WEST MILFORD — The township's Department of Public Works director, Carlos Luaces, has been placed on administrative leave with pay, pending an investigation into allegations he killed baby birds in their nest with pesticides at the DPW building and "other issues," according to Mayor Bettina Bieri.
Luaces, who was hired in April, was placed on administrative leave on Friday afternoon, Aug. 7.
Bieri said she had heard a rumor on Monday that Luaces had killed the baby birds; she contacted the township Administrator Ken Gabbert to determine if the rumor was true.
"The residents of West Milford know that I am and have been an advocate for animal welfare all my life," said Bieri in a statement after being contacted by The Messenger. "I have held leadership roles in the West Milford animal shelter for over 22 years. You can imagine my absolute shock when I heard a rumor on Monday that the newly hired DPW director had killed baby birds in their nest with pesticide. I immediately contacted the Township Administrator in an effort to determine if there was any truth to these allegations. I commend the members of the West Milford Police Department, the SPCA and the staff at DPW who are conducting and contributing to this thorough investigation."
Bieri confirmed Luaces was escorted off township property by Gabbert, as per standard procedure.
"With any employee that has township keys, codes, cell phone, etc. to return, as well as personal belongings he/she may wish to remove, Mr. Luaces was accompanied during that process, in this case by the township administrator," said Bieri.
Bieri said she could not comment on what the "other issues" are concerning the DPW head.
The investigationThe investigation into the dead birds and "other issues" mentioned by the mayor is being done by the West Milford police and the Passaic County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In addition, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is investigating the unlicensed use of pesticides. According to the DEP, certification is required for anyone working for municipalities or businesses who spray pesticides.
A recent retiree, Bill Messmer, was the only person on the township staff with the 5B license required to spray pesticides.
"It deeply saddens me that there may be any truth to these allegations," said Bieri in her statement. "This matter will be properly investigated and, if applicable, adjudicated in the courts and I remind everyone that the judicial process considers Mr. Luaces to be innocent until proven guilty."
"Horrific" allegationsStill, Bieri considered the allegations "horrific" and took action.
"Nonetheless, based on these horrific allegations and other issues that have been brought to my attention in the course of this investigation, I immediately sought to protect the DPW employees, township residents and, of course, our beloved animals and therefore I instructed the township administrator to suspend Mr. Luaces effective immediately."
Bieri appointed Luaces to the position with the consent of the township council on April 1, 2015. The interview committee unanimously supported Luaces, according to Bieri at the time. He was on the job the very next day. His agreement calls for a review at six months.
Luaces, who is being paid $80,000 yearly, lives in Byram. He worked in Scotch Plains as director of Public Property for 13 months prior to taking the job in West Milford. Before that, he worked in sales for a construction materials company. Luaces served as a councilman for the township of Byram for two years, from 2012 to 2014. He ran for mayor in 2013 but lost.
Luaces did not return a message left at his home.
This article has been updated.