Musing Resigns from Hightstown Council
The Democrat says fellow councilmembers were too slow to act on an ordinance to fully protect borough officials, employees and volunteers from lawsuits.
Hightstown Democrat Dimitri Musing resigned Tuesday afternoon from his post as Borough Council member, due to what he characterized as the slow response of his fellow elected officials following his call to action at last week’s municipal meeting.
“It's been eight days and nothing has happened,” he said. “I see this as issue that was very important, nothing had moved forward and upon that I made my decision to resign.”
His letter of resignation went out to borough officials at 3:29 p.m. today, Tuesday.
At the council’s April 4 meeting, Musing said he had recently discovered that under borough code, if the Joint Insurance Fund (JIF) that covers the borough decides not to protect an individual who is being sued, the council would have the option—but not the obligation—to cover that person, be they an elected official, borough employee or a volunteer.
He and Democrat and Council President Isabel McGinty sought to amend the agenda at the start of the meeting last week to include a vote on an ordinance to require legal protection, or indemnification. But the other council members defeated the motion, saying they needed more time to examine the ordinance, which was presented to them that night. Musing recused himself from that meeting and sat in the audience for the rest of the four-hour public session.
The next Borough Council meeting is scheduled for April 20, but Musing said that was too long to wait, and that his call to hold a special meeting before then has been ignored. “I felt this required immediate action, as I explained to my fellow governing body members,” he said.
Mayor Steve Kirson, also a Democrat, said he was “disappointed” by Musing’s resignation. “It’s kind of a shock when you have someone resign from the governing body when you anticipated that they would be here for the duration, but I wish him well,” he said.
Mayor Kirson said he has been in touch with all members of the council regarding the proposed liability ordinance, and that they have all expressed their support for it.
“The issue is, there was a proposed ordinance placed before the governing body recently, and the gist of it was the members of the governing body, or some of the members, wanted to have an opportunity to take the ordinance home, read it, digest it and have time to ask questions about the language. It was basically a surprise to them,” he said.
“And some of the members wanted immediate action because they felt we're exposed. And the reality of it is we do have this insurance coverage, it’s a very formidable policy, and it covers employees, elected officials and volunteers who participate on our boards and commissions.”
In his discussions with members, the mayor said there seemed to be a “general consensus” to bring the ordinance up for a vote soon and to support it after some changes are made to the specific language in the proposed law. Locally, he said nine of the 13 towns in Mercer County possess a law requiring the town to protect individuals when the municipality's insurance policy does not. Borough attorney Fred Raffetto has said the council can pass an ordinance for "blanket indeminifcation," but that it could not protect individuals in particular cases like those stemming from criminal conduct, actual malice or fraud or intentional wrongdoing.
“When we put an ordinance on the books it’s a pretty heavy thing, so I wanted to make sure everyone's read it, digested it, and to make sure they know what's going on,” Mayor Kirson said of the council members. “To their credit, they’ve taken it very seriously. It’s something we never discussed here before; it’s something we never noticed.”
Walter Sikorski, the municipal Democratic chairman and himself a former councilman, said he was still awaiting legal advice on the procedure to replace Musing.
“I have enjoyed working with everyone and serving the citizens of Hightstown and I have learned a great deal,” Musing said. “I wish the mayor, all the councilmembers and employees of the Borough of Hightstown all the best going forward.”
The full text of Musing’s resignation letter is below:
To my fellow Governing Body Members and the Public:
When I ran for public office approximately one year and one-half ago, and then subsequently assumed the position of Councilmember, I did so with a sincere desire to provide a public service to my community. The role of Councilmember is an extremely important position, and I do not take it lightly. I know that I have been entrusted by those who elected me to perform public work on behalf of the Borough to the best of my ability. However, in assuming this position, it was always my understanding that I would be protected from personal liability and exposure should any litigation occur as a result of the good faith performance of my duties on behalf of the Borough. In my opinion, that was a rational presumption, since I cannot fathom any reason as to why an individual would ever wish to run for public office if they were not certain that they would be protected when providing public service in good faith. I question why anyone would ever wish to put their financial well being, or the best interests of their families, at stake for performing the tireless duties of a public servant.
I have been inquiring about this issue, generally, for some time, regardless of any specific matter of Borough business that happens to be before the Mayor and Council. Recently, I have been advised by the Borough Attorney that there is, in fact, no provision under existing New Jersey law which requires the defense and indemnification of local government officers by the municipality relating to their official duties. I have been told, rather, that the law simply allows local government entities to provide for such defense and indemnification at their sole discretion. Moreover, I have been advised that there is no local legislation currently in effect in Hightstown which provides for the defense and indemnification of local government officials in such cases. Although I understand that there may be insurance coverage available, I am not satisfied that this provides sufficient assurances for me to risk my own well-being, and that of my family, against what may be frivolous lawsuits.
Anyone can sue another person in the State of New Jersey. I understand that a lawsuit may be found to be frivolous; however, there are actions which must be taken, and expenses which must be paid, prior to obtaining a dismissal of such litigation. Without assurances that I am covered, and that I am not hanging out on a limb personally exposed, then I am simply not willing to risk my family’s financial well-being in order to perform work as a public servant.
Moreover, I cannot rely on the whims of this or any other Governing Body to protect me on a case-by-case basis. I requested that my fellow Governing Body Members take immediate action to enact an ordinance that would put this issue to rest by providing all Governing Body Members, employees of the Borough and other public officials with assurances that, so long as they are acting in the good faith performance of their official duties for the Borough, they will be protected against litigation. Eight days have passed, during which time I joined a fellow council member in requesting a special meeting of the members of council to get a resolution and / or ordinance in place to put this issue to rest. Nothing has occurred to date. It is because of this that I provide all of you with my resignation as a Council member of the Borough of Hightstown, effective immediately.
Council Member, Hightstown Borough