NHVSD School Board Members: Absent & Truant

absentSuppose you didn’t show up for work 40%-50% of the time last year. Think your boss would fire you?

Two North Hunterdon-Voorhees High School board members who did that just got re-elected.

Roger Straight: ABSENT

North Hunterdon Vorhees High School board member Roger Straight didn’t have time to show up for over 40% of board meetings during 2016. Roger supposedly “represents” Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough.

Another thing Roger didn’t have time to do, he told friends, was file for re-election. That meant his name would not be on last November’s ballot. So Roger’s friends ran a write-in campaign for him on Facebook and via e-mail.

Roger got re-elected for another two-year term with 120 write-in votes to represent more than 13,000 Clinton Township residents. And over 1,000 people in Lebanon.

Think he’ll show up in 2017?

It’s time to start expelling truant board members

There may be acceptable excuses for missing a meeting now and then. But when board members miss this many meetings, it doesn’t matter what the reasons are. It’s unacceptable to leave an elected seat empty this often.

Roger Straight missed 7 out of 17 school board meetings — over 40% — including 3 in a row in April, May and June.

Under N.J. statute, missing 3 meetings in a row permits the school board to remove a board member. (See N.J. School Boards Association FAQ, p. 7.)

But the board didn’t remove Straight. They let him stay on for the ride without showing up. Worse, the board didn’t notify the public, conduct a hearing, or disclose Straight’s truancy.

Where’s good governance?

Clinton Township has 3 other members on the board:

  • Sandra Seidorf missed only 1 meeting out of 17 in 2016.
  • Lisa Approvato had perfect attendance.
  • Marc Strauss missed 3 meetings.

They deserve credit — they show up. But, did it bother them that Roger wasn’t showing up?

Good governance isn’t just about managing the schools. It’s about board members managing their board — and other members. Why didn’t they stand up and warn their constituents that one of their number was playing hooky?

Why did board member Lisa Approvato campaign for Straight and urge her Facebook friends to write him in? Didn’t she know Straight wasn’t showing up? Why is Approvato thanking Straight “for volunteering to continue to work with our community” — when he’s not?

Would Approvato and the rest of the board stand up and hold truancy hearings if two board members were playing too much hooky?

Apparently not.

absentMegan Lehman-Wranitz: ABSENT

One other board member’s record is worse than Roger’s: Megan Lehman-Wranitz missed more than half the 2016 meetings — 9 of 17. Nine meetings. She “represents” the Town of Clinton, Franklin Township and Glen Gardner. When she shows up.

Voters in her towns re-elected her, too. How many know her attendance record?

While other board members showed up and did the work, Roger and Megan have failed their fiduciary responsibility for a $62 million budget. NHV students, parents, taxpayers and other hard-working board members deserve representatives who show up.

It’s time for an attendance report

NHVSD does not keep or publish an attendance report for school board meetings. exMayor.com had to go through minutes of 17 board meetings to tally up attendance by hand. (Special thanks to Susan Press at the district office for providing the pertinent pages under OPRA request.)

Click the image below to check your school board representative’s attendance record.

NHVSD has an obligation to its community. NHVSD must start keeping board attendance records on one clear report. The school board needs to publish it monthly on the website so the public knows who shows up.

It’s time for truancy reports & expulsions

But public attendance records are not enough. Voters and taxpayers deserve to know who the truant school board members are — well in advance of school elections.

When any board member misses the statutory 3 meetings in a row, the board has an obligation to take the matter up in a public meeting and decide whether to terminate a member who does not show up.

7 absences? 9 absences? What does it take?

The board owes voters transparency — and information they need to help them decide whether to re-elect a board member. The board must take seriously its own obligation to expel members who aren’t doing the job.

You’re the voter — you’re the taxpayer

The full 2016 attendance report is not available from NHVSD. And there’s no 2017 attendance report.

absentIf you pay taxes in the Town of Clinton, Franklin Township, Glen Gardner, Clinton Township or Lebanon Borough, did you know your representatives weren’t showing up last year?

Do you know they just got re-elected for new 2-year terms?
It’s 2017.
How will you know whether your town’s high school board members are showing up to represent you?

Get the facts

If you want…

  • An attendance report for your school board representatives
  • Public notice when a board member has missed the statutory 3 meetings
  • A public hearing to consider expelling truant board members

… then express yourself. Contact Superintendent Jeffrey Bender at (908) 735-2846 ext. 5101 or jbender@nhvweb.net.

Your schools won’t run themselves. And board members who show up deserve better than other board members who don’t bother.

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Hunterdon Freeholders to Millennials: Don’t listen to what we say

After lots of noise about initiatives for “economic development” to encourage Millennials to live and work in Hunterdon county, freeholders John Lanza, Matt Holt, John King and Suzanne Lagay turned off the sound — to protect good-old, 20th-century, back-room politics. They don’t want Millennials to hear the sound of county government.

Let’s keep it quiet

On December 6, bumbling and faltering through excuses, they refused to publish audio recordings of their meetings online.

Routinely convening at 5:30 pm and often at 10:00 am (check recent agendas) while everyone else is at work, the freeholders have always avoided the public. (Most towns hold council meetings at 7:00 pm.) Now they reveal they’re clueless about appealing to busy Millennials, who rely on online information channels to participate in our new world. (See the TAPinto Flemington/Raritan article, Security Concerns Prevent Freeholders From Posting Audio of Meetings.)

Hunterdon’s Millennial problem

There’s a national exodus of youth from suburban areas like Hunterdon to urban centers like Hoboken and Jersey City — places more friendly to young people’s needs and agendas. Millennials expect online communication, instant information, and open, transparent government. How can newly appointed county economic development czar, Marc Saluk, seriously expect to attract Millennials (and new business) when the freeholders outlaw podcasts of government meetings?

