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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Union drops suit, clears path for jail opening

BY NIKITA STEWART

The labor union representing nearly half of all Essex County corrections officers dropped its lawsuit against the county yesterday, removing the final obstacle to the county opening a new jail on March 16.

The Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 157 had sought to halt the transfer of inmates to the new $416 million county jail until Essex completed air-quality tests and gave those tests to an expert for evaluation.

Superior Court Judge Harriet Klein was scheduled to hear the case tomorrow, but the union decided to drop the lawsuit because the county recently gave the union 800 pages of test results on indoor air quality, said Stuart Lieberman, the PBA's attorney.

"Figuratively speaking and technically speaking, the air is clean," Lieberman said.

County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo held a news conference in his office at the Hall of Records to announce the end of the lawsuit yesterday as he was surrounded by the presidents of the PBA and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodges 71 and 106, which represent corrections officers and superior officers.

"There's no winners or losers. We're all in this together," he said.

The decision to drop the suit ended a yearlong battle started by Joseph Amato, president of the PBA.

In e-mails and letters to his membership and to the media, Amato outlined the environmental problems at the jail weekly. Last month, the union sued in Superior Court.

The new jail, which will house 2,298 inmates and allow the county to close two facilities, one in Newark and the other in North Caldwell, was built on the site of a former chemical plant on Doremus Avenue in Newark's industrial section.

Although the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the site for construction because of the county's plans to cap contaminated soil, Amato pushed for more assurances, such as air- quality tests and an evacuation plan.

"We realized when we broke the case apart that the main issue was air quality," Amato said. "They were able to show us some documentation."

The evacuation plan, which is confidential, has been reviewed by Judge Klein, he said, eliminating another of the PBA's claims.

"Why fight after you have what you want?" Lieberman asked.

The fight over environmental safety may have ended, but another involving layoffs is brewing.

About 150 corrections officers will be laid off and another 40 will be demoted by March 15.

The unions are appealing the layoffs with the state, saying the 800,000-square-foot jail will be understaffed. The county's two current facilities combined have 722 employees. According to the jail administration and consultants hired by the county, the new jail will need just 523 employees.

All of the unions have argued that the county prematurely laid off corrections officers and should wait to see how the new jail operates before firing employees.

DiVincenzo has tried to address the unions' concerns by providing jobs through the state.

The state Department of Corrections has held two orientations with the officers to be laid off to discuss the intergovernmental transfer program, which allows civil service employees to move from one public job to another without losing their permanent status or pension benefits.

Nikita Stewart covers Newark City Hall. She can be reached at nstewart@starledger.com or (973) 392-1766.

Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger. Used by NJ.com with permission.