County denies wrongdoing, but OKs payment

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After big settlement, former county employee remains angry 

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Last month, the county and its insurance company agreed to pay more than three-quarters of a million dollars to former employee Arthur Montana to, as he put it, “make him go away.” 

If that were the case, it didn’t seem to work.

In a resolution approved on Feb. 25, the county Board of Freeholders said it was ready and willing to defend against Montana’s claims at trial, but began settlement negotiations in order to avoid further litigation costs. 

Montana, who worked for the county for about 20 years, recently sent a letter to this newspaper about the settlement blasting the county, and alleging that his 2009 layoff from a county job stemmed from his actions as a whistleblower. 

Further, he alleges that the county took apart its youth services department in retaliation.
Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton did not respond to requests for comment, but when the matter came up in January of 2011, county officials stated that tight budgets were leading to cutbacks.

In the resolution the freeholders approved, the county admits no wrongdoing.

“In settling these claims, the county has not and does not make any admission of liability, but rather has decided that a negotiated settlement of the claims furthers the public’s interest in avoiding further costs of litigation…” the resolution reads in part. The vote was 3-0, with Thornton and freeholders Kristine Gabor and Leonard Desiderio voting yes and freeholders Marie Hayes and Will Morey absent.

The county paid $112,500, in addition to more money paid by the county’s insurer, St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company. According to Montana, the total payout was $775,000.

Among the complaints he raised, Montana alleges that the former director of youth services at the county level, Dianne Lanzetta, communicated with the family court judge about cases outside of the courtroom. According to Montana, that is not appropriate because families with juveniles in crisis were not able to hear or respond to the recommendations.

“The lack of transparency was one of the key problems,” Montana said.

There has not been a formal complaint filed at any level against either the judge or the former director.

A staff member at county attorney Barbara Bakley-Marino’s office did respond to a request for interview, to say that the matter was being handled by outside counsel. Attorney Virginia Pallotto at the firm of Budd Larner in Short Hills represented the county in this matter. She confirmed the $775,000 settlement, which she said includes attorney fees, and said most of that was paid by the county’s insurer.

Pallotto said she would rather not respond to Montana’s allegations in detail, other than to say the county has denied any wrongdoing, and that the defenses were a matter of public record. She said there were extensive negotiations and disputes over the settlement before an agreement was reached. 

“I’d rather not get into a tit-for-tat,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday morning. She did say it was a highly contested case, and that the county maintains that Montana’s layoff was driven by economic factors. Other employees also lost their jobs at that time.

At the time of the layoffs, county officials cited declining ratables and budget constraints. According to Montana, the family crisis intervention team was disbanded in 2011, and the intensive supervision program in 2012. Much of the services once provided by county employees have been outsourced to private or non-profit entities, with some functions falling to the sheriff’s department, he said.

Montana did not say the changes have hurt young people in crisis in Cape May County.

“I can’t really comment on the nature of the services that are now provided. I only know that after I started exposing wrongdoing, a series of steps were taken to begin disbanding the department,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Montana said the county indicated the moves were all about saving money, but he said he worked out of a run-down trailer while he was a county employee, saying that now officials have found the money to spend $37 million on a new county jail.

In court papers released by Montana, Judge Joel Schneider held the county responsible for delays in releasing extensive numbers of emails relating to the case, and imposed sanctions. He wrote that the plaintiff had to spend substantial resources tracking down documents that should have been produced years earlier.

While the judge did not find that the county acted in bad faith, in the ruling he sharply criticized the county, which had apparently searched records for “Arthur Montana” but did not include “Art Montana” or just “Montana.”

According to the court’s opinion filed last September, Montana had raised several issues with his former boss Lanzetta, eventually taking his concerns to the county manager and the entire freeholder board. The opinion only ruled on the county’s release of documents, not the merits of Montana’s suit. In it, the judge states that Montana alleges that rather than respond to his “litany” of complaints, the county retaliated with “spurious and unwarranted discipline.” Montana alleges his First Amendment rights were violated, and that he deserves protection under the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act. 

The county responded that Montana failed to follow workplace rules and regulations, that he was a disruptive and distracting influence, and that they imposed appropriate discipline. The court documents indicate the county maintains that the layoff was about economics, not retaliation.

Meanwhile, Schneider’s opinion included information on a May 19, 2010, report prepared at the request of Bakley-Marino about complaints from other employees about a hostile work environment. According to the court documents, that report indicated that most of the complaints were about Montana. The court opinion states that most of the interviews were highly critical of Montana, describing him as confrontational, disruptive and aggressive.

“Some comments attributed the plaintiff’s undesirous behavior to this lawsuit and his ‘crusade,’” reads the court document.

Bill Barlow can be emailed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or you can comment on this story below. 

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