Administrator hired by Mayor Higgins was under investigation

In an Oct. 11 article, the Hunterdon Review reports that the administrator recently hired by Mayor John Higgins for Clinton Township, Jesse Landon, was under investigation in Tewksbury Township, “alledgedly… accused of sexual harassment” — during the time Higgins and the Clinton Township Council were hiring him. (Landon worked as Tewksbury’s administrator for over 17 years until April 27 and is shy of retirement and pension by a few years.)

(The Review is available in print, and online only to paid subscribers.)

According to the article, a “special investigation” was conducted by Tewksbury, and a “special investigator’s report…was issued on March 20.” Landon resigned March 24. “Landon was named Clinton Township administrator on Wednesday, March 22.” (See Clinton Township’s RFP for patronage jobs.)

At a Tewksbury Committee meeting

This all came up during a long, packed Committee meeting in Tewksbury on October 10.

The article goes to say:

“[Tewksbury] Township Committeeman Peter Melick [took] 80 pounds worth of personnel records from the township’s municipal building to his business office [on Landon’s last day at work], possibly including the personnel file of Landon, which allegedly should have included a special investigation report on a sexual harassment claim against Landon.”

The Review reports that Nancy Held, a Tewksbury resident, spoke at length during the public comment portion of the meeting:

“[Held] said she heard through speaking with [Tewksbury Deputy Mayor] DiMare that something was missing from Landon’s file [after the files were ordered returned from Melick’s business office at home]. She questioned whether or not the document missing from Landon’s file was a special investigator’s report on the findings of a reported sexual harassment claim from a township employee against Landon. [Tewksbury municipal attorney Michael] Selvaggi immediately said that he and the committee would not comment on this, as that was a personnel file that was ‘entitled to privacy.'”

The Review reports that Deputy Mayor DiMare:

“said no committee members except Melick and…Shaun Van Doren, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, knew about it, as Melick had spoken to both Van Doren and Selvaggi about the situation.”

(At an earlier Tewksbury meeting, May 16, Van Doren admitted his role in the removal of all the Tewksbury personnel files, and said, “In hindsight was it the appropriate thing to do? No it wasn’t. It came out of the conversation that occurred, there wasn’t any intent, there wasn’t anything nefarious.”)

Clinton Township

The Review reports:

“… (former Clinton Township Mayor) Nick Corcodilos then laid out that he was concerned because Tewksbury had taken no action after an investigation was completed and then Landon was hired by his own Clinton Township.

“‘In the middle of this whole thing, and here’s where I do take issue with this township [Tewksbury], what we have here was apparently a serious matter being investigated and no action was taken by this committee in respect to Mr. Landon and whatever the outcome of this investigation was,’ said Corcodilos.

“There’s an investigation, he quits in the middle of it all and then he removes all of the records from the building. That smells really bad and I put that on Tewksbury Township…

“‘So what it starts looking like to me, out in the rest of the world, we have an errant minister or priest being investigated by a church and quietly shuffled off to another town before there is any conclusion about what happened. The next town gets the person and they have to deal with it; I don’t know whether he’s guilty or no, and the serious problem is we don’t know.'”

Resident says attorney gave “bad advice”

The Review reported that:

“Resident Robert Becker then acknowledged that Township Clerk Roberta Brassard is legally the ‘custodian of records’ in the township and that Selvaggi gave Melick ‘bad advice’ by allowing him to take any of the files at all, because they were Brassard’s responsibility by statute. Becker said he believed this ‘exposed’ Melick and the township.”

Becker, currently a member of the NHVSD school board, is running for Tewksbury Committee in November.

Tewksbury Committee member Shaun Van Doren is running for Hunterdon Freeholder on the ballot in November. Mayor John Higgins is running for re-election in Clinton Township on the ballot in November. Both are Republicans.

Mayor Higgins said on September 22 that, during the hiring process, Clinton Township Council President Brian Mullay checked Landon’s references by contacting Tewksbury Committeeman Shaun Van Doren. But Mullay then recused himself from the vote when Landon was hired.

According to Tewksbury public records, Landon was represented in Tewksbury during the “special investigation” by Joseph Tauriello, an attorney from the same law firm that represents Clinton Township.

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Clinton Township’s RFP for patronage jobs

When Clinton Township’s new administrator, Jesse Landon, recently posted a Request For Proposal (RFP) on the New Jersey State League of Municipalities website (NJSLOM) for all the municipality’s professional positions, he apparently did so without discussing it with the town council.

