Freeholder candidate Van Doren admits role in govt data breach

“They weighed about 40 pounds apiece.” said Tewksbury Township Committeeman Peter Melick about two boxes of confidential municipal personnel files he and someone else carried out of the government building on April 27, 2017. It was the biggest government record data breach in Tewksbury’s history.

After helping engineer the removal of the records, Committeeman Shaun Van Doren, a candidate for Hunterdon County Freeholder in the November 8, 2017 election, admitted afterwards:

“In hindsight was it the appropriate thing to do? No it wasn’t.”

Van Doren added:

“It came out of the conversation that occurred, there wasn’t any intent, there wasn’t anything nefarious.”

Peter Melick explains it

“Well, I can explain the whole thing,” Melick stated at the May 16, 2017 Committee meeting where Van Doren made the statements cited above. “Shaun and I met with Jess, I forget the exact date, just prior to his leaving.” That’s town Administrator Jesse Landon he was referring to.

According to statements of Tewksbury officials on the audio recording of that public meeting (scroll down to end for full recording), Van Doren, Melick, Landon and town attorney Michael Selvaggi were responsible for the biggest breach of government data in Tewksbury’s history.

The justification

Why did they plan and execute removal of all the private personnel files of all Tewksbury employees past and current? How did they justify it?

It was Landon’s last day at work. He had resigned his post on March 24, right after an “Internal Investigation” was completed. (See “Tewksbury residents angry over moved files,” Hunterdon Review, for details.)

Melick and Van Doren explained that, with the Administrator leaving his job for good that day, there was no one to keep the personnel records secure.

“…we didn’t want to leave them in a place where anybody coming in could look at anybody else’s personnel file and you’d have accusations of that nature. That’s what we’re trying to guard against,” said Melick.

“The custodian of the records is the clerk, no matter whether you have an administrator or don’t have one. Any records that the town has, especially personnel records, they should be keeping at the municipal building, or at the location where they keep their records, not in someone’s personal possession. Nothing should be taken off site.” – Joel Popkin, Executive Director, NJ Clerk’s Association

But Tewksbury’s long-time Clerk, Roberta Brassard, was present that day. According to New Jersey statute, she’s the custodian of records. Apparently the Gang of 4 never thought of that. They reportedly never consulted her.

There was no reason to remove the files to secure them. Their legal custodian was Brassard.

N.J.S.A. 40A:9-133.e.: “The municipal clerk shall: (1) act as secretary of the municipal corporation and custodian of the municipal seal and of all minutes, books, deeds, bonds, contracts, and archival records of the municipal corporation…”

They remove the files to Melick’s home

The point was to move the files where no one would be able to peek at anyone else’s confidential personnel file. So they moved them to Melick’s home.

Said Melick:

“Jess said there was no key for personnel filing cabinet. So I said what are we going to do with them. So because I’m around during the day he said, well, I’ll call you or whatever. I said call Dana [Desiderio] because she’s the mayor. She was away so she couldn’t do it. So I said I’ll take them and secure them in my office… my home office, business office.”

Van Doren to Melick: “Why don’t you take them?”

Said Van Doren:

“I didn’t authorize him to do it.”

But Van Doren also said:

“We had a discussion and I trust the concern that if the office is going to need to be left open so that employees could get access to other files they needed, that they didn’t have access to those files. That was when it came up in the conversation, well why don’t you take them and hold them until the appropriate time when they could be transferred to his successor. 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.”

The Gang

Jesse Landon, a seasoned professional, has (according to his resume) a Master of Public Administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He’s a Graduate Fellow at the Public Administration Institute and is affiliated with the New Jersey Municipal Management Association. He was Tewksbury’s Administrator for over 17 years.

Landon is clearly someone who knows the law and the rules about municipal records.

Peter Melick is a scion of the Melick family, whose father, George Melick, is renowned as the longest-serving freeholder in New Jersey history. Peter Melick has been tutored in politics and government all his life. He is also an experienced Committee member of almost a decade.

