Seldom is a candidate so fatally flawed that his potential rejection by voters poses a threat to the organizational allies who are on the regular political organization line with him.
New Jersey’s rigged primary ballots have been widely criticized for giving unfair advantages to party insiders but Roselle Councilman Brandon Bernier is running for a second term with such a miserable record that political observers believe he could drag down the entire Column A slate.
Bernier has sought to deflect his responsibility as finance committee chair for a scathing state report that found Roselle missed opportunities to save $1.9 million on employee health insurance benefits and made improper payments of about $800,000 for insurance premiums.
A glaring conflict of interest hangs over Bernier, whose aunt, Celeste Sitarski, is a DPW employee collecting $70,000 salary while on paid leave as her second lawsuit makes its way through the courts after she won $200,000 from a previous legal case against taxpayers for essentially the same issues.
Former school board member Anthony Esposito is the campaign manager for both Bernier and Councilman John Fortuna, who each voted to settle a lawsuit filed by Esposito for $10,000.
Critics are asking if there are deals behind Bernier and Fortuna seeming to reward political supporters and friends with cozy lawsuit settlements.
Bernier is also under fire and the target of a civil rights and defamation lawsuit that was filed by a borough volunteer who he forced off the library board and falsely accused of scurrilous behavior because he wanted to exploit a political opportunity.
Critics say Bernier should not be the finance committee chairman because he is not even a taxpayer, since the 29-year-old councilman lives in the basement of his parent’s home at 430 East Sixth Avenue.
But despite those arguments, he is in charge of the finance committee, which cut the jobs of dozens of municipal employees when it eviscerated the recreation department during the Covid-19 crisis. Money was shifted from those programs and salaries to grant pay hikes to a number of lawyers that have contracts, which some say are used to kickback political contributions that are funding campaigns for Bernier, Fortuna and others.
Those lawyers–like the newly hired business administrator and CFO who was given a $20,000 pay hike– do not live in town despite having the highest salaries in the borough.
Adrienne Williams, a volunteer who served on the library board for at least five years, was accused by Bernier of malfeasance at a public meeting. Those claims are false, and Williams said she has never met Bernier nor has he attended any library board meetings or other events.
The councilman’s credibility cannot compare to that of Williams, a lifelong resident of Roselle, a distinguished educator in the Teaneck school system and a valuable volunteer who has been recognized for her service to the community.
Williams has filed a lawsuit against Bernier, Fortuna and Councilwoman Denise Wilkerson, alleging that her reputation was damaged and her rights violated.
He is trying to cover-up for Roselle Public Library Director Jeanne Ryan who has ignored flooding issues, allowed the facility to remain closed, mismanaged funds and caused low morale among employees and users.
Bernier’s way of resolving this was to attack critics who were trying to bring issues to light so they could be solved and then selling off the facility to the Union County Improvement Authority, which would saddled taxpayers with an additional $7.5 million in debt.
That would cost homeowners $480,000 annually to lease the library they currently own over the next 20 years.
Observers say they expect the case be decided in favor of Williams because Bernier has a history of being disrespectful to women and Black people.
Abusive incidents that have been cited as examples include those pertaining to Kathy Lloyd, who was fired as a public information official; Councilwoman Cynthia Johnson, who was sent offensive emails by the CFO; Sylvia Turnage, who was berated by the councilman at public meetings and on Facebook; and Karen Brown, an attorney who was forced out of her job when she counseled against illegal budget transfers.
Bernier also accused Mayor Donald Shaw of financial chicanery and having a criminal record while he was employed as the borough’s recreation director.
Bernier falsely claimed he saved taxpayers $2 million by switching to the state employee health benefits program while public worker unions are likely to soon discover that they are going to be afforded less quality and higher co-pays than they might have secured with a more professional approach.
Critics believe Bernier, Fortuna and Wilkerson were guided into opting for the state plan by advisers who stood to profit from the ‘easiest choice’ rather than investing the effort into finding the best and most affordable option.
Bernier was also head of the technology committee that failed to prevent a cyber attack, which threatened to expose confidential data and resulted in costly damage to the borough’s computer network.
The borough has never fully recovered from the 2019 computer hack, but Bernier’s technology committee has never explained how it happened and what is being done to ensure that the community does not fall victim again despite the catastrophic risk.
These glaring ethical conflicts, computer hacks, financial mismanagement and the councilman’s ‘Proud Boy’ mentality are among a litany of complaints that residents believe make Bernier particularly vulnerable in the upcoming Democratic primary election on June 8, when he is being challenged by a popular and widely respected Roselle educator, Lisa Palin.
Palin, who is president of the Union County Education Association, is a respected leader in the community who has been employed in the local school district for 23 years and is a lifelong borough resident.