Hamilton Township council has not given an indication it will take any action during its May 7 meeting, following the announcement last week that criminal charges have been filed against a high-ranking official in the township administration.
But the procedures are in place for council to begin removing Jeff Plunkett, the township’s longtime health officer, should council so wish.
The township wound up in this position after Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri announced May 3 that Plunkett, 62, and Todd Bencivengo, 56, each had been charged with two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and one count of second-degree official misconduct. Bencivengo retired recently after serving for years as the supervisor of the Hamilton Township Animal Shelter. Plunkett serves the Hamilton Township health officer and the director of the township Department of Health, Recreation, Senior and Veterans Services.
According to a press release from the prosecutor’s office, the Humane Law Enforcement Unit began an investigation in August 2018 after two complaints were referred to the office by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. The investigation revealed that between January 1, 2016 and October 1, 2018, approximately 236 cats and 93 dogs were euthanized before the waiting period required by state law. Shelters must hold animals or offering them for adoption for at least seven days.
While the HLEU’s investigation of the animal shelter uncovered multiple examples of mismanagement, there was insufficient evidence to establish any additional criminal charges. Any administrative aspects of the investigation are being handled by the Hamilton Township Council.
Bencivengo and Plunkett are scheduled to appear in Mercer County Superior Court on Tuesday, May 21.
The council’s three Democratic members—president Jeff Martin, vice president Rick Tighe and councilman Anthony Carabelli, Jr.—issued a statement following the May 3 announcement.
“Today is a sad day for Hamilton Township,” the statement read. “Council, along with the shelter investigation subcommittee, are reviewing the charges and information brought to light by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and will take all appropriate steps after completing their review. Our goal remains the same: to have a shelter which treats all animals humanely.”
No business relating to the animal shelter appears on the agenda for the council meeting scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the municipal building. This includes no update on the investigation into the animal shelter initiated by council. Led by Tighe and Republican Ileana Schirmer for nearly a year, the investigation does have not a timeline for completion. Council also has not given a hint on how the May 3 news might affect the investigation.
But, regardless of the status of the investigation, members of the public surely will press for more information during the May 7 meeting. And state law does technically allow for council to take steps to remove Plunkett from his position now that charges have been filed.
According to state statute, Hamilton Township council, acting as the local board of health, must first receive the charges against the health officer in writing. Then, it may set a time for a formal hearing against Plunkett. Plunkett also must receive a written copy of the charges and a written notice of the time and place of the hearing at least 20 days prior to the hearing. So, even if council initiates the process tomorrow, the 20-day waiting period would delay any potential decision on Plunkett’s status until after his May 21 court date.
Only after a hearing that included formal witnesses and evidence would council be legally allowed to remove or demote Plunkett. Statutes say that no health officer who holds a state license and has served more than five consecutive years can be removed from the position without a public hearing. Plunkett has served as township health officer since 1995.
This article has been changed since its initial publication.