A meeting of the New Providence Business and Professional Association aimed at promoting cooperation among town merchants was disrupted by a public dispute between Mayor J. Brooke Hern and former Mayor Al Morgan.
Last Thursday night's meeting, punctuated by the shouting match between Hern and Morgan, came nearly two weeks after an anonymous comment on NJ.com’s New Providence forum, entitled “BOYCOTT NP FUEL!!!”, blasted the gas station owned by Morgan's friend and fellow businessman, NP Fuel owner Don Murphy.
The initial comment, posted by someone identified as “sugarmagnolialmf,” accused NP Fuel of "ripping off customers" at the gas pump. Seven comments refuting the claim followed, including one from Murphy.
At the meeting, Morgan implied that, given the scenario printed in the comments left by Murphy, “sugarmagnolialmf” is Hern’s girlfriend, Lisa Sherry. Sherry confirmed to Patch that she posted the comments on the site because she wanted to alert residents that they might be "ripped off" at NP Fuel if they pay with cash.
Murphy, who has owned NP Fuel for 17 years and never got into the fracas at the NPBPA meeting, immediately refuted Sherry's online claims within the days after she made them and said that Sherry claimed to be “the girlfriend of the mayor.” In his post, Murphy also said he later received a phone call from Hern, which he did not return. Hern later told Patch that he made this call to smooth things over with Murphy.
The NP Fuel incident occurred on the morning of Jan. 12. Sherry posted her comment about NP Fuel in the afternoon of Jan. 13, Murphy posted his rebuttal on Jan. 16, and the NPBPA met on Jan. 26.
During the Question and Answer session following Hern’s speech at the meeting, Morgan brought up the online poster who said "Boycott NP Fuel." Morgan said he believed many business owners had already seen the post about Murphy’s business and said it made him very upset that someone in the community was attacking a fellow small business owner.
“I’ve known Don for a lot of years,” Morgan said. “This guy is a great community partner, going to every single organization in this town and for him to get a blog, “BOYCOTT NP FUEL,” is outrageous!”
Morgan, who said "it was [Hern's] girlfriend pushing [his] name around," further claimed Hern knew something about the online post.
As the argument ensued, business owners awkwardly watched and many appeared to be uncomfortable with the situation. But a few were trying to defuse the situation, including Martha Jaynes, Manager at TD Bank, Gary Kapner, co-owner of Creative Wallcoverings & Interiors — who also wrote a regarding this situation — and Christine Morgan, Al Morgan’s wife.
After the scrap, Hern, who has been mayor since 2010 and denied having any involvement, claimed that Morgan's comments at the meeting were merely mean-spirited opportunism from a political rival.
Following the meeting, Murphy said he left quickly to get home to his 5-month-old baby.
He Said, She Said
In the days that followed the altercation, Patch spoke with Murphy, Hern, Sherry and Morgan about the gas-station incident that prompted the dispute.
Sherry, who lives in Randolph, said she stopped at NP Fuel around 7 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12, which she described as a “rainy, dark morning,” while on her way to work in Newark. Although she said she never gets gas in town or pays with cash, she asked for $20 in gas.
“The guy made some noise around the back where my gas tank is and sent me on my way really quickly. I thought it was kind of quick but it was early, I was tired and it was pouring rain and I didn’t check the gas [gauge] like I should have, but I just drove away.”
Sherry said that when she got on Route 78 East, headed for Newark, she noticed that her gas gauge hadn’t moved.
"I had about a quarter tank and I drive a small Volvo. It’s not like I drive a gas-guzzling SUV and it takes $80 to fill my tank. My tank fills up for $45 or $50. For $20, I’d have more than half a tank. It hadn’t moved, so I’m flicking it, thinking maybe it’s stuck. But it doesn’t move and I don’t want to be stuck in Newark with no gas," Sherry said. "So I stop [for gas off Route 78] again and I gave the guy $10 and boom, it works. All of a sudden, I have half a tank of gas so then I’m thinking that guy [at NP Fuel] did not put any gas in my tank,” she said. “So that’s when I decided I’m going to have to call this guy. I thought we could settle this. I just wanted to let him know what happened and he’d be reasonable and we could civilized and that was my intent. I was very nice and I told him what happened and he was so rude and so obnoxious and actually insulted me and Brooke that I hung up on him.”