It’s not clear even Mayor John Higgins was aware of the RFP. What is clear is that the mayor wasn’t clear about what Landon had posted on the classifieds section of the NJSLOM website.

RFP or RFQ?

When asked about the RFP, Higgins insisted it was not an RFP but an RFQ — a Request For Quotation. But it’s an RFP:

Known for his down-in-the-weeds attention to detail, the mayor seemed completely misinformed about how his administrator was handling the massive undertaking of hiring an entire team of experts. Higgins also acknowledged that Landon had not given the current professionals the courtesy of a heads-up about his advertisement. (This is not the mayor’s first mishandling of hiring.)

RFP, embarrassment, or a set-up?

The RFP Landon posted is notable not only for the misspellings in contains, but for what it lacks — a specification. Landon is a $132,000 administrator with over 20 years’ experience. But the administrator of another town who reviewed the RFP called it “worthless the way it’s written.”

That’s because a proper RFP includes a specification that defines the town’s — or any buyer’s — specific requirements and objectives. Without a spec, bidders have no guidance about what to propose. Unless they’re wired to win the job.

Landon could have consulted any of a number of good resources online. This one tells us that a good RFP should include:

  • A statement of purpose, including the organization’s overall objectives of the contract.
  • Scope of work: The specific duties to be performed and expected outcomes.
  • Outcome and performance standards: A specification of outcome targets, minimal performance standards expected, and methods for monitoring performance.
  • Deliverables: What the customer requires.
  • Requirements for proposal preparation: This is what respondents look for most closely if they expect to win a competitive process. This should include a consistent structure of the proposal’s content, information and document types to ensure fair evaluation of the proposals.
  • Evaluation and award process: What are the procedures and criteria for evaluating proposals and making a contract award?

Without such a specification, it would be easy to argue that Clinton Township is using its RFP to award patronage jobs.

All that Clinton Township’s RFP asks for is:

  • “five copies of your firm’s marketing information”
  • “proposed lead professionals”
  • “key staff members”
  • “and fee proposal”

It doesn’t even ask for resumes.

It would be easy for the administrator to say he considered all interested consultants — until someone pointed at the glaring holes in an RFP that looks an awful lot like a set-up. Especially if that someone had heard Mayor Higgins brag that he’s already decided which engineering firm he’s going to hire.

From a governance standpoint, this all begs the question, why didn’t the administrator give the town council the courtesy of reviewing the RFP with them in advance?

Is poor behavior in charge?

Insiders in Tewksbury Township, where Landon served as administrator for 17 years until he quit suddenly in May, report that’s his style.

At a July 11, 2017 committee meeting, Tewksbury Mayor Dana Desiderio was so incensed at Landon’s management style that she refused to vote him retroactive “merit pay” for 2016.

When committeeman Shaun Van Doren made a motion to give merit pay to all municipal employees, Desiderio asked Van Doren to exclude just one employee from the merit pay award — Jesse Landon. When Van Doren refused, Desiderio explained her position and voted against the measure:

“Would you, Shaun, change your motion to exclude Jess Landon?… I don’t give credit for poor behavior, so I’m not going to vote for it… I just wanted to go on the record that I am not voting no for any other reason but that. Okay?”

The question arises for Clinton Township, who’s in charge of the municipality?

Putting Clinton Township at Risk: The affordable housing factor

The idea of replacing Clinton Township’s professionals at this point in time suggests ulterior motives because it puts the town’s affordable housing strategy in jeopardy.

For over a decade, Clinton Township has been battling the spectre of a massive, unreasonable affordable housing obligation imposed by the State. The issue has never been “housing for the poor.” The issue is how special interests — private developers — have abused affordable housing laws to force towns to adopt ultra-high-density zoning.

Such zoning lets developers cram 10 or more housing units to an acre to maximize their profits, while the developers skate away without building any affordable housing at all.

The main thing standing between 1,000 or more new housing units in Clinton Township and the semi-rural, open-space quality of life residents enjoy is a world-class team of  planners, lawyers and engineers who have helped the town fight a complex war for over a decade.

(Another thing standing between the township and sprawl is its powerful local land-use ordinances, which have been developed over the years carefully and thoughtfully to balance growth, quality of life, and natural resources protection. But in a nod to special interests and county political powers, Mayor Higgins recently announced the town’s ordinances need to be stripped because they “cost developers time and money.”)