Shaun Van Doren has served on the Committee for 20 years and. He  was tapped by Patrick Torpey, Chairman of the Hunterdon Republican Committee, to run unopposed for freeholder in the June Primary. Van Doren is on the ballot for the November 8 election.

These two seasoned elected public officials surely know the law and the rules about government records.

Files were turned over by Landon

Yet Melick and Van Doren justified a government record data breach, and stood by as Landon did something that doesn’t seem to make  sense. To enable the removal 80 pounds of Tewksbury personnel files that were in Administrator Landon custody, Landon wrote a memo to the Committee which he had Melick sign.

Landon officially turned the records over to Melick. (Complete memo.)

Authorized by the attorney

“So I called Michael [Selvaggi], our attorney, told him what we were doing. He said okay so I took them.” – Peter Melick

(Attorney Michael Selvaggi said later that he “misunderstood.” He didn’t realize “all of the personnel files were going to be carted out.” He thought he was giving the okay to remove just one personnel record.)

Melick signed for receipt of the records at “14:47 hours” on April 27 and admitted he moved them down to his vehicle. He claims he drove them to his “home office, business office.” Yet at the October 10 Committee meeting, no one could provide any proof about where Melick went, or about his claim that he did not open the boxes.

No official authorization

At the May 16 Committee meeting, everyone admitted that no one but attorney Selvaggi gave any authorization to remove the personnel records:

Mayor Dana Desiderio: “I didn’t tell him to give the files to anyone.”

Asked if the Committee as a whole gave authorization, Deputy Mayor Louis DiMare said: “For the record, I don’t think we did.”

Shaun Van Doren: “I didn’t authorize him to do it.”

N.J.S.A. 2C:28-7, “Tampering with public records or information,” states: “A person commits an offense if he:… (3) Purposely and unlawfully… removes… or otherwise impairs the verity or availability of any such record, document or thing.”

What happened to the files?

What happened to the files is a long story that was discussed at length at the October 10, 2017 Committee meeting, reported in the Hunterdon Review, October, 12, 2017, “Tewksbury residents angered over moved files.” (The article includes full audio of the proceedings.)

Committeeman Shaun Van Doren was noticeably absent from his own Committee meeting — the last public meeting prior to the Freeholder election. Questions were asked about his role in the data breach, but he wasn’t there to answer.

Allegedly — according to comments made by town officials — the files included a copy of the “Internal Investigation Report” produced by special counsel for the Committee. The report was allegedly placed in Landon’s personnel file — and the report and/or file were allegedly missing when the personnel records were returned to the municipal building.

According to a Tewksbury insider who spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to discuss the matter, the records that were removed — to Melick’s “home office” — included personnel files of Tewksbury police officers.

Van Doren gives Landon a bonus

Four months after Landon left his job, on July 11, 2017 the Tewksbury Committee considered a motion made by Shaun Van Doren — who with Melick is the Finance Committee — to authorize a “merit pay bonus” of 1% for all municipal employees, retroactive to cover 2016.

After a lengthy discussion, Mayor Dana Desiderio said she would vote to approve the bonuses only if Committeeman Van Doren, who made the motion, would modify his motion to “exclude Jess Landon” from the bonus payments. Van Doren refused and stridently argued that Landon was not terminated but resigned and deserved the bonus.

Desiderio voted against the measure and explained her vote:

“I don’t give credit for poor behavior.”

The measure passed 3-2 with DiMare also opposed.

What happened to the guy who turned over the records?

On February 22, 2017. just six days after Administrator Jesse Landon was interviewed by Tewksbury’s special investigator, the Clinton Township Council “authorized [Mayor John Higgins] to make an offer to Mr. Landon and draw up an employment letter.”

The offer was for the job of Administrator.

On February 27, 11 days after being interviewed by the investigator, and a month before the “Internal Investigation” in Tewksbury was completed, Landon was given a written job offer for the position of Township Administrator, signed by Clinton Township Mayor John Higgins, at a salary of $132,000, a $4,000 raise.

In a March 29, 2017 article, the Hunterdon Review reported:

Higgins said, “Mr. Landon understands how things work in Hunterdon County” and “He was a superior candidate. We’re very happy to have him on board.”

