Best of Times… Times of Best

No night, no event brings together NJ State PBA members quite like the Valor Awards. The celebration continues to grow because of the unparalleled work members do each and every day.

Responses and achievements honored this year only started with three members from Monmouth County taking out a longtime criminal firing at them and using a baby as a human shield. They included preventing bad actors from harming masses of people, civilians working with law enforcement to save lives, daring rescues amid the floods of Hurricane Ida and the lifetime achievements of two longtime and revered PBA servants.

Stories by Mitchell Krugel, Esther Gonzales, Brittany Krugel, Dan Campana and Hinaa Noor

Photos by Ed Carattini Jr.

United they stand

Unity of Bergenfield Local 309 members enables them to fight the good fight

Somebody had to say a few words. This was one of those moments when the NSPBA could emphasize one of its most emphatic and empathetic messages.

A packed Seminole Ballroom at the Hard Rock Casino and Resort enthusiastically awaited some tidbits from Bergenfield Local 309 members about the fight that had brought them to the podium at the Valor Awards. So Local 309 State Delegate Rob Mader stepped back and let President Dave Tortora comment about how they stood up to a repugnant borough administrator, withstood numerous court challenges and endured PERC hearings.

Tortora didn’t want to step up to the microphone and wax philosophically about prevailing in a marathon contact negotiation that still rages on. But he was Mickey Ward for this Local.

He delivered a short, inspiring, unforgettable statement that showcased how he was every bit The Fighter. He avowed how the unity among members was the primary reason — perhaps the only reason — Local 309 made it through this ordeal and confirmed what PBA President Pat Colligan declared when presenting them the 2022 Local of the Year award.

“Pat is like, ‘OK, who’s going to speak?’ I didn’t even think of something in my head to say. I can’t even tell you what I said because I just said it,” Tortora recalled a few days later about his moment at the podium. He didn’t need to put his head to the matter, though, because what needed to be said about how a Local stands this steadfast, this strong truly comes from the heart.

“When you’re trying to fight a town or fight for something, if you don’t have that cohesion, or if people don’t stick together, you’re really screwed,” Tortora articulated when reviewing the Local 309 journey after stepping out of the Seminole spotlight.

When Mader received the letter from the PBA informing Bergenfield that it had been chosen Local of the Year, he had one of those “What did we do to deserve this?” reactions. He even
called Bergen County Conference Chair Vinny Rizzo to see what he knew.

And after some processing, Mader seemed to pinpoint what has made Local 309 worthy.

“We tried to make the members understand what was happening, and then we gave it to them: We can concede, or we can continue to fight,” Mader reported. “And the members were for
fighting because they believed we were right.”

This desire to fight bubbled up all the way to the state PBA. Colligan had met the Bergenfield business administrator a few years ago at a conference. He even asked the PBA president for
help working with the Local to resolve some contract issues.

But the BA turned out to be full of BS. According to Tortora, the BA is known for talking out of both sides of his mouth.

“You can’t take this business personal, and he made it personal,” Colligan related. “Bergenfield is fighting every step of the way, and when it was time to pick the Local of the Year, I thought what’s better than members who have stayed in the fight for their survival?”

The BA tried to divide and conquer the Local, but the 309 members weren’t having it. Tortora knew he had to take the bullets, and his standing up to the BA apparently has cost him a chance at promotion.

But he didn’t care about that. When the contract went to mediation and arbitration, the members dug in on their position, and the Local president carried their water to make sure they got a fair shake with the courts and PERC and didn’t bow down to the BA.

“Most of the time, the town is what helped unify us because they would do f—ed up stuff,” Tortora explained. “We always made sure to be honest with the members about what was
happening, making sure, ‘Hey, you know X, Y and Z. We’re in this. We have a purpose.’”

As the fight worked its way through the courts and PERC, Mader noted how the state PBA became a valuable resource to ensure Local 309 did not get tripped up. He was able to run all the information past Labor Relations Coordinator Mike Freeman to help avoid making any wrong choices. And Colligan was formidable with text messages he sent to the BA reinforcing the Local’s position.

“If Pat had the chance to talk with the guy and say, ‘Listen, you’re wrong,’ he did,” Mader revealed. “I realize that there are Locals that have gone through the same issues or different cases and fought it. We learned that there’s plenty of people to talk to. There’s great knowledge there, and if you need something, just speak up.”

Tortora described how the town and the BA tried to prolong the ordeal in a game of financial chicken. Apparently, he continues to make every challenge he can to the contract Local 309 is battling for in attempt to try to bankrupt them.

Some members are still stuck at the step they came out of the academy at. But the wherewithal of Local 309 to not cave just to get a pay raise amplified their unity. During the court filings and arbitrations, the BA has tried to pick apart even the punctuation of contract language.

