Belleville police officers escort Board of Education trustee Erika Jacho to the back of a patrol vehicle after being arrested for DUI and other offenses on October 21, 2020.

By FF3, Leading Editor

Belleville Board of Education trustee Erika Jacho was found guilty last month of several misdemeanors related to an October 2020 motor vehicle incident. For the good of the community and to provide a lesson in accountability and personal responsibility to Belleville’s children, she should resign her seat.

Belleville school board trustee Erika Jacho addressed the community at the November 15th board of education meeting, stating she hadn’t been free to do so until after she had her “day in court.” She was referring to her October 2020 arrest in Belleville for, among other things, driving while intoxicated, failure to produce documents and failure to submit to a breathalyzer test. A municipal judge in Verona found Jacho guilty of those charges last month(cases involving elected officials, municipal employees, etc, are usually moved out of the town in which they serve, to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Jacho’s case was moved to Verona municipal court.)

She stressed her 30-plus years as a Belleville resident, her love of Belleville’s children — which she described as “infinite” — and her community service in parent-teacher associations and coaching baseball, among other activities. Finally, she apologized to the community, stating she hoped that what she termed her “mistake” would serve to help others “make a better choice.” Jacho said that “when we fail, we must fix it.” (Note: video of the meeting can be seen here; Jacho’s statement can be heard beginning at 1:46:43.)

Jacho’s statement might have been a genuine expression of regret for a simple lapse in judgment. That the facts of the incident, however, and Ms. Jacho’s explanations in court, however, tell a much different story.

The Incident

On the morning of October 21st, 2020 Belleville police officers encountered a vehicle parked and running in front of a Joralemon Street restaurant and partially blocking the eastbound lane. Pulling over and investigating, the officers found Jacho slumped over the steering wheel, apparently asleep. The officers spent several minutes attempting to wake Jacho.

From there, the encounter between Jacho and the officers went downhill fast. Police dashcam footage released to the public a few days after the incident (available here and here) self-evidently shows Jacho being uncooperative, verbally abusing the police, insisting they call a councilman and generally engaging in behavior consistent with intoxication. The officers seemed to exhibit much patience despite Jacho’s behavior, reasoning and sometimes pleading with her to cooperate and settle down.

Jacho later allegedly filed an excessive force complaint against the two Belleville officers, which apparently has not been withdrawn.

The Trial

On October 27th, after nearly a year of postponements, Jacho finally had her day in court. Verona municipal judge John Paparazzo found Jacho guilty of driving while intoxicated, failure to produce documents and failure to submit to a breathalyzer test. Remarking on the case before passing sentence, Paparazzo said he was shocked that Jacho didn’t face more serious charges, expressed confidence in the officers’ testimony and chided her for not attempting to take responsibility for her behavior. She faces more than $1,000 in fines and her license is suspended until she installs an ignition interlock device in her vehicle, which must remain active for 15 months.

The police officers’ stoic disposition and professionalism in bearing the brunt of Jacho’s irrational and abusive rantings should impress even the most vehement critic of law enforcement.

The trial (audio available here) lasted nearly four hours. It included testimony from Belleville police officers and an off-duty Kearny police officer who was in the restaurant and who came out to assist the officers. Jacho’s testimony occurred later in the trial, and included some rather bizarre explanations and answers, including:

  • that the whole incident was orchestrated to damage her politically (she was running for re-election to the school board, and actually won in the election two weeks later,) and involved a conspiracy with the Belleville officers, the Kearny officer, local media and apparently even Mayor Michael Melham and Michael Sheldon, another incumbent school board trustee running for re-election;
  • she claimed the smell of alcohol was on her breath could be explained by her using hand sanitizer the entire night while delivering campaign signs around town, and she was putting her mask on and off; and
  • she claimed she was not intoxicated but emotionally distraught over news that her son had withdrawn from college to work full-time (this was never mentioned on the video, and she admits she didn’t mention it to the officers because she didn’t want everyone knowing her personal business.