“She called [the station] and talked to my service writer," Murphy said, "and then she talked to me. I was trying to explain [why the needle wouldn't move]. It’s not the first time we’ve seen that, especially with the different types of vehicles,” Murphy said. “I explained to her that I’d give it back to her in a heartbeat but in this situation, we’ve seen it where it’s just not registering on the gas gauge because the gas already in the vehicle was just too low.”
Murphy said his longtime employee, a Berkeley Heights retiree named John Lee who has regularly opened NP Fuel in the morning since he began working there in 2005, pumped the gas himself for Sherry on Jan. 12. Murphy said that, according to Lee, Sherry asked for $10 in gas, which would yield about three gallons and hardly move the needle on the car's gas gauge.
Murphy said Sherry wouldn't accept his explanation. “So I’m going through this conversation with her and she says, ‘My boyfriend’s the mayor,’” Murphy said. “I try to stay out of politics. I said, 'Fine, no big deal.' I suggested that if she doesn’t like our establishment, there are lots of other gas stations and she might want to go somewhere else.”
Sherry confirmed the conversation. “He said, ‘Why don’t you not come back to our store?’ And I said, ‘I won’t come back and I’m going to tell my boyfriend not to come back and he’s the mayor and he knows a lot of people and I’m going to tell them all not to come back,’” Sherry said. “That’s how it went. So yes, I did say I was the girlfriend of the mayor.”
Following her conversation with Murphy, Sherry said she then filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, which Patch was unable to confirm at the time of publication. NP Fuel has an A+ rating with the BBB and has been accredited since March of 2011.
Sherry said she also posted her critical comments on NJ.com. She said she used her screen name, as she generally does, not to try to hide her identity.
“I wanted to work this out with him and I didn’t appreciate the way I was treated,” she said. “It’s just that I’m a consumer and I wanted other people to know that if you go to NP Fuel and you pay cash, you may be ripped off. Those are my rights and I can say that if I want to.”
Murphy said he was alerted to the post after his phone call with Sherry and responded to the post because he believed her post didn't match the facts and was concerned that she way trying to damage his business.
“By [threatening to keep] everyone from coming here, we’re out of business in theory, right? So we responded,” he said.
“I felt that for his girlfriend to go and post a blog online that says $20, when it was a $10 sale, there had to be a reason she would go to this extreme for a $10 sale,” Murphy said. “I just contacted a couple members of the NPBPA, told them, ‘There was a blog and we responded to it so you might want to check it out.’ The meeting was coming up and I said we should probably let the business members of the NPBPA check out the blog just to be aware that there’s a potential conflict of interest between the mayor’s office and the business community.”
Sherry stands by her story. “It was $20, but he thinks it was $10 because I said $10 in our conversation. I said, ‘Well, I stopped and got another $10 on my way to Newark because I wasn’t sure I could have made it.’ I didn’t want to get stuck in Newark,” she said. “So I did say $10, but it was $20.”
From Cooperation to Confrontation
Murphy said he was sitting at the NPBPA meeting with Pam Steiner, co-owner of Organization Resources in Summit with her husband, Joe, whose clients include NPBPA and the Borough of New Providence. He said they were discussing the upcoming Farmers Market in New Providence with Pam, which she organizes every year, and he did not speak up about the online post because he felt he’d already said his peace online.
“As far as I’m concerned, it was over for me. We responded to the blog and that’s all I needed to do,” he said. “You can tell by the response of the business members [at the meeting] that at least half of them didn’t know about the blog. I think Al wanted to bring it up and talk about it because the membership could then decide what they think about the situation. [Hern and Morgan] got a little heated because they’re politically connected, but I just ignored that. I can imagine other members were uncomfortable not knowing what was coming.”
Murphy said Morgan has been a friend for many years, dating back to when Morgan worked as the UPS deliveryman for New Providence, before he became a councilman and the mayor. Morgan was mayor from 1999 to 2006 and is now the owner of Al Morgan Painting & Home Improvements in New Providence.