Clinton Township’s official Personnel Policy requires that:

“Applications for positions as advertised shall be made on forms supplied by the township and filed with the Municipal Clerk.”

An OPRA request filed with the Clinton Township Clerk for a copy of Landon’s job application was answered with a statement that no application exists.

What happened to Shaun Van Doren?

As noted above, Committeeman Shaun Van Doren is campaigning for a seat on the Hunterdon County Freeholder Board in the November 8 election.

Full meeting recording

This official recording was obtained from Tewksbury Township, which records but does not publish meeting recordings. Recordings may be obtained by filing a N.J. Open Public Records Act request.

It’s worth noting that the Freeholders do not publish their meeting recordings, either. Unlike Tewksbury, which maintains an archive of recordings, the Freeholders destroy their meeting recordings after 90 days.

That’s how things work as you move up the political ladder in Hunterdon County.

Key facts presented in this column would never have been discovered if Hunterdon’s municipalities destroyed their meeting recordings after 90 days like the Freeholders do.

One might say of Mr. Van Doren’s qualifications for Freeholder:

“Mr. Van Doren understands how things work in Hunterdon County.”

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Why to vote NO on Public Question to divert open space funds

This letter was published in the local newspapers and social media outlets this week. Chairs of the Clinton Township Open Space Committee and Environmental Commission — along with other residents — oppose a Public Question on the November 8 ballot that would let the Mayor and Council divert over $215,000 per year from the Open Space Trust Fund to other purposes.


We, the undersigned, strongly recommend a NO vote on the Clinton Township Municipal Public Question on the November 8 ballot. This measure is unnecessary, vague and ambiguous and would allow the town council to divert up to 50% of our Open Space Tax levy to other unspecified expenses.

The purpose of the Open Space Trust Fund is to preserve open space and to maintain our town’s character. The Trust Fund already permits up to 12.5% to be spent on maintenance of open space lands.

But the Public Question seeks to divert more than $200,000 per year for “maintenance” and “development” but does not define exactly what that means and how the money would be used.

We support the use and enjoyment of our open space lands. But maintenance above 12.5% should be paid from the Township’s general fund, as it has always been — not from the Open Space Trust Fund, whose purpose is preservation, not development. (Open Space Trust monies are often matched by State and County funds which would be lost if we allowed our Open Space funds to be diverted for other purposes.)

Improvements of our Open Space lands have always been done at minimal or no cost to taxpayers through volunteer efforts, donations, user fees and grants obtained by our Open Space Committtee, Environmental Commission and Recreation Committee.

For example:

  • Eagle Scouts and volunteers built benches, parking, trails and fencing at Bray’s Hill and Hackett’s Preserves, and rebuilt Bray’s historic spring house. A neighbor mows the field for about $50.
  • At Springside Farm, Open Space Committee volunteers partnered with a mountain biking club to build trails, parking and put up fencing at minimal cost.
  • On Windy Acres, trails were put in mostly with grant money obtained by our Environmental Commission.

The purpose of our 2-cent Open Space Tax is to bank enough funds so we can actually preserve appropriate lands when they are available.

We believe the proposed referendum would create a slippery slope of unnecessary spending without public input or oversight.

We note that this referendum was not endorsed by the Clinton Township Open Space Committee, Environmental Commission, or Recreation Committee. These groups have always brought our community together to do the work as volunteers so we can enjoy our open space.

For these reasons, we urge you to vote NO on the referendum that diverts up to 50% of Open Space Taxes to other uses.

(Signed)
Bill Honachefsky, Sr., former Chair, Open Space Committee
Cathy Sipe, Chair, Open Space Committee
Laurie Gneiding, Chair, Environmental Commission
Michael Brady, PE, former Chair, Planning Board
Bill Honachefsky, Jr., member, Environmental Commission
Nick Corcodilos, former Mayor
Svein Kopfelt
Peter & Carolyn Geiger
Gwen & Dave Ruppert
Deborah Canty, former member, Recreation Committee
Dwight Irving

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Doherty Says: Jesus Agrees, Women Don’t Need Equal Pay

Hear that hollow ringing sound, women of Hunterdon County? That’s New Jersey State Senator Michael Doherty asserting you deserve equal pay — right after he voted against equal pay and told a female reporter to stop making him walk on eggshells.