But as PERC has sided with the Local on nearly every challenge, Local 309 members have gained even more resolve. When those in the Seminole Ballroom applauded, it sent a message back to the Local to never give up.

“I feel the fight will always continue until the borough administrator is gone,” Tortora declared. “But when there was the fight to be had, I said to our members, ‘Are we going to lay down or are we going to take it all the way?’ They know there’s an opportunity here, and they are up for the fight.”

Mader and Tortora were quick to give their members all the credit for suffering through the fight. They are the ones, Tortora added, who have muscled through this.

And that’s what Colligan put his finger on when sharing the thought process that led to choosing Bergenfield as the Local of the Year.

“It’s a lesson that all of us have learned,” the PBA president confirmed. “When you let them divide the Local and split you off one by one, you are never going to win. Their battle is not over yet. But they have shown they are in it for the long term. And we have to applaud their fight.”

Though Tortora did not remember exactly what he said on the podium, Colligan indicated everybody got the message when the Local 309 president sent up the Greek saying: Ní neart go cur le chéile.

Translation: “There’s no strength without unity.”

The words to remember.

One for All

Kimiiko Woods has worked her entire PBA lifetime to be the consummate member

Even before the 2022 Valor Awards officially started, a buzz circulated in and around the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino’s Seminole Ballroom, where the event was being held. Apparently, the news that Irvington Local 29 State Delegate Kimiiko Woods had been named PBA Member of the Year had started making the rounds.

Fellow State Delegates stopped their conversations at the pre-awards reception to give Woods a congratulatory hug. Everybody who knows Woods — and that was pretty much everybody there— seemed to want to share in this event that shed a glorious light on the Valor Awards.

The good times continued to roll throughout the night. Woods seemingly could not grab a bite of her dinner without somebody wishing her well. But then, that will happen when you have made the type of impact and cast the caliber of contribution on the PBA as Kimiiko Woods.

Being selected Member of the Year did not seem like an honor just for what Woods contributed in 2022. More like a PBA lifetime achievement award for what she has done for almost 25 years as
a Local 29 member.

“It started out as a challenge, because I really did not know all of the responsibilities of being a State Delegate,” explained Woods, who has served Irvington in that role for 11 years. “Over the years, I had great mentors that I was able to work with, and it helped me navigate my way through becoming a delegate. I learned both on and off the job what it entails, and it’s being a service to my colleagues, being there to help them and assist them however I can. And it’s been something that has been gratifying for me, to be able to help others.”

When PBA President Patrick Colligan presented Woods with the PBA Member of the Year Award, he described her as someone who never says no. Nobody can really remember her doing so when
she was asked to step up for the PBA and law enforcement officers in general.

Some officers get out of bed every day and go out on the job to make a living, but Woods gets out of bed every day and lives to make a difference.

“I enjoy what I do. Sometimes it’s challenging, the time that we put in, because it’s all voluntary,” Woods commented. “I enjoy being a delegate, helping others and striving for whatever it takes to better our profession.”

If you had told Woods 24 1/2 years ago that her career would soar to these heights, she might not have known what was in store for her. There can be a lot of stress that comes with working at that higher level, taking care of hundreds of officers while navigating the ins and outs of the PBA. But it’s those at the higher level who inspire Woods the most.

“If you really want this organization to be successful, people have to put in the work. And for those of us that are dedicated to moving forward, being progressive and seeing our profession blossom into something more than what it is, it’s about doing the work. And we work together to get the job done.”

Hard work, dedication and inspiration from others have gotten Woods to where she is today. You can tell that Woods, like others, doesn’t think she deserves all of the spotlight, but she does believe nights like this are pivotal for law enforcement.

“It’s important for officers to understand that they … make a difference,” she said. “The profession, it is a business, and we are professionals, and it is about serving our communities and letting people know that we are here for them.”

After 24-plus years, you would think Woods would be looking at retirement, but she hasn’t slowed down a bit. Still, what’s on deck for her when she is ready to hand over her badge?

“I’d like to do more traveling. I want to engage in entrepreneurship. But I just, right now, the sky’s the limit,” she said. “I don’t want to book myself as saying one thing over another, because whatever God has in store for me in the future, I’m open to it. I welcome the challenge.”

There’s that word again, challenge. A challenge doesn’t scare most officers, but it especially doesn’t scare Kimiiko Woods. In fact, it’s overcoming challenges that got her to where she was on that stage at the Valor Awards.

And more than the challenges, Woods says the best part of her time on the job has been the people she’s met along the way.

“We’ve become family, and that’s something that no one can ever take away,” Woods emphasized. “That is the greatest part of being in the PBA, being a delegate, being involved, as I have. It’s the friendships that I have made over the years.”

Like Mike 

Whenever the PBA called, Mike Heller was always there to answer

Always there. Instantly dependable. Incredibly involved.