While the mayor and the administrator suggest they’re advertising for “how low can you go on fees” mom-and-pop consulting firms, at stake are 5 more developments the size of The Mews if Clinton Township relinquishes the skills and institutional knowledge of its team of professionals. That’s what could happen if the town blows its affordable housing defense. See Clinton Township: The wolf is at the door.

How much “savings” is Clinton Township’s future worth?

Saving money or hiring old friends?

There’s nothing unusual about a town putting out an RFP for professional positions — but Landon did it for all of Clinton Township’s professionals — all at once — in the middle of the town’s most critical affordable housing challenge.

patronage

It smells bad when a new administrator threatens to replace an entire team of proven professionals — and can’t even spell “counsel” — while his boss has no idea what the administrator has posted online.

But according to recent accounts, Mayor Higgins has been going around town telling residents he’s going to save money by getting rid of the town’s engineers, Mott MacDonald, a worldwide firm with broad and deep expertise in affordable housing to  hire a “cheaper” consultant, which he has repeatedly named — a local firm with limited resources and limited strategic expertise in affordable housing compared to Mott MacDonald.

But that firm worked for Landon in Tewksbury, where residents and officials say Landon demonstrated virtually no expertise in affordable housing himself.

Who else has Landon earmarked for a new job in Clinton Township? Is the new administrator trying to save money, or is he Mayor Higgins’ Chief of Patronage Jobs?

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Mayor John Higgins to citizens: You’re not smart enough to participate

Who should decide Clinton Township’s future? Not its citizens, according to Mayor John Higgins. At a September 5 Hunterdon County Freeholder meeting, Higgins said:

“I don’t know very many people in the township that have enough knowledge of … our land use ordinances to provide any real meaningful criticism or meaningful suggestions on how to improve them.”

Clinton Township has loads of smart, motivated citizens, and a team of seasoned planners and engineers who know the township well, to help them. But Higgins is letting politicians in Flemington do it instead.

Higgins turns Clinton Township over to the Freeholders

On September 5 Clinton Township Mayor John Higgins told the Hunterdon County Freeholders they have his full support to hire a special planner to review the town’s land-use regulations — rather than let the locals do it.

The planner will then issue “recommendations” to change the town’s ordinances to make it easier and cheaper for developers to push their projects through the local approval process. Those recommendations will then form a “toolkit” the Freeholders can give to other towns to use.

Purpose is to help developers

The online newspaper TAPInto Flemington/Raritan reported that Higgins said the purpose of this “evaluation of local processes” is to help developers — by taking the “viewpoint of the developer.”

Said Higgins:

“Where do they run into roadblocks? Where have we cost developers time and money?”

Then it can be easier and cheaper for developers to get their projects approved everywhere. And that will promote “economic development” in Hunterdon County.

Except there’s no definition of “economic development” or what kinds of building projects they’re talking about.

The public? What does the public know?

Higgins told TAPInto that the effort is “still an amorphous project. The details haven’t been worked out.”

But he doesn’t want the public involved. Neither do the Freeholders. (We’ll get into that in another, upcoming column.)

So, who’s in charge of deciding which of Clinton Township’s land-use ordinances should be given the heave-ho to help developers?

Who’s in charge? Politicians.

Mayor Higgins is turning a review of Clinton Township’s land-use ordinances over to a group of Freeholders who are so secretive that they meet at 4:30pm when everyone else is at work — and who refuse to publish recordings of their meetings like most towns do.

This is not the first time the Freeholders have tried to drive sprawl into Clinton Township and Hunterdon County. See Freeholders: Exposing Hunterdon to Sprawl.

Local rule? What’s that?

Public input? What’s that?

Why isn’t Mayor Higgins doing a bottom-up review project that starts with what Clinton Township’s residents want?

Why does Higgins think his residents aren’t qualified to participate?

How politicians shut out the public

That’s what a citizen asked at the Freeholder meeting. And the answer she got (see video below) reveals why it’s naive and dangerous for Clinton Township to let the most political characters in Hunterdon County — the Freeholders — hire, pay for, and control a “planner” to “review” the township’s land-use regulations, under the guise of promoting “economic development.”

Listen to Freeholder Director John Lanza shut down a citizen who dared provide her input during her statutorily guaranteed public comment period — a citizen who questioned the power of politicians:

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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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Posted in COAH, Municipal, Sprawl, State, Taxes, Windy Acres | Leave a comment

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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