Good-old-boy double-talk on the record

After freeholder Rob Walton motioned to post audio recordings of meetings to the county website alongside existing minutes of meetings, the others babbled excuses.

These excerpts are transcribed from the official recording of the December, 2016 freeholder meeting, originally published by TAPintoFlemington/Raritan, which obtained the recording under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act:

Matt Holt: Just out of curiosity, what prevents, what I want to understand is, how are they archived later on, what is the prevention measure? I have no objection to being recorded, the concern is, the security of those recordings, and the inability to have them manipulated any way, shape or form, beyond the actual security of our website, and with our own data files.

Whispered by someone: “Or used for any other purpose.”

Holt: “Or used for any other purpose… My objection is not about recording our meetings, my objection is how we’re going to ensure that those recordings are in fact, um, secure and.”

Whispered by someone: “Cannot be tampered with.”

Holt: “And cannot be tampered with, and are, like every other document we have, um, archived in a fashion that, uh, ensures, the, the, the, uh, the overall, um, in their entirety. When I have those answers, I’ll be happy to vote on this.”

Suzanne Lagay: “Yeah, right, that pieces can’t be removed out and used [coughing] without their full content and context.”

Holt: “I don’t think you can just arbitrarily say, take our recordings and put them up on a website. I think you have to be sure that you understand what the process is so that the recordings exist in their correct format and, and are, and are secure.”

Rob Walton: “They would be on our secured server, which has the same security as any other document that we have in the county. Somebody could, I assume, take that file down, load it, chop it up, and make a very funny ad out of it, or a commercial or a Facebook posting, but, um, we of course would have the original document ourselves here at the county, so we could certainly say, no, that’s not how the audio went, this is how the audio went, but, um, I suppose they could take the minutes and copy that and make a Word file and produce, you know, false minutes, too. I, um, this is an odd question, um, I suppose they’re as secure as any other document we’ve posted, any other public member can access and, uh, make use of.”

Holt: “I ask myself why this is an issue today in 2016 and it wasn’t an issue two years ago or four years ago or six years ago. But the reality of it is, I’m perfectly fine with this being recorded. I simply will not vote yes on a resolution that is open-ended, to say, just post up our audio files on there without the complete, um, uh, inclusion of understanding what the security issues are behind that, and that we have, we have, we have looked at it from a IT perspective and, and we are secure in the nature of what we’re posting.”

Four daft freeholders

For real, Mr. Holt? Towns and schools all around Hunterdon post recordings of their meetings!

Every Freeholder meeting is recorded. Those recordings are property of the public, and New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act guarantees the right of the public to know what its elected officials are doing. But the recordings aren’t online. They’re as difficult to obtain as freeholder meetings are to attend.

The freeholders and Saluk are spending big bucks, pretending they’re going to bring Millennials and new businesses back to Hunterdon — ostensibly to improve our economy. But how can they pretend to address “the exodus of our Millennials” when Lanza, Holt, King and Lagay are terrified to let Millennials — and the rest of us —  hear how they run our government?

Give us all a break!

When the U.S. Congress and the N.J. legislature recently tried to roll back government ethics rules so officials could more easily shroud their activities, the public quickly rose up. Shamed, the legislators turned tail. Clearly, our own four autocrats have plenty they don’t want to be held accountable for. They really don’t want Hunterdon to be a Millennial-friendly community, or to have an open government for anyone.

Are Lanza, Holt, King and Lagay daft, suggesting people want to live, work and run businesses where they can’t hear what their government is doing? Can Mr. Saluk pitch economic development without open government?

Publish all the freeholder meeting recordings!

  • Freeholders, publish all your meeting recordings — including the entire archive.
  • Run your public meetings at 7:00 pm, so the public can attend. Stop with the excuses.

Four of you have shamed yourselves and us enough. Don’t insult our next generation, too.

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Listen to the official recording below — because you can’t find it on the county website your taxes pay for.

(Video and audio originally published by TAPintoFlemington/Raritan.)

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Want to save $1,000 on your Clinton Township taxes?

taxesYou once had the right to vote on school taxes every April in Clinton Township. Remember?

Actually, you had that right for over 100 years, until the Clinton Township Board of Education (BOE) took it away from you in 2012.

At 7pm on Wednesday, August 10 you can get back your right again to vote on the biggest part of your tax bill: local schools.

You had the right to vote on school taxes

When they had the vote, Clinton Township taxpayers rejected the last 7 out of 8 school budgets because the proposed school spending was over the top and wasteful. (See Clinton Twp budget rejected: Board has no credibility.) Under the law, when voters reject school budgets, the Clinton Township Mayor and Council have the power to reduce the school tax.

During 2006-2008, that’s exactly what the Council did 3 years in a row when voters rejected school budgets. It cut millions worth of waste and administrative spending by the schools — without cutting a penny out of teachers, the classroom, or instructional materials. (Teachers even supported the action because it helped re-route school funds back into the classroom  — because many of them were paying for school supplies out of their own pockets!)

As a result, the average homeowner in Clinton Township saves over $1,000 per year in school taxes, every year, forever.

Not any more!

whistling_dollarsBut in 2012 years ago the school board eliminated school tax elections — without asking taxpayers! This was permitted by Governor Christie in a bid to gain political backing.

The result? School spending in Clinton Township K-8 is out of control. The BOE used to spend about $11,000 per child per year. Now they spend over $19,000 per child. And they keep spending more!

