By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank Councilman Michael Ballard on Thursday teed up borough cops for what he called “overagressive” treatment of his wife during an incident 24 hours earlier.
Speaking at Pilgrim Baptist Church for an online forum on systemic racism, Ballard, an African-American, also appeared to suggest he’d been treated unfairly by unnamed officials at borough hall in his role as finance chairman.
At the second of two events on police-community relations Thursday night, Ballard said that during the council workshop session conducted online Wednesday night, he was informed his wife, Rose Sestito, was being handcuffed and placed in a police car in front of their home, on East Bergen Place.
As council president, Ballard was chairing the Zoom meeting in the absence of Mayor Pasquale Menna.
“In that moment, I froze. I didn’t know what to do,” he said Thursday.
He said he walked outside and saw that his wife was indeed being taken into custody, but could not find out why. So he went back inside and “blurted out” to the online meeting that his wife was being arrested.
“And it became a meme,” he said.
The fuller story, he said at Thursday’s event, was that Sestito had gone outside “to try to calm a situation” in which a young relative was the subject of a traffic stop outside their house.
The reason for the stop, and the names of the motorist and officers involved have not been disclosed.
The young woman “had a very traumatic experience with this, and was crying, and crying and screaming for her aunt to stay with her,” Ballard said.
Sestito, he said, “felt that the Red Bank police officers were not being as compassionate as they could be, and felt they were a little overly aggressive.”
Sestito, who chairs the Parks & Rec committee and has worked in the past as a summer camp counselor, was being protective of the woman, Ballard said, citing her Italian heritage.
Sestito did not immediately respond to a redbankgreen request for an interview sent Friday morning. This post will be updated if she responds.
According to Ballard, “in her frustration, she said, and loudly, ‘I am tired of these Red Bank police officers disrespecting residents.'”
As she walked away, the police “grabbed her and handcuffed her and put her in the police car,” he said, calling the response “an act of overaggression.”
Sestito, he said, had been “maybe a little rude, but being rude is not against the law in the United States of America.”
Police Chief Darren McConnell told redbankgreen Thursday night that he could not comment on Ballard’s account, except to say that the matter was under review and that no charges had been filed against Sestito.
Ballard thanked Lieutenant Juan Sardo and McConnell for coming to the scene and “defusing the situation and removing my wife from the police car and the handcuffs and simmering down the situation which I felt should have been handled from the start.”
“We have a great police department, and we have great leadership” in McConnell and Sardo, he said. “But in that instance, it could have went very, very wrong.”
“My wife is white, so this was not a race thing,” said Ballard. “This was an issue where police did not take into account the situation, and used a ‘one size fits all because this is how I’m trained to do.'”
He said he’d subsequently had “a long talk” with McConnell and Mayor Pasquale Menna, “and we’re going to get through this together. There were no arrests, nothing came of it.”
Still he said, during the incident, wanting to protect his family, “I felt powerless. All the power was on the other side.”
At the church, Ballard also spoke about his excitement in winning election to the council in late 2017 and then being selected to head of the budget-setting finance committee.
It’s a position that in the past had been given leeway to select a new chief financial officer when a vacancy in the post came up, with full council approval, he said.
But in 2019, after the eleventh-hour firing of Eugenia Poulos created a vacancy, “suddenly the rules changed,” and “it now became the entire council’s charge to interview the candidates,” Ballard said.
“And not only that, it was also some of our department heads” in on the interviews, “and I’m like, why? Why are the rules changing now?”
He said his selection, Peter O’Reilly, was eventually approved by the council, “but not until after the rules changed.”
Ballard made no explicit mention of racism in the incident, nor did he identify who among his colleagues on the all-Democratic council led the decision to change the selection process.
“I say all this to say we will move forward, I will do my job,” and I will work with my fellow council members to move this town forward, but I will not be put down or stifled in what I was elected to do,” he said.
Ballard did not attend the evening’s earlier forum, hosted by borough officials and also conducted online. But he appeared to allude to it at the Pilgrim Baptist event, saying he had been “selected at the last minute to be a participant, but nobody reached out to me and asked me what I thought of our borough forum, and what I could add. It was just added without my consent, and I say why.”
Ballard did not respond to follow-up questions emailed to him by redbankgreen seeking elaboration late Thursday night on whether he believed racism was involved.
Ballard and Councilman Ed Zipprich are up for re-election in November. They, like the other four council members and the mayor, are Democrats.
Jonathan Maciel Penney and Brian Irwin have submitted petitions to run in the Republican primary, according to borough Clerk Pam Borghi.