NJSPBA President Pat Colligan oozed such superlatives to describe Mike Heller, shortly after
he was honored as 2022 NJSPBA Executive Board Member of the Year. When Colligan heard Heller was retiring in September 2022, he said it was a hard pill to swallow. But awarding this high honor to Heller seemed like a fitting tribute for the man who helped Colligan in numerous ways when he transitioned to the presidency in 2014.

“Sometimes you just think that somebody’s never going to retire, and then you get word that they’re leaving, and it’s a hit,” Colligan noted as he enjoyed the post– Valor Awards revelry. “And Mike was one of those guys. So when it came time to pick, it had to be Mike Heller.”

Reflecting on receiving this prestigious honor, Heller related just how elated he was to have been chosen out of so many equally dedicated executive board members he has served with. He recently retired as the PBA’s 8th vice president, one of the first board members Colligan appointed when he became president.

“I’m very proud of it all,” Heller remarked. “All the guys, all the delegates and executive board members that are on the board, are all deserving of this award. So to be picked by them to represent the board is very special. It means a lot to me.”

As an executive board member, Union County Conference chair and as the Union County Sheriff’s Officers Local 108 State Delegate, Heller became widely known for his words of advice and rich wisdom from his years of experience on the job. And that is one part of not having Heller around that Colligan admitted he would miss the most.

“Mike always had a word of encouragement,” Colligan related. “He is very knowledgeable about the PBA bylaws and about all of our rules. He was a guy that you knew would corral the masses and get them to meetings or get them to do something for the Union County Conference. That’s why I could always depend on him.”

Most recently, Heller served on the NJSPBA New Delegates Committee. He welcomed the opportunity to train new delegates with open arms. Heller often became a go-to person to help them with their contract negotiations and disciplinaries.

And then there were times he offered continuous support for members during numerous traumatic events they faced, such as shootings or line-of-duty deaths.

“They all have my cellphone number, and I’m always there to help out,” Heller explained. “I’ll give tips, give out advice — what worked for me and what might work for them. And then direct them to somebody who has dealt with the issues they’re dealing with.”

Over the years, Heller looked forward to assisting new delegates and other PBA members, whether through his work with the State PBA Peer Liaison Committee or the county conference. He always looked forward to serving as a mentor.

“To me, it’s fun, and I actually enjoy it,” Heller remarked. “It’s a different side of the job. And it feels really good to guide people and to help people by giving advice, and even receiving advice also. Being on the job so long, you’ve got to be open to taking advice as well as giving it.”

One of those times when Heller was indeed open to receiving the same kind of support that he always seemed to so generously give came this year, when there was a sudden death of a Local 108 member. Heller commended his brothers and sisters in law enforcement, who provided comfort at a time he needed it most and at a time of great distress for other Local 108 members. And that is not something he takes for granted.

“A lot of guys from the peer committee and around the state that came in actually helped me out,” Heller revealed. “It helped me and my department get through a traumatic event, and that was actually special to me. After all those years of helping people, to have that come back full circle, it’s special. It meant a lot to me.”

From displaying his continuous dedication to members to providing a listening ear and serving as a voice of reason, Heller has indeed left a legacy worthy of being followed. And one that, without a doubt, is deserving of this astounding award.

“You can’t just backfill these positions and find somebody with as much knowledge as Mike had,” Colligan added. “He’s going to be sorely missed.”

Master of the Ceremony

A heartfelt – and tearful – thanks for the member who made the Valor Awards

The final ovation at the 2022 Valor Awards came after all the honors were presented. NJ State PBA President Pat Colligan announced that this was the final Valor Awards for John Granahan, the Manville Local 236 State Delegate who is retiring after many, many years of coordinating the event as committee chair.

The ovation was subtle, with a few wisecracks, which is just the way the man beloved as “Granny” wanted it. Afterward, he shared some hugs with members, and he shed a few tears.

Granny lived the Valor Awards 365 days a year. To say it was a labor of love would be inaccurate because he never saw running the PBA’s unparalleled night to recognize the amazing law enforcement work of NJ cops as work.

During an interview several months ago, Granny explained how moving it was to be the NJSPBA Valor Awards committee chair.

“It always amazes me, but I think the best part is when the awards are getting read at the banquet and to have those 800 people in the audience hear the amazing jobs that these men and women have done,” he explained. “It almost brings tears to my eyes. Even as I stand up there and just listen to the award getting read, it amazes me. I’m the one who writes the synopsis of each award, and I’m still choked up by it.”

Granny retires as one of the PBA’s longest-serving State Delegates, having taken over in August 2001. He came on with Manville in August 1989.

The culmination of his final Valor Awards as committee chair no doubt came when he took a photo with the members of the committee. A send-off that was just the way he wanted.

Thank you, Granny, for all you have done for the NJSPBA and its members. Certainly, many members would confirm that you brought valor to the PBA every day.