IRVINGTON, NJ — Irvington Municipal Council Vice President Renee Burgess’ criminal harassment complaint against Elouise McDaniel, president of the Irvington Joint Block Association Coalition and Nesbit Terrace Block Association, came to an end in Newark Municipal Court on Friday, May 18, with McDaniel pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and paying a $180 fine. All parties received directions from the court to avoid future incidents by limiting their interaction as much as possible.
“It didn’t even take 10 minutes. The judge didn’t even speak,” said McDaniel on Tuesday, May 22. “If they wanted me to say I got a little loud, then that’s OK. I said maybe I did raise my voice. I’m not the only one that talks loud in there. People get upset about what’s going on in this town.”
McDaniel’s attorney, John Underwood of Cherry Hill, could not be reached for comment about his client pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge by press time this week. McDaniel said, now that the case is finished, she’s free to discuss it.
“Really, my attorney said it’s dismissed,” McDaniel said. “There’s nothing on my record. I can go to any council meetings or public meetings. They can’t take away my rights.”
Burgess, who was represented by a prosecutor from the Newark Superior Court, had a different take on the results of the court appearance.
“The judge issued a no contact order. She cannot be anywhere around me,” said Burgess on Monday, May 21. “These days, you cannot be too careful with all the threats that are circulating around in our society. People are getting killed on behalf of erratic behavior. This particular day, Ms. McDaniel was totally out of character, with her hand gestures and the way she charged up toward me, yelling obscenities. Did I feel threatened? Yes. When someone approaches you in that manner, you’re either going to be forced to defend yourself or try to deflect yourself from the situation, as I did. I remained calm … stayed seated until she was accompanied out of the chambers. I filed a complaint and justice was served.”
Allison Morris said she accompanied McDaniel to the hearing and her version of the proceedings differs from Burgess and supports McDaniel’s take on the whole situation. Morris had joined McDaniel in an unsuccessful attempt to get on the ballot for the municipal election on Tuesday, May 8, but the two fell short of the required number of signatures on their nominating petitions.
“It’s a misdemeanor. It’s equivalent to a fine for disturbing the peace. No restraining order at all,” said Morris on Tuesday, May 22. “The way the lawyer explained it is that it’s equivalent to if you walked your dog and it pooped and you didn’t pick it up and you got fined. There’s nothing in her record. If you go and do a search on Ms. McDaniel, nothing would come up.”
Morris also said she wants to dispel the idea that a no contact order regarding Burgess was imposed on McDaniel by the Newark Superior Court.
“If you get the court records, you can see that they said no eye contact or intimidating behavior, but that’s on both of them. The prosecutor said Ms. Burgess has to stay away from Ms. McDaniel, too. They said that they know that there are council meetings and they are going to be at the council meetings together, but there should be no eye contact and no confrontations from either of them,” Morris said. “She can come to council meetings. She’s not banned from coming to council meetings at all. She’s free to carry on everything that she was doing before, just no eye contact or confrontation for either of them.”
The court appearance was the final installment in a legal issue that began after Burgess accused McDaniel of harassing her at the Irvington Municipal Council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. Burgess filed a formal complaint with the police Monday, Dec. 18, and they had their first court date in the Irvington Municipal Court on Friday, Jan. 12.
When Burgess and McDaniel showed up at the Irvington Municipal Court in Civic Square on Friday, Jan. 12, they were told the case had been moved to Newark Superior Court, likely to avoid any perceptions of bias, because Burgess is a sitting councilwoman.
During their first court appearance on Thursday, Feb. 22, Burgess reportedly announced that police security video footage of the alleged incident existed and the presiding judge ordered her to produce it and enter it into evidence by the next hearing. A second hearing was held Tuesday, March 20, but Burgess and McDaniel said it was not resolved that day and they had to go back to court.
According to McDaniel and Morris, a third court appearance was scheduled for after the municipal election on Tuesday, May 8, which was not a coincidence.
“Miss Burgess was the one that contacted Miss McDaniel’s lawyer through the prosecutor,” Morris alleged. “They just wanted to keep this going until the election was over, because they knew it was silly. The election is over, we get a call.”
McDaniel agreed that politics inspired Burgess to file the harassment complaint against her in the first place.
“I knew that, right after this election, they were going to dismiss the charges against me,” McDaniel said. “It was all about politics. The prosecutor scolded Renee Burgess that I am allowed to exercise my rights. The prosecutor told her she’s not to come anywhere near me.”
Burgess, however, disagreed.
“I believe in freedom of speech. I also believe town council meetings are meant for our residents to come out and share their concerns and suggestions. However, there are one or two for years that have taken this privilege to verbally abuse and intimidate some with lies and deceit for their own personal gain,” said Burgess.
“It was a long process, because the defendant deceived the courts, having them think that she had about 12 witnesses from a well-known civil rights group based in Irvington. It wasn’t until a videotape was given as evidence, proving who was present at the meeting, as well as showing the actions of Ms. McDaniel that night. Again, justice was served and a lesson was learned.”
Morris and McDaniel disagreed.
“There was no group of 12 people. I don’t know what she is talking about with that. I was there at that meeting on Dec. 12 last year,” said Morris. “There was a meeting going on and Ms. Burgess closed it in like six to eight minutes. How can someone up on the raised dais platform that is removed from the audience behind a fence feel threatened by an 80-year-old woman? There was no escorting anyone out of the meeting. There was no audio to the video. There was no obscenities. The video has no audio. It just has people moving around the room.”
When it comes to the video recording that Burgess, McDaniel and Morris referred to, township clerk Harold Wiener said a security tape does exist, but not one recorded by his office.
“We don’t videotape the meetings,” said Wiener on Tuesday, Jan. 2. “There are security cameras in there … for security reasons only.
According to Wiener, the meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 12, was much shorter than McDaniel and others in the audience that night were probably accustomed. Council President David Lyons was not present at that meeting, so Burgess served as acting president and ran the meeting.
“The meeting adjourned at 8:07 p.m. It started at 8 p.m., so it was seven minutes long. There was no public participation,” said Wiener. “There were 35 resolutions total; 32 were on the consent agenda, two were on the non-consent agenda and one was a walk-on that got defeated because it only had four affirmative votes and, according to law, it needs five super affirmative votes to pass. There were three resolutions that weren’t on the consent agenda. They took three roll call votes. Two members were absent. Council member Cox and council member Lyons were absent.”
Morris said McDaniel was willing to go to trial regarding Burgess’ harassment complaint, but the Newark Superior Court prosecutor offered her lawyer a deal too good to pass up.
“The witnesses were subpoenaed and Ms. McDaniel was 100 percent ready to go to trial.”
Morris said she told McDaniel she “would not mind having the title of disturbing the peace in Irvington, because the peace needs to be disturbed. … Someone has to do it.”