Over 400 kids have left Clinton Township schools —more than the population of any of the 4 schools. (See Clinton Township needs to be serious about school consolidation.) But the BOE refuses to even consider closing a school building to reduce our taxes. It just keeps spending more! (See 26 Questions.)

What you can do

At the Wednedsay, August 10 (7pm) Council Meeting, you can tell the Mayor and Council you want back your right to vote on school taxes again!

LOCATION:

Public Safety Building (Court & Police Dept.)
1370 Route 31 North
Annandale, NJ  08801

spinAt this public meeting, the Mayor and Council will decide whether to give you back your right to vote every April on school taxes.

They can reinstate your right to vote on August 10, by a simple resolution.

Playing politics

But in a game of politics, the Mayor & Council are spinning a story and talking about passing the buck.

Instead of just doing the right thing and reinstating school tax elections, they’re planning a “referendum” to ask you to vote on whether you want back your right to vote.

Sheesh! You can’t make this stuff up! Do they really think anyone doesn’t want back the right to vote on taxes?

We know the school board is afraid of taxpayers voting on school taxes. Are the Mayor & Council afraid of letting you vote again on school taxes?

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Do you want to get back your right to vote on school taxes?

Who could possibly suggest that taxpayers should be deprived of their right to vote on how much we are taxed?

In Clinton Township, the answer is: Your school board, which took away our 100-year-old right to vote on school taxes. (See Clinton Twp. board of education approves moving school election to November.) The board’s behavior reveals it wants no interference from the public.

How bad it’s gotten

no-voteIn February 2016, board president Maria Grant didn’t want photos of protesting teachers in the newspaper, so she confiscated a news reporter’s photographs after trying to take her camera’s memory stick – and threatened to bar the reporter from the board meeting. To avoid scrutiny, Grant violated the First Amendment. (See Maybe Clinton Township school board needs civics lessons?)

In 2004, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia didn’t want a speech he gave recorded, so federal marshals confiscated a reporter’s taperecorder. Scalia later issued an apology:

“I have learned my lesson (at your expense) and shall certainly be more careful in the future. Indeed, in the future I will make clear that recording for use of the print media is no problem at all.”

Does Grant have more right than a Supreme Court Justice to violate the First Amendment?

Grant cited the board’s “policy” about cameras, but the reporter did not violate it. And who believes Grant has the power to confiscate private property? The board owes the public and the reporter an apology.

Here we go again

This isn’t the first time the board broke rules about transparency. A few years ago, the County Prosecutor found the board violated the NJ Open Public Meetings Act, citing it for repeatedly lying in official meeting minutes about its actions in meetings.

Does anyone see a pattern?

A few months ago, the Asbury Park school board voted unanimously to give voters back the right to vote on school budgets.

“One of the things we are determined to do is be more transparent and to work cohesively,” Board President Nicolle Harris said. “We decided to move the election from November to April to allow voters a chance to have a say on the school district’s budget… This change will allow more transparency. It is our goal to work together with the community and not to keep them in the dark on this, or any issues that affect the education of our children.”

When the Clinton Township Council recently asked questions about the school budget, the school board attacked the Council. The board makes it clear that transparency is not a priority. The board tries to keep us in the dark by interfering with the press, manipulating meeting minutes and accusing critics of hurting the schools. What is our school board afraid of? Voters? Taxpayers? The Council? Perhaps the board should visit Asbury Park to learn about transparency.

Fight Back! Demand your 100-year-old right to vote on taxes!

voting-rightThe Township Council can at any time give us back our right to vote on school taxes by a simple resolution — especially given the school board’s efforts to keep us in the dark.

Why would the Township Council hesitate?

Do you want to get back your right to vote on school taxes?

Attend the Council Meeting:

Wednesday August 10 at 7pm
1370 Route 31N, Annandale, NJ  08801
(the Court & Police Dept. building).

During the public comment section of the meeting, ask the Council to give us back our right to vote on school taxes NOW — not by playing politics and running a referendum to ask us whether we want back our right to vote!

Or course we want back our right to vote on taxes!

The Council can take action to reinstate our right to vote at the August 10 meeting. Don’t let them play politics!

You can also e-mail your Mayor & Council here.

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Marra & Imbriaco: The Windygate Legacy

Councilman Peter Marra

Councilman Peter Marra

It’s Windygate all over again.

In 2010, Clinton Township councilmen Jim Imbriaco, Peter Marra and Spencer Peck filed a fraudulent affordable housing plan with COAH (Council On Affordable Housing). Mayor Cimei voted against it, but lacked a majority. Call it Windygate. Now they want to file another just like it.

Why is the plan fraudulent?

The 2010 plan includes a construction schedule that promised completion of 124 units on Windy Acres by end of 2013.

Not one unit of the obligation has been built, nor has the state-of-the-art sewer plant been built that’s required to support any units.

Why is the plan fraudulent?

The Imbriaco-Marra COAH plan promises to deliver another 26 units by 2015. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell. The plan was phony from the start. Why have they left it in place? How did they pull this off for so many years, while Mayor Cimei objected?

Between 2010-2014, Imbriaco and Marra controlled the majority of the council — along with Spencer Peck, and later Harmen Vos — and ensured it was a do-nothing governing body. They ensured not one COAH unit was built.

In 2014, a new majority took over the council. They immediately started work to produce a new COAH plan — a real plan — that would require a new site for the housing. Imbriaco and Marra played along for months — then voted the new plan down and left the other three council members holding the bag.