“Maybe it’s even political because at one time, we campaigned for Al Morgan. We had his magnets and his signs around the station. We were actually asked by someone campaigning for Hern [at that time] if I would put his signs out also and I said no because Al Morgan is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for 20 years and I know who he is,” Murphy said. “He probably stuck up for me at the meeting because he’s a friend of mine. I had no idea. I just sat in the back and didn’t say a word.”
Sherry says there's nothing political about her dispute with Murphy or her comments on NJ.com, adding that she never discussed the incident with Hern until he asked her about it.
“I never even told [Hern] that I posted that. Somebody in town mentioned it to him, so he asked me, ‘What did you post?’ And that’s what I told him,” she said. “I had never even told him before that. So how this turned into some enormous political thing that revolves around Brooke is beyond me. It has absolutely nothing to do with him. He wasn’t in the car. I told him that the guy ripped me off. I never told him I was posting anything. He is completely not involved in this at all.”
On Friday, Hern shared his thoughts about this dispute with Morgan.
“Mr. Morgan saw fit to involve me in that because the person who had this very negative experience at NP Fuel happens to be my girlfriend. That’s how I understand the situation,” Hern said. “Of course I understand for somebody to be upset if they didn’t get what they paid for and be doubly upset if the owner of the establishment is rude and aggressive, and frankly, just impolite. The bottom line is Mr. Morgan’s comments were, in my view, politically motivated.”
Hern explained that Morgan has been his political adversary ever since he became a councilman, standing up against policy positions that Morgan took as mayor.
“Ever since that time, which dates back to 2005, he has been a political adversary and has looked for opportunities to do exactly what he did [Thursday] night and be very political,” Hern said. “He didn’t call me before the meeting to express his concerns over the situation. I saw him at the meeting before I began my remarks and he never mentioned it and he attempted to blind side me, catch me off guard and to, I think, try to embarrass me and I think he only succeeded in embarrassing himself. I defeated Mr. Morgan by 50 votes in the Republican Primary in 2010 and I don’t think he’s gotten over that. I think he wants to be mayor and I think it’s just very political.”
Patch spoke with Morgan on Saturday and Morgan refuted Hern’s statement that his motivation for addressing this online post at the NPBPA meeting was politically motivated.
“I am a trustee of the Business Association. I wasn’t there as Mayor Morgan, I was there representing my own small business and my concern was that this could happen to anybody in the business community and it wasn’t right. He can say all he wants about politics,” Morgan explained. “What Mr. Hern doesn’t say is that when he won the election, Al Morgan, the Republican Committee Chairman, supported him wholeheartedly in the campaign and for him to insinuate that this is politically motivated is just a deflection of what happened.”
“When this kind of thing happens, when an elected official’s name is thrown around like that, you know what?" Morgan asked. "It has to be addressed. It’s very simple. I wasn’t there as the mayor. I’m not the mayor anymore. If it were politically motivated, I would have gone to a council meeting and brought it up.”
During the heated discussion between Hern and Morgan, Hern said Murphy “physically threatened” him before the meeting, which he later explained to Patch.
”I had walked into the meeting early and there was already a small group of people there and Mr. Murphy was there. Again, that was the first time I ever met him and he literally asked me to step outside and we went out into the area between the inner doors and the outer doors, and he was very aggressive with me,” Hern explained. “He actually physically threatened me. It is just that ridiculous and at that point, I ended the conversation and went into the meeting.”
Murphy told Patch he did speak with Hern, but he did not physically threaten him.
“I did talk to him. I said your girlfriend is doing a disservice; she’s making you look bad. If you’re going to take food off a man’s family’s dinner table, you got to expect that he’s going to ask you about it,” Murphy explained. “She’s trying to run my business out of town. So he kept denying any information about it, which is fine. I don’t care. I just tried to tell him, if she’s your girlfriend, maybe you might want to think about getting rid of her. Because I got him in between the two doors, I thought he was uncomfortable with that. He said, ‘look, I don’t know anything about it. Stay away from me.’ I was just trying to have a conversation about it and he didn’t really want to have it.”