Since he was informed the afternoon of Jan. 1 by former Business Administrator Scott Pezarras that he was not to report to work on Jan. 2, former Deputy Business Administrator Juan Bellu – who is currently asking a state civil service board to stay his termination of employment by the township – has been mounting a legal challenge to the actions taken by Mayor John Ducey to oust him.
Meanwhile, a law firm hired by the township is claiming that Bellu was given a sham civil service title for the purpose of protection by former Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis, and violated township policies on attendance and performance.
Bellu's tenure in Brick has been controversial since he was hired by Acropolis in 2008, especially after Acropolis was appointed director of the Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority in 2010. Bellu sits on the Board of Commissioners for the TRMUA, prompting allegations of a "quid pro quo" agreement between the two well-known Republicans.
Bellu was officially hired as a Data Processing Systems Programmer with Brick, a civil service job that affords protections to employees under state law. But for most of his tenure, the township now claims, Bellu was exempted from the position by Acropolis, who appointed him – with a significant raise – to serve as a department head.
In his final year of employment with Brick, Bellu earned a salary of $156,824, not including benefits.
Bellu's status as either an appointed employee or protected civil service employee is now the subject of a battle over whether Bellu's suspension and pending termination was justified, and if his suspension and termination was based on merit or political reprisal.
An Open Public Records Act request filed by Brick Patch revealed that after he was suspended pending termination when Ducey took over as mayor, Bellu filed motions with the state Civil Service Commission requesting he be returned to his old civil service position – or continue to be paid – as the legal dispute over his termination winds its way through administrative agencies and, potentially, the court system.
In legal briefs filed with the commission, both sides indicate Bellu's suspension without pay was justified by officials connected to the incoming Ducey administration by claims that Bellu did not utilize the township's official sign-in mechanism to prove he showed up for work, failed to appear at work on certain dates in November and December 2013, and failed to establish a plan to replace an expiring shared services agreement in the township's building department.
Bellu's attorney, Robert C. Shea of Toms River, argues in legal briefs that Bellu was exempt from a requirement to use the sign-in mechanism by Acropolis – who signed a letter indicating as much on Dec. 31, 2013 – and was expressly instructed by Ducey to stop work on the replacement of the shared services agreement.
Shea also provided to the commission copies of Democratic campaign flyers that featured photos of Bellu next to his salary, alleging Bellu was arbitrarily targeted for political reprisal because of his connection to the former mayor, and had "glowing" reviews in his civil service position before moving on to the appointed position.
But the law firm of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole, a Teaneck-based firm representing the township, claims Bellu is not even qualified for the systems analyst civil service position, and the job title was given to him purely as a protective measure.
"It is apparent from his application, that [Bellu] does not possess the qualifications of a Data Processing Systems Programmer," the DeCotiis filing states. "The position requires knowledge of computer programming languages and computer design considerations. Bellu is not a computer programmer and cannot proclaim to be such. His training and experience are that of an accountant."
The township is also arguing that, if Bellu gets back his civil service title, the spirit of civil service law would be undermined.
"Perhaps more importantly, however, the public interest here is to prevent the manipulation of the civil service process to grant tenure to employees serving as unclassified department heads," the filing argues. "This is exactly what went on here. The former mayor attempted to grant civil service protection to Bellu by appointing him as a Data Processing Systems Programmer, with no intention that he actually serve in that position. From the moment of his appointment, Bellu was to serve as an unclassified appointee for former mayor Acropolis."
Shea countered, in a later filing, that Bellu possesses a degree in computer science and is qualified for the civil service position.
The Civil Service Commission – specifically, its Interim Relief agency, with which Bellu's request is filed – has not yet ruled on the matter, though technicalities may play a part in any such decision.
"Frankly stated, it is impossible for an employee to be both on the job and on a leave of absence at the same time," Shea said in his filing, arguing that Bellu cannot be held to the attendance standards of the civil service position since he was not serving in that role on the dates the violations of policy are alleged.
The DeCotiis filings allege Bellu never legitimately served in the civil service role in the first place.
In addition to the filings with the commission, Bellu also filed a Notice of Tort claim with the township, a step required before a person can sue a government agency in New Jersey.
Bellu, meanwhile, is waiting to hear whether the commission stays his termination.