Imagine The Mews X 9

The plan Marra, Imbriaco and Peck (and then Vos) kept on file in Trenton continues to expose the Township to enormous risks. Any developer could point to the failure to deliver the units, and sue for the right to build them. Under affordable housing law, the builder would get the right to build 1,755 “bonus” units for building the 195 COAH units the Township owes.

Councilman Jim Imbriaco

Councilman Jim Imbriaco

Today, there are only about 3,400 housing units total in Clinton Township. If this catastrophe seems remote, look at The Mews — 222 units built under such a lawsuit. So was Water’s Edge. So was The Hills in Bedminster. (The Mews was approved while Imbriaco was chairman of the township’s planning board. So was Water’s Edge. He’s a master at letting developers get bonus housing.)

Look , it’s a COAH solution!

At the June 11 council meeting, after months of hard work, the council was ready to vote to acquire a new piece of land that could actually support the housing units required for the COAH obligation. The 60+ people at the June 11 council meting understood what the Township’s planner, engineer, and project manager said.

Windy Acres is dead as a COAH solution. The enormously risky sewer plant for a Windy Acres COAH solution would take 5 years at best. That means Windy Acres is just as dead today as it was in 2010 — and Imbriaco and Marra have known it all along.

Pulte Homes abandoned Windy Acres for this very reason — and lost an estimated $25 million. Ignoring all facts and testimony, Jim Imbriaco and Peter Marra kept looking around on June 11, saying, “Look, it’s a COAH solution!”, chanting that the units can be built on Windy Acres and that sewer service is no problem.

When they were confronted, Imbriaco stood up and, rather than defend his position, walked out of the council meeting before it adjourned. He did the same thing at the last council meeting when he was questioned about his COAH promises.

Imbriaco & Marra put township at risk for more lawsuits

While Imbriaco chaired the township’s planning board, the township was always being hit by lawsuits from developers suing for the right to build housing under affordable housing law — and they kept winning. They got The Mews, they got Water’s Edge, and they almost got Windy Acres — until 3,600 residents organized to stop Imbriaco. Now Imbriaco and Marra are positioning the township for yet another builder’s lawsuit.

The 2010 plan exposes Clnton Township to loss of its “substantive certification.” This is COAH’s protection against builders suing for the right to build the 195 COAH units we owe — along with a “bonus” of 1,755 more units with automatic high density zoning. To put that in perspective, the township presently has about 3,400 housing units.

Imbriaco & Marra have already cost the township a higher obligation

While Imbriaco, Marra, Peck, and Harmen Vos controlled the town council and avoided building any units, 103 COAH credits against the obligation expired. Governor Christie’s failed effort to “abolish COAH” did not eliminate or suspend the pre-existing obligation.

Last week Imbriaco and Marra voted against the new council’s plan to acquire land where they can actually fulfill the obligation. (4 votes were necessary.) In spite of months of technical work they were privy to, Imbriaco and Marra said they didn’t have enough information. They want it on Windy Acres, and claimed Readington will provide sewer capacity.

The township’s COAH project manager reported that Readington said it has no capacity to spare.

Imbriaco: AWOL but voting

Councilman Jim Imbriaco missed the preceding 4 council meetings when plans for the new COAH site were detailed and discussed. Marra played along until it was time to vote. It was explained that time has run out — COAH requires a shovel-ready plan. Marra and Imbriaco voted NO.

Once again, the township “relies” on that same 2010 fraudulent COAH plan. Imbriaco and Marra made speeches after the vote, “explaining” that what they did was the right thing. But in four years they have delivered no COAH units for their own plan, or done any work to develop any alternative sites.

A history of reckless bad judgment

Councilman Imbriaco chaired the planning board when it approved The Mews and Water’s Edge. In 2005, he tried to approve the Windy Acres “settlement” with Pulte Homes – 500 units. But a judge called Imbriaco and his planning board “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and hostile” and said their actions were “unlawful and indefensible.” The NJ DEP commissioner said Imbriaco’s planning board failed to meet its legal obligations to protect the the state and Clinton Township. Then-State Senator Leonard Lance and the Hunterdon Freeholders intervened to stop Imbriaco and protect the Township — but he ignored Lance and attacked the Freeholders for “interfering.” The Hunterdon Review said:

“… it would have been in Planning Board Chairman James Imbriaco’s better interest to spend less time fighting with residents and more time listening to their concerns…”

Windy Acres died under Imbriaco’s nose. He and Marra are still trying to resurrect it. And Imbriaco continues to fight without listening.

Imbriaco was removed from the planning board chairmanship in 2008, and from the planning board a year later. He left behind a legacy of appeasement, sprawl and higher taxes. His arrogance and disrespect are on the public record, complete with an audio record that he still tries to avoid.

In 2009, when he ran for council, Imbriaco wrote a letter to the editor:

“Having spent more than 15 years on the Clinton Township Planning Board, 12 as its chair, I can speak with authority and experience about land use matters and planning in our community…

…I’m running for council to insure the balance of our COAH obligations for the foreseeable future is developed at Windy Acres.”

In 2010, Imbriaco got his wish: His very own COAH plan, in which he promised to build 124 units on Windy Acres by 2013.

Having never built anything to fulfill the obligation they authored themselves, on June 11 Imbriaco and Marra displayed a new level of bad judgment and arrogance while township professionals testified that Marra’s and Imbriaco’s “COAH solution” was impossible in the required time frame and inadvisable in general.

The Imbriaco-Marra Legacy

presidential-placeIn 2008, Clinton Township sued COAH and the State of New Jersey because COAH’s rules are ridiculous. But the township’s COAH obligation was never suspended or eliminated — it was owed all through 2010-2014 while Imbriaco and Marra avoided fulfilling it. The township still must fulfill it — without the 103 credits, and without a good site to build it on.

