Toms River will not allow the towing company accused of wrongfully removing cars from Seaside Heights following Superstorm Sandy to tow for the municipality.
APK Towing and Auto Repair, based in Toms River, was accused of taking cars from private property in Seaside Heights and price gouging following the October 2012 storm. While not held at fault, a settlement reached in January with the state Division of Consumer affairs ordered those who had their vehicles towed by APK to be reimbursed.
Michael Botton, the attorney representing APK, asked why the council on Tuesday night declined approval to grant one of five available licenses to his client, since he said that the company met all of the requirements put forth in the township towing ordinance and was in "complete compliance."
"[APK has] been cleared of all allegations by the [Ocean County] Prosecutor's Office and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. This council should approve their application because their application is in compliance with the ordinance," Botton said.
"Thank you for your comments. We don't agree," Council President George Wittmann told Botton.
The Toms River Police Department performs checks on each of the applicants. Cpl. Thomas Leach said that "the issue with APK stems from the interactions with customers during the storm."
Township attorney Kenneth Fitzsimmons said that residents had been to previous Toms River council meetings to "report on the actions of APK."
"Your company didn't perform well and we didn't want a company like that being retained by the township of Toms River," he said.
Three-year licenses were awarded to Accurate Towing and Priced Rite Towing. A conditional license was awarded to Freedom Towing and Recovery granted they improve signage on their vehicles. APK and Grone's Wrecker Service were denied.
"Eligibility is conditioned on a number of criteria, many of which relate to equipment standards," said Anthony Merlino, assistant township attorney in Toms River, in an email to Patch last week. The township code for towing licenses, updated in September of 2012, "now provides that fraudulent or illegal activity of any kind is a ground for rejection. All of these factors were taken into account in the review of the five applications.
"However, I can state that APK's actions following Hurricane Sandy weighed heavily in the ultimate decision," Merlino said.
Botton said in a statement last week that his clients have proven they are "qualified" for the job, having passed four separate inspections to obtain the license since applying in February 2012.
"My clients are confident that if their experience, qualifications and proven willingness to meet the township’s standards are reviewed in a fair manner by the Township Council, they will obtain a township license for towing along with any and all other qualified companies that have submitted a bid," said Michael Botton, the attorney representing APK owners Matthew Zucaro and Jason McGee.
Botton said Tuesday night that there is no litigation pending in Seaside Heights, though last week he indicated that APK has filed a Notice of Claim against the borough.
Botton has said that his clients did nothing wrong and were following instructions from a Seaside Heights official when Sandy hit.
"On the date of the hurricane, my clients were instructed, specifically by James Samarelli, Coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management, to remove every vehicle off of the island, no matter where it was, and to bill the owner for the service,"
In January, a settlement was reached between APK and the state Division of Consumer Affairs, under which the owners of the about 50 unclaimed vehicles and watercraft in APK's possession were given 21 days to claim their items before they are sold by the state for scrap. The proceeds from those sales will be used to reimburse the vehicle owners who had paid APK to retrieve their property prior a November 2012 agreement.
That initial agreement allowed for the return of more than 70 vehicles and watercraft to their registered owners at no charge. But some had already paid APK "significant sums" to reclaim their property before the agreement between APK and the state was reached, according to the Division of Consumer Affairs. The agency said that is likely the unclaimed items were left by owners because they were damaged beyond repair and were covered by the owners' insurance.
Also under the settlement, APK was assessed $15,669 for the state’s investigative costs, a fee that is suspended and will be vacated after one year, but will become payable if APK fails to comply with the settlement terms, officials have said.