By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank’s council hired a new executive director for the borough redevelopment agency Wednesday night over objections based on her inclusion in a sexual harassment lawsuit.
The dispute highlighted competing interpretations of who should get the benefit of doubt in a so-called “me-too” case.
At the council’s regular session, conducted via Zoom, Holmdel township administrator Cherron Rountree won 3-2 approval as the agency’s new executive director at an annual salary of $15,000.
While keeping her Holmdel job, she’ll replace Ziad Shehady as agency executive director. In May, Shehady also vacated the job of borough business administrator, which is being filled on an interim basis by police Chief Darren McConnell.
Enroute to the vote, four commenters, including Councilman Michael Ballard and Democratic council candidate Jacqueline Sturdivant, invoked the #metoo movement as a reason not to approve the hiring. They cited Rountree’s status as a defendant in a three-year-old sexual harassment lawsuit pending in Union County.
The lawsuit, by Rahway employee Denise Rolong, targets former Rahway mayor Samson Steinman, accusing him of a three-year “campaign of relentless sexual harassment” of Rolong.
The suit alleges that Rountree, who was the city’s business administrator at the time, knew of Steinman’s romantic feelings toward Rolong and encouraged him to share them with Rolong.
In a June, 2018, answer to Rolong’s complaint, Rountree denied any knowledge of Steinman’s feelings toward Rolong or that she urged him to convey his feelings to her.
The case is slated to go to trial in Superior Court August 23. Here’s the complaint as amended in May, 2019: Rolong v. Rahway amended complaint
Rountree has not responded to questions emailed to her by redbankgreen in June and again Thursday morning.
As she did at the June 22 meeting, former council member Cindy Burnham said Rountree’s appointment should be halted – and the Redevelopment Agency should be abolished.
“This is a woman who was accused of enabling a sexual stalker,” Burnham said. “Why are we hiring someone that has this kind of record?”
“It’s not a ‘record,’ Ms. Burnham, it is an accusation against somebody else,” said Mayor Pasquale Menna. Rountree was included as a defendant “because she was an administrator to somebody above her that was the defendant,” he said.
“We’re not going to be involved in litigation. We are going to be acting on information that we have that’s been reviewed,” he said. “It is a personnel action, and that’s about the extent of it. Council members can vote yes or no on the recommendation. That’s it.”
Sturdivant, addressing the council for the first time since she beat incumbent Hazim Yassin in the Democratic primary in June, said she was “disappointed” by the appointment.
“I support the me-too movement, and also support women who come forward to share their experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination,” said the Prospect Avenue resident. With the trial just over a month away, “I think the council and also the town should know the outcome of this trial before putting someone in an executive-level position.”
Councilwoman Kate Triggiano, however, said the me-too movement was being misused in the argument.
Three of four claims in the original Rolong lawsuit against Rountree have been dropped, she said, adding that Rountree was “ancillary” to the case and “was not the one that perpetrated any sexual harassment.
“As a woman in the public sector, I have to say that people get dragged into these cases all the time, and we know that,” she said. “We really need to be careful when we’re throwing around these things, and it’s making me extremely uncomfortable.
“I would just like that rhetoric to stop. It’s not being used properly,” she said.
Marybeth Maida, of Branch Avenue, said “it’s not for us to decide” if the allegations have merit, but it is the duty of the council “to protect the reputation of the town and the sanctity of the people we put in these positions.”
“I’m not saying this woman did anything wrong. I have no idea,” she said. “But in 32 days, they’re going to have a trial” to determine if “the charges” have merit.
Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, though, called Rountree “a person of integrity.”
She said the objections appeared to reflect antipathy to the redevelopment agency itself, and “if that is the case, I find it so unfair that this woman should be kind of publicly flagellated because of something that she really has not been involved in.
“We’re listening to what everybody says,” Horgan said, “but we also know that this is the right person for the job.”
Sue Viscomi of Cedar Street asked if the borough would have any recourse if Rountree is found liable in the civil case.
Borough Attorney Greg Cannon said yes. He added that “this person is being covered” by Rahway’s insurance in the case, “which means that the punitive or tortious allegations against them have been deemed, at least by the insurer, to be not credible and to warrant coverage.”
He noted that McConnell “has been named in many lawsuits” in his main job as police chief, “so being named in a lawsuit is one thing, and if there’s adjudication, that’s another, but that’s not the case at this point in time.”
With Councilman Erik Yngstrom absent, the council approved the appointment by a 3-to-2 vote.
“I remember when #metoo was actually a thing,” said Ballard, before voting no. Councilman Ed Zipprich also voted no.
Rountree was hired in Holmdel in October, 2019, almost 16 months after Rolong filed her lawsuit. Under her contract with the township, Rountree is to be paid $730,000 over four years, at annual rates that started at $175,000 and rise to $190,000.
She had previously also worked as municipal administrator Eatontown.