Now, because Imbriaco and Marra voted against a solution for 195 units in a low-density, low-rise affordable housing plan, the only site the township owns that meets COAH requirements is the “Marookian” property on Rt. 31 across Regional Road from North Hunterdon High.

Residents of Clinton Township thought Windygate was over when the town bought the property. Now it’s Windygate all over again.

The “195 on 5” COAH project will require 195 units on 5 acres in 7-8 storey buildings, higher and denser than Lebanon’s Presidential Place on Cokesbury Road, 4 storeys of 150 units on 7.7 acres.

It’ll be Peter Marra’s and Jim Imbriaco’s enduring legacy in Clinton Township. They deserve to have their names on it: The Imbriaco-Marra Legacy Towers.

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Clinton Township: The wolf is at the door

It will soon be open season again on Hunterdon County municipalities. After Clinton Township led a coalition of 20 towns to launch a legal battle in 2008 against unfunded state mandates for affordable housing, we both won and lost.

The court remanded the issue back to the state for new affordable housing rules. Unfortunately, the Christie administration’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), despite all its rhetoric, seems incapable of addressing a court order to develop new rules by the Feb. 28 deadline. That will trigger an onslaught of builder’s remedy lawsuits, and any town that’s been sitting on its hands the past five years without fulfilling its old “Round 2” COAH obligation will be a target.

COAH requires each town to take steps to provide its fair share of affordable housing. The problem is that the state obligates municipalities to, in effect, subsidize private builders, through zoning and tax breaks or outright cash payments, to build affordable housing units at the expense of all of the residents of the town who are expected to pick up the tab.

But the real cost to towns isn’t those affordable housing units. It’s the “5-times more” high-density market housing units that come along with them.

If a town doesn’t fulfill its obligation, the “remedy” is a lawsuit from a developer asking the court to overturn local zoning. The town loses control over its land use, and decisions regarding its future are put it in the hands of the developer who has one motivation — profit.

If you remember the Windy Acres nightmare Clinton Township suffered for over 10 years, you know the problem. Why would builders sue to build cheap housing? Because for each “affordable” unit built, the court allows the developer to build five more market units as a “bonus” — all on just one acre or less.

targetThat’s where sprawl in Hunterdon comes from. Once it subjects itself to the builder’s remedy, there is nothing a town can do to stop it. The Mews in Clinton Township, the Hills in Bedminster and Presidential Place in Lebanon Borough are all products of builder’s remedy lawsuits.

We can argue ‘til the cows come home that this unfunded obligation is unfair, and some towns stick their heads in the sand and do nothing to address it. That’s like telling the judge the law is wrong as the cell door slams shut. Today, specialist law firms are coaching builders in the art of — as one such lawyer put it — “clubbing these towns like baby harp seals.”

Today, there’s a big red target on some towns’ backs — and they’re the ones likely to have more Mews monstrosities covering their landscapes, along with all the traffic, legal costs, school kids and tax increases that follow.

Clinton Township has done absolutely nothing since 2009 to fulfill its long-overdue affordable housing obligation, pretending the threat would go away. The wolf is at the door.

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Clinton Township’s COAH Plan: A bogus political campaign promise?

A recent story in the Hunterdon County Democrat about Clinton Township’s old municipal building and the township’s affordable housing (COAH) planning is wrong.

old-muni-planIn 2008, many people invested a lot of time and energy to create the plan in the published photo that would have converted the old municipal building to senior apartments. Fast on the heels of getting rid of Clinton Township’s other white elephant — the Old Beaverbrook Homestead — we had the design completed, all approvals in hand and we had a developer on board ready to build it.

Contrary to the article, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) gave its blessing to tear down all but the oldest part of the structure — the small, original Fox Seals store, which was to be converted to a community meeting area and offices for a newly-constructed affordable senior housing project. The story that it must now be completely rehabbed is inaccurate and misleading. SHPO never told us we had to keep the entire building. We included this project, with this design, in our COAH plan.

In 2010, Jim Imbriaco, Spencer Peck, and Peter Marra quickly killed our COAH plan and any hope of bringing the old municipal building project to fruition. For another four years, Annandale would have a dangerous eyesore as its village centerpiece.

Mismanagement long plagued the old municipal building. In 2003, then-Mayor Tom Borkowski and Councilwoman Antje Doyle spent $100,000 on a “plan” to bond $4 million to renovate the building as a museum. Helen Mataka and Rosemary Malaker led the fight against it. The idea of bonding $4 million for 1,400 square feet of space was ridiculous.

Since 2010, the township neglected the old municipal building and failed to construct any affordable housing, leaving it exposed to lawsuits like the one over Windy Acres that consumed Borkowski and Imbriaco for more than a decade. Will Imbriaco and Marra now try to resurrect the $4 million bond ordinance?

Mayor Kevin Cimei tried to proceed with our COAH and old municipal building plans in 2009 until Imbriaco, Marra and Peck out-voted him. Now someone at the township has a lot of explaining to do. How we went from approvals to denials in the last four years with absolutely nothing to show for it is completely astonishing. What the township did to its relations with the SHPO and this project is shameful. SHPO had no problem in 2008 with demolition of most of the building or with the plan in the photo published by the Democrat.

When Imbriaco, Marra and Peck took control in 2010, they submitted a new plan to COAH in fulfillment of their campaign promise to put all the township’s affordable housing on Windy Acres. We warned them that was impossible. With a court-ordered COAH deadline looming, it will be interesting to see who was right, and whether their promised “All Windy Acres” COAH plan is bogus.