And he says Jesus agrees with him.

equal payGovernor Christie vetoed pay parity for women

After Gov. Christie vetoed a bill passed by the New Jersey legislature to help ensure women get equal pay, legislators attempted to get the veto overridden.

During the floor debate, Doherty objected to another senator who compared white men’s pay to several other demographics. Doherty said Jesus was on his side, while he complained that well-paid guys like him — he’s a patent attorney — are “denigrated over and over again. It’s got to stop at some point.”

Wait a minute. What’s that? Jesus?

Doherty says Jesus agrees with him

The Star-Ledger reported Doherty said “he has been attacked for [being well-paid], but it’s a matter of conscience.” (“N.J. senator gives rare insight into what a white man thinks about pay equity for women.”) Then Doherty channeled Jesus on the N.J. Senate floor:

“I would say, Jesus, what do you think about my views? He would say, you know, Mike, I can’t disagree with you.”

Jesus doesn’t believe women should be paid the same as men? Mike Doherty knows what Jesus would say?

eggshellsWomen make Doherty walk on eggshells

Doherty is a lawyer. He’s also heavily endorsed by pro-business groups. But he made no legal or business or economic case for opposing equal pay. He didn’t even make a religious case.

Afterward, Doherty elaborated his personal angst and suffering to a female Star-Ledger editor:

“You should have a private conversation with some of the men in your life. We walk around on eggshells, I’m not kidding you.”

Rejoice when debate collides with Stupid, because that’s when voters get to see in the light of day how their interests are being represented. Such revelations are how we improve government by voting out fatuous politicians.

A lawyer’s double-talk, or a politician’s evasion?

Doherty’s response to criticism about his equal-pay record is the transparent and embarrassing work of a cagey lawyer and lazy politician trying to appease voters while not offending the special interests who have been funding his campaigns since 2009.

Defending himself  in a letter to TAPInto Raritan/Flemington (which he cribbed from a letter he wrote to the Star-Ledger last February), the 3-term state legislator wrote:

“Everyone agrees that women deserve equal pay for equal work.”

Except Doherty never says he agrees. He tells underpaid women that they don’t need more progress (or new laws) toward equal pay because we already have laws like “the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, as well as … New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.”

Got that, you uppity women? The law already ensures you’re getting equal pay. You have no complaint!

Guess Doherty’s vote really gave it back to the women in his life who make him walk on eggshells.

The 3 Amigos who “represent” Hunterdon County

Whatever your position on equal pay, can we demand that our legislators debate and legislate using evidence and cogent argument — rather than “quote” Jesus? Can we agree to get rid of grandstanding politicians who have nothing to offer but hot air emanating from stuffed shirts?

Doherty isn’t even from Hunterdon. He’s in Warren County, where he’s best known for his legislation to protect residents’ right to have outdoor wood burning furnaces.

Doherty has been in the N.J. Senate since 2009, and got re-elected in 2011 and 2013 by wide margins. He doesn’t have one significant legislative accomplishment. Nor do his campaign partners, Assemblymen Eric Peterson and John DiMaio (also from Warren County). The 3 Amigos have ridden empty promises to re-election again and again. They have done nothing for Hunterdon County but show up for photo ops.

Voters walking into voting booths

Doherty has never expressed any shame for invoking Jesus on the floor of the New Jersey legislature. But the shame of not supporting progress toward equal pay for women is still all over his tailored suit. Does he have stains on his fine shoes from walking on eggshells?

All that’s left is for women, fathers, husbands, mothers, daughters, sons, significant others — all those whose lives are enriched when the women in their lives get paid fairly —  to walk into the voting booths on Election Day.

What kind of State Senator and Assemblymen do you want to represent Hunterdon County?

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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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