First on Essex County Place: Attorney William Strazza, on behalf of the Jersey Animal Coalition (JAC) pleaded not guilty to approximately 30 new violations at South Orange Municipal Court on Tuesday, bringing the total amount of charges against the organization to approximately 85. JAC manages an animal shelter off of Walton Avenue in South Orange.
South Orange Municipal Prosecutor Gracia Robert Montilus, Judge Jonathan Rosenbluth, and Strazza spoke behind closed doors for several minutes at court.
"I appreciate the fact that you guys are working together", Judge Rosenbluth told Strazza and Montilus. Montilus requested that 30 days be allowed so that the prosecution can work with the defense on a resolution. Judge Rosenbluth said that JAC will reappear in court on July 15, and if a resolution is not reached by then, a trial will be scheduled for the first week of August.
The shelter is currently closed and under quarantine, causing stray animals to be sent to Associated Humane Society in Newark rather than the JAC shelter. The JAC shelter was closed in March after a joint inspection by local and state health officials. At the time, South Orange Health Department officer John Festa cited JAC with 51 violations.
Nancy Schetelick, a former volunteer coordinator at JAC and Union Township resident was present at court. Schetelick told Essex County Place that although she would like to see the animals and the conditions at the JAC shelter, she has been banned from shelter property. "They said stay away", Schetelick said.
Strazza declined to discuss the charges with Essex County Place.
Several people spoke about the JAC shelter at the South Orange Board of Trustees meeting on Monday. Carole Bishop Leonard, of South Orange, criticized the suggestion made by South Orange Deputy Administrator Adam Loehner to turn the shelter into a municipal pound. “Do you really want to add another $200,000 a year to our tax burden", Leonard said, adding that the JAC shelter did not cost South Orange taxpayers anything, and that JAC has accepted every animal brought to them by municipal animal control. Leonard went on to say that South Orange taxpayers are paying for all dogs and cats currently being sent to the AHS shelter in Newark. Leonard adding that “the JAC shelter has addressed and corrected every cited violation including the frivolous ones that Deputy Loehner and Mr. Festa have been so anxious about”. Leonard alleged that Loehner and Festa have a "vendetta" against Perlmutter. Leonard concluded by saying, "I am really offended that two town employees and a couple of disgruntled volunteers, none of whom live in South Orange and do not pay taxes here, are riding roughshod over the rest of us who genuinely care about animal welfare, and the integrity and reputation of this village".
Jim Block, of Westfield, said that he has been a volunteer at JAC for three years. Block asked that the quarantine be lifted, saying that there are people interested in adopting dogs. Block added that to him, it seemed that the village "wants the JAC strangled financially".
Schetelick told the Board of Trustees "I really don't understand how you can lift the quarantine or the ban without calling the state DOH (Department of Health) and having them reinspect the place so that they are in compliance with 52 violations". Schetelick also questioned how only certain current volunteers are being allowed inside the shelter. "Why don't they let everybody in?", Schetelick asked.
South Orange Village President Alex Torpey said that there is no "personal vendetta" against the shelter, and asked Loehner to speak regarding the current state of the shelter. Loehner said that there has been no formal communication between JAC management and legal counsel and the village. Loehner said that he has worked with several health officials, including the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA). "These people are experts and I trust their opinion", Loehner said.
Loehner mentioned that on a recent inspection of the shelter, a few animals were missing. One animal, named Rocky, was signed out on April 15 to a rescue group. In addition, Loehner said that a notice of default was sent to the JAC because the village has not heard from JAC about the facility, corrections made, or conditions in over three months, except for when the JAC applied to participate in an adoption event in Ridgewood. "Outside of that, we have not heard anything", he added. In order for the quarantine to be lifted, JAC must correct each deficiency and pass a health inspection.
Village Administrator Barry Lewis, Jr. said that the closure and quarantine of the shelter came after the New Jersey DOH received "a number of complaints". Lewis reported that the state DOH then contacted the village to coordinate an inspection. Lewis called the term 'vendetta' "grossly inappropriate" for this situation, adding that Loehner was assigned this case administratively. "The notion that there is a vendetta...is completely untrue. The ball is and has been in the JAC's court since the day of the inspection".
When contacted about the new charges against the JAC, JAC president Ruth Perlmutter said, "There are no new charges that I'm aware of". Perlmutter added that the shelter is accepting donations of "cleaning supplies, litter, dog and cat food- and of course monetary donations to pay bills that come in regardless of whether or not we're open or closed".