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NHVSD Board President Beverly Thorne: (Oops! I did it again!) Ignores NJ Open Public Meetings Act

Subjected to questioning by the public about the letter she did or did not write, Bev Thorne couldn’t even get the Open Public Meetings Act right. How can the public trust her to manage public business?

The special August 15, 2013 North Hunterdon Voorhees school board meeting had barely started when board president Beverly Thorne announced the board was immediately going into closed (or “executive”) session, and then she promptly ignored the NJ Open Public Meetings Act — the same sections of the Act that she ignored at the April 23 meeting. Were it not for the quick thinking of one board member, Thorne would have gone on to conduct a closed session that would have to have been invalidated.

Who’s running these meetings, anyway — and who is running the North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District?

School board presidents and school board attorneys should know the law… and follow it to the letter

Thorne asked for a motion to move to executive session, accepted a motion and a second, asked for a vote, and thereby ignored the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act because she failed to follow the prescribed steps required by law.

Thorne has been a school board member a long time. She should know the law, and so should the school board attorney, who sat idly while Thorne started taking the vote.

The OPMA (NJSA 10:4-12) requires that closed session may be conducted only under one or more of nine exemptions from the requirement that the school board’s meetings must be conducted in public.

violationThorne failed to cite which of nine exemptions she was using to conduct the closed session.

In addition, NJSA 10:4-13 requires that, prior to conducting a closed session, a specific statement be read into the record prior to executive session:

a. Stating the general nature of the subject to be discussed; and

b. Stating as precisely as possible, the time when and the circumstances under which the discussion conducted in closed session of the public body can be disclosed to the public.

Thorne, president of the school board for many years, failed to clearly state the subject to be discussed. What she said about the topic was unspecific, unclear, and incomprehensible:

“There is one item that we will be discussing in executive session, and it is the legal issues related to the discussion that we will then have in our discussion.”

(If some wag responds that, “Well, we all know what she means…” the answer is that the law requires the details to be stated on the record.)

Thorne also failed to state when the discussion from the closed session would be disclosed to the public.

The law is clear: If you don’t state (a) and (b), you can’t go into executive session. Period. Then, slam, bam, thank-you-m’am and Thorne was taking a vote after accepting a motion and a second. All the while, attorney Liss sat silently permitting a violation to be committed.

Listen to the recording of Thorne’s resolution and the motion, second, and call for a vote — which was interrupted by one board member who takes the law seriously:

(Recording courtesy of school board member Robert Becker, who brought his own recorder to the August 15 meeting and then posted the two-hour recording to both YouTube and DropBox. It seems that NHVSD can’t afford a little digital recorder… According to Superintendent Mike Shaddow, who called the editor of this blog on the phone, the matter of recording school board meetings is “still in committee” and he has “no control over it.” It’s been in committee forever, and board president Beverly Thorne and the rest of the board took no action to record this important meeting after being asked to please record it.)

Come on, folks! If you can’t follow the simple process required by law to conduct your meetings, do you really expect anyone to take you — this means all of you — seriously? Right about now, every school board member looks like a rube on a power trip… except maybe one…

Only one board member seems to know the law

Elected members of public bodies have an obligation to know the law and to obey it. Yet one board member made a motion to adopt Thorne’s faulty resolution and another seconded it. Time for both to go to John Paff’s “Open Public Meetings Act” workshops — and to be joined by the rest of the board and its attorney.

Only one board member — Robert Becker — caught the failure and insisted on discussion, during which he asked the questions that Thorne should have answered prior to taking a vote. (Is it any wonder he also recorded the meeting?)

Wake up call to the rest of you on the board: Have you ever read the Open Public Meetings Act? It’s a lot like the New Jersey Driver’s Manual — you need to know what red lights are before you can drive on public roads… Right now, you’re all looking like a bunch of provisional drivers in a pile-up on I-78…

It isn’t the first time

Thorne’s disregard of the Open Public Meetings law isn’t a first. She disregarded the same law at the April 23, 2013 board meeting. At that meeting, Thorne again started taking a vote to go violation-secondto closed session, and was interrupted from the audience by a call for a point of order — and was notified that she was breaking the law and going into closed session illegally. (That time, the vote was completed and the violation committed.) Board attorney Liss was again asleep at the wheel. (How much is Liss being paid to attend these meetings?) Awakened from her slumber, Liss conferred with Thorne on April 23, then Thorne amended her resolution to comply with the law.

Just four months later, Thorne and Liss are at it again — demonstrating disregard of the law.

At the very least, it’s time for the board to dismiss attorney Liss for her callous failure to protect the board from its own ignorance.

Where’s the proof?

How do we know what happened at the April 13 meeting? The editor of this blog was present and heard it all. Unfortunately, the NHVSD board of education does not record its meetings, so there is no verbatim record of what Thorne and Liss did. The minutes of the April 23 meeting note — barely in passing and without detail of what actually happened — that a member of the public made “a comment” — but the resolution is not noted as having been faulty.

So much for getting all our information from the board’s “meeting minutes.”

It’s time for this board to start recording their meetings.

It seems Thorne and Liss still don’t get it. How is the public expected to trust anything this crew does if it can’t follow the most basic laws about Open Public Meetings? How is anyone to believe anything this crew says about the larger mess about sports coaches, bullying, forged letters to the editor, lack of oversight, and manipulation of public opinion — if they don’t know and respect the law?

Meanwhile, what is the rest of the board of education doing? And what is the New Jersey Department of Education doing? Uh, Commissioner Cerf…? Up here in Hunterdon — you know, the people who send a lot of money to Trenton to educate kids in other counties? Can you please come up here and clean up this mess?

see-no-evil

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North-Voorhees School Board: Why don’t you record public meetings?