BOE Trustee Erika Jacho addressing the Belleville community at the Nov.15 Board of Education meeting

Perjury and Lack of Charges of Resisting Arrest

The Observer, a Kearny-based newspaper covering Kearny, North Arlington, Lyndhurst, East Newark and Nutley as well as Belleville, recently published a pointed editorial about Jacho’s testimony. With justification, the editorial labels some of her testimony “perjury.”

Another question some are asking in the trial’s aftermath is why Jacho escaped resisting arrest charges. The video clearly shows she was uncooperative and officers can be heard several times warning her to “stop resisting.” Belleville Watch contacted Belleville municipal prosecutor Krenar Camili for comment; Mr. Camili replied that because the case was removed from Belleville’s jurisdiction he was not involved in filing charges. A call to Verona prosecutor Brian Mason went un-retuned by press time.

Jacho Should Resign, For The Good Of Belleville

Jacho’s statement of remorse at the November 15th school board meeting would have been more appropriate had she cooperated with the police on October 21st, 2020, had actually taken responsibility for her actions and dropped her complaint against the officers. Her behavior with the police officers involved, her unreasonable and convoluted explanations for most every aspect of what happened that evening and her refusal even at trial to take responsibility for her behavior makes remote the possibility of this being a simple mistake.

Jacho has given generously of her time and energy in community service to Belleville, especially to its children. Jacho voluntarily resigning would impart to children a critical lesson: bad choices carry consequences and we must be held accountable for them, no matter how remorseful we may be.

Taking all this into account, and keeping in mind Jacho’s professed belief that “when we fail, we must fix it” and her undeniable service to the Belleville community and its children, Jacho should be willing to offer a good example of accountability and true remorse for her actions by resigning her seat on the Belleville Board of Education.

This suggestion is not offered flippantly or lightly; if Jacho is truly interested in making amends, a good way to do so would be to consider the community good. Residents value political candidates who are passionate about service and are competent to fulfill the office’s duties; however, they also want someone who demonstrates personal virtue. Understanding that — apart from her poor choice to drive intoxicated or under emotional duress or both — her behavior while police investigated, placed her under arrest and her refusal to take responsibility before or during trial has broken the trust voters implicitly gave her when they voted her into office. Belleville may well forgive her, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for her to continue representing Belleville in elected office.

At the very least, she should consider the example she can set for Belleville’s children. Children need to know that there are consequences for bad actions, and outside the penalties the law prescribes, there is personal integrity, and that it sometimes demands we give up positions of trust or authority when we have violated the public trust.

Jacho’s work as a community volunteer is well-known and storied in local civic and educational organizations, and she should continue in those capacities. It’s not to say she should never run for public office again; there is room for redemption for those who don’t habitually violate the public trust and show remorse and work to make amends. But for the community good, she should forfeit the rest of her current school board trustee term and work on restoring the public’s trust.

The Belleville Board of Education as a governing body has no authority to remove Jacho from her seat; Jacho was found guilty only of misdemeanors, therefore the board is prevented from voting to remove her. The board cannot even pass a resolution censuring Jacho; board attorney Jonathan Busch stated as much at the November 15th meeting. So since the school board’s hands are tied, the only two ways Jacho could be relieved of her seat would be by a recall election (expensive and rarely successful) or if she decides to voluntarily resign.

A vacant seat on the board of education isn’t without its own dangers. In recent years, Belleville has seen a resurgence of campaign activity that smacks of political bosses and machines — something many Belleville residents had hoped we’d seen the last of in the early 2010s. It’s conceivable that these certain parties may use its influence to install an interim school board member sympathetic to its agenda. Such an arrangement would undoubtedly harm the community good; nevertheless, we must first address the community harm arising from Jacho’s behavior on October 21, 2020 and again during her trial last month.

Belleville Watch calls upon school board trustee Erika Jacho to voluntarily resign her seat and return to community service in other ways, as a means to uphold the community good.

Editor’s Note: Belleville Watch did reach out to Ms. Jacho for comment, but did not receive a reply.