doing?” he asked.
Mark Semler, another Clark resident, asked the council to speak about who was involved in approving the money allocated to paying the whistleblower. Township Attorney Mark Dugan told Mr. Semler that he could check the past resolution, as Mr. Dugan was not allowed to divulge the information. According to the agenda referred to from February 3, 2020, all current Clark Council members except for Council President Jimmy Minniti were on the governing body in 2020 and approved the resolution authorizing the insurance settlement.
Multiple Clark residents asked what the next step is for residents whose taxpayer money was used for the cover-up. Mr. Dugan said that taxpayers had the election process, which includes other elective processes that would open inquiry into quicker methods.
Ebtsam Sayed asked about the discrimination against female officers that the mayor had suggested. She said that the only minority officers hired were hired while the prosecutor’s office was in charge of the police department.
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office seized control of the Clark Police Department in July of 2020 on allegations of misconduct.
Mayor Bonaccorso said that what she was referring to was not a crime. He said that he felt there were some police officers, including two women, who were not performing their job to the standards of the township, which is the reason that they were let go. He also said that he had tried to get a female transfer from Irvington but that the Irvington chief felt that he was low on personnel and did not go through with the transfer.
Jessica Pizzella said that news of the allegations has been broadcast nationally since it was released, including on NBC News. “I am so embarrassed to say that I live in Clark now. Honestly, your performance at the Black Lives Matter [protest], that was embarrassing. But now…I’m bringing my daughter up in this town. I don’t want people when they meet her to think that she is racist because she’s from Clark. And they do,” she said.
All members of the council were silent during the meeting on the advice of Mr. Dugan.
Mayor Bonaccorso responded to the statements by saying that everything was out in the open. He said that he and the council wanted to fight the accusations but that the insurance company wanted to settle. According to him, insurance paid for $330,000 of the $400,000 paid to Lt. Manata. He said that police officers who are suspended must be paid because they were not suspended for criminal activity.
“The resolution to settle this matter was done at an open public meeting on an agenda. It was not an add-on to an agenda. It was posted on our website…with a date of February 5, 2020. Everything in this matter, whether you agree or not with the decisions that were made, were done legally and ethically,” said Mayor Bonaccorso. “There’s a lot of accusations out there.”
The agenda noted by the mayor lists a resolution titled, “Authorizing the mayor to execute an insurance agreement regarding personnel matter(s).” There is no mention of the price of the insurance agreement.