This is an open letter sent to the North Hunterdon Voorhees School Board today, regarding the August 15 “special meeting” to be held at 7:00 pm at the District Office. (See Hunterdon Democrat, North Hunterdon-Voorhees Superintendent Shaddow could face calls for his resignation.)

 


Dear NHVSD School Board Members:

I’m sharing with you an e-mail thread between me and your communications coordinator. I am just totally mystified at what I’m being told.

Twice I asked Ms. Smagala why the district does not use this mailing list [the “parent e-mail distribution list” used by NHVSD to communicate almost daily with parents] to announce board meetings, since the list includes some of the district’s most important stakeholders — parents. Ms. Smagala has not answered my question.

Especially because the district is in the middle of an important communications controversy to be covered at tomorrow night’s special meeting, I cannot fathom why the district would not use this important channel of communication to announce the meeting, to encourage people to attend. In the current climate, no one can be faulted for drawing the conclusion that the district prefers to keep quiet about this meeting. Posting notice on your website and in newspapers is a “pull” sort of notice. Sending the notice to this list is a “push” notice. Ask anyone on the board who knows about the Internet what that distinction means. It means you’re not using the best methods to announce the meeting.

It’s bad enough that a meeting like this is being held in the middle of August when so many people are away — but it’s even worse when the district does not use every means at its disposal to announce such a meeting to as many people as possible as efficiently as possible.

Ms. Smagala notified Superintendent Shaddow about my question to her. He called me on the phone about it. We had quite a discussion. But he did not answer the question, either.

So, I ask that the board discuss this at the meeting: Why is this list not being used to announce board meetings, especially THIS meeting?

I would like an answer.

I cannot attend the meeting tomorrow night. Like many people, I will be away on vacation, but I would like to attend. Since I cannot, I would like to ask that this important meeting be recorded and the audio file be posted to the board’s web site — and that this e-mail list of Ms. Smagala’s be used to distribute a link to the file. I’d like answers to the questions that will be covered tomorrow night — and since I can’t be there, I think it is reasonable to ask that the board do what my town council and what my own local school board both do — RECORD THE MEETING! Dr. Shaddow says he wants the public to know the truth. I cannot imagine a better way for the district’s own explanation of the facts to be communicated firsthand.

NHVSD has an enormous investment in technology — media, audio, video, communications. Get some recorders out of the school and use them so taxpayers, parents and the public can hear this important meeting. With all due respect, it is ludicrous that in this day and age, with the taxes we pay, that Dr. Shaddow tells me “It’s up to the board to record the meetings” and that “it’s in committee,” and that the decision has not been made to operate transparently by publishing this audio. That this silly debate has been going on for so long makes it look an awful lot like the board does not want its public business on the public record. (I’ve read some of your “minutes.” I’ll take recordings, please.)

Let’s get with it. It’s no surprise that the press is covering the district’s failures of communications almost every day now. I expect the August 15 meeting to be recorded and the audio to be published promptly.

(Why are the e-mail addresses of board members Jobson and Costa not on the board’s website? Will someone please forward this e-mail to them promptly? Thank you.)

Sincerely,

 

 


Since this mail was sent, school board president Beverly Thorne wrote to say she had instructed District Communications Coordinator Maren Smagala to distribute a notice of the special meeting to parents. The notice went out at 9:00PM Wednesday, August 14 — less than 24 hours before the meeting.

Thorne would not commit to recording the meeting. Maybe the problem is they don’t want to spend the money on technology?

News item in the March 22, 2013 Hunterdon Democrat:

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Tom Borkowski: Who wants big taxes, big bonding, patronage jobs & dysfunctional leadership for Hunterdon County?

The problem with Tom Borkowski running for Hunterdon County Freeholder with Will Mennen is Borkowski’s public record.

Big Taxes

During 6 years as mayor of Clinton Township, Tom Borkowski raised the municipal tax levy 39.4%. (Did Mennen do his due diligence?)

Borkowski talks about lowering the “tax rate,” but that’s political hocus pocus. The tax bills Clinton Township residents paid went up 39.4%.

In 2004 alone, Borkowski raised tax bills 11.7%, the biggest soaking of Clinton Township taxpayers in 15 years. But his campaign flyers claim he’s a “champion of the taxpayer.”

Take a look at the tax levy increases in other mayoral terms after Borkowski’s (above right). Why did Borkowski stick it to taxpayers so hard for 6 years?

Big Bonding, More Debt

Between 2000-2005, Mayor Borkowski issued a staggering 21 bond ordinances totalling almost $16 million without once asking voters for their approval.

Yet freedholder candidate Will Mennen claims running-mate Borkowski is a “fiscal conservative.” (Not even close, Will!) In 2006, right after Borkowski left office, millions in unspent bond funds turned up in Borkowski’s budget — money that belonged in unsuspecting taxpayers’ pockets.

Borkowski swings both ways

But wait a minute… in 2009 Borkowski sought to fill a vacant seat on the Freeholder board.

He said he opposed bonded debt without approval of voters, and claimed that he endorsed NJ bill A-1880, which would require voter approval of bonded debt.

So why did he do 21 bond ordinances without voter approval while he was mayor?

Good question. Borkowski has never answered it. But his supporters tried to get him onto the Freeholder board stating that:

“Tom will fight hard to put an end to the increased bonding indebtedness.”

This was part of a vicious mailer that accused one of his opponents of behaving “unethically.” That mailer so shocked Republican Committee members that Borkowski lost the vote for the Freeholder seat.

Borkowski claimed he had nothing to do with the mailer. His supporters denied they put out the mailer. It’s not clear what’s worse: Borkowski’s hypocrisy or the people Borkowski associates with: his political “friends.” Perhaps they’re waiting for patronage jobs.

Borkowski’s got a public record on that, too. One he’d probably prefer not to see online. But public contracts are public documents. Let’s take a look at Tom Borkowski’s idea of how to take care of his friends while making taxpayers pay for it.

The Patronage Game

Borkowski has attacked the exorbitant contract the Freeholders gave their attorney, Guy DeSapio. Borkowski briefly served on a “Legal Services Advisory Board” and says in his campaign flyers that he “saved county taxpayers over $700,000 annually in legal fees” by helping get rid of DeSapio. But Borkowski knows all about unconscionable employment contracts that waste taxpayer money. He’s written and signed them.

In 2004 Borkowski hired Ulrich “Al” Steinberg as township CFO and gave him a one-sided, ironclad 3-year contract. (You’d love this contract yourself, if your boss were goofy enough to give it to you!) Steinberg got full pay and benefits to work 2.5 days per week, from home if he wished:

“This schedule may be modified at the Employee’s discretion at any time”

…so that Steinberg could go to his other job… in Marlboro!

The contract Borkowski signed paid for any “meetings, conferences and seminars” Steinberg wanted to attend, “but not limited to meals, travel and lodging” — even if they had nothing to do with Clinton Township business.

But only the CFO could cancel the contract. Borkowski made sure Clinton Township was stuck holding the bag — there was no way the next mayor and council could cancel it:

Borkowski, a lawyer, ensured there was no way out of this sweetheart deal: If the Township cancelled, it would be “liable for compensating the Employee” for the entire 38 months. That’s the deal Borkowski gave his CFO to handle tax and bond money. For Borkowski, political supporters come first. And taxpayers pay.

Is Al Steinberg is helping Borkowski with his current campaign?

Bogus Claims

Borkowski’s campaign resume says he “Led fight to stop 1,000 plus unit Pulte Homes residential development known as Windy Acres.”

But the public record shows that for 6 years Borkowski led the charge to build Windy Acres and fought anyone who tried to get in Pulte’s way. (He even offered Pulte an outrageous $25 million of public funds for the land. Later, the Township bought it for $7 million, half what Pulte paid for it.)

Rushing to approve a deal to build Windy Acres, Borkowski cut short the public hearings after “too many” citizens showed up to speak. (The Hunterdon Democrat and the Hunterdon Review blasted him for it.) When state senator Leonard Lance and — ironically — the freeholders submitted letters asking for extended public hearings, Borkowski told them to butt out.

Next, the Commissioner of the New Jersey DEP tried to help stop Windy Acres. Borkowski responded with an unbelievable nastygram demanding that the Commissioner withdraw his complaints. Then Borkowski voted to sell Clinton Township out to Pulte Homes in a “settlement” deal so bad that the State of New Jersey made good on the DEP Commissioner’s warnings and rejected it.

For six years Borkowski, his lawyers, and his planning board sat on their hands while the country’s biggest housing developer took control of virtually all the Township’s land-use policy making. Pulte used COAH (the Council on Affordable Housing) to lord control over the Township — and Borkowski did nothing but cower and cry the sky was falling.

Shortly after Borkowski lost the next mayoral election, Clinton Township led 20 towns to sue COAH. Clinton Township quickly smashed the Pulte “damages” lawsuit that for 6 years Borkowski kept warning would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It turned out the claim was insupportable and merely an empty threat that Borkowski used to intimidate the public — and to fatten the wallets of his attorneys.

Dysfunctional Leadership

So many of Borkowski’s cops went afoul of the law that his police department was taken over by the County Prosecutor. (“Appeals court rules against Clinton ex-cops who falsified patrol reports,” Hunterdon Democrat.)

Borkowski’s director of Public Works and head of Recreation were fired or convicted for unlawful activities.

Taxpayers Be Damned!

Every time voters rejected outlandish school budgets, Borkowski ignored them and voted YES to approve an unbelievable $11,211,307 in school tax increases during his tenure. He was terrified of “the school board lobby.” (Between 2006-2008, after Borkowski was gone, the Township council respected voters’ decisions and cut millions out of school budgets. Today those cuts are worth about $1,000 per year to the average homeowner forever.)

Borkowski kept Clinton Township in the North Hunterdon Court while the Township lost $90,000 per year to patronage jobs and mismanagement. Then Borkowski fought to stop Clinton Township from getting out of the court. The Clinton Township Court today processes more cases than the North Court did and is very successful. With less 1/4 the staff, the Clinton Township Court services two other towns and has always more than paid for itself and always operated in the black. Throughout his tenure, Borkowski cowered beneath the political pressure of his political “friends,” who demanded that Clinton Township taxpayers keep subsidizing the bloated North Court budget.

Fed Up

Fed up voters in Clinton Township booted Borkowski in 2005. In 2009 Borkowski’s backers backfired — and he lost the Republican Committee vote to fill a vacant Freeholder seat.

Now Tom Borkowski is back — on the June 4 Republican Primary ballot. And his public record once again precedes and dogs him.

Clinton Township couldn’t afford Tom Borkowski’s politics. Can Hunterdon County afford to give him control over tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and the power to make deals and set policy?

Who wants big taxes, big bonding, patronage jobs, and dysfunctional leadership for Hunterdon County?

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Posted in Hunterdon County, Municipal, Schools, Taxes, Tom Borkowski's Greatest Hits, Windy Acres | Leave a comment