Switlyk & Mullay: 6 years of feeble government in Clinton Township

Clinton Township council members Amy Switlyk and Brian Mullay are running for third terms. Their 6 years in office are marked by financial disasters and hiding their bad decisions. They brush off public scrutiny, mischaracterize serious problems, and avoid the truth about soaring taxes.

This year Clinton Township’s tax rate is up 13.45%, 4 times the next highest in the area. In contrast, school taxes are down 0.8%. The township’s budget is up 6.99% compared to 1.96% for Readington, the neighboring town most similar to Clinton Township. In 2018 Clinton Township’s tax rate was up 12.3%.

800+ housing units approved in secret

In December 2017, after a secret council meeting (a “closed session”), Switlyk and Mullay approved a settlement agreement with affordable housing advocate Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) to build over 800 new housing units in the township. Only a fraction are “affordable.” The rest are market-priced stand-alone houses, condos and apartments — a “bonus” for the developers who benefit from the re-zoning.

They allowed no public comment, held no hearing. There was no one in the audience when they voted “in public” to sign the deal — because no one was told they were going to do it.

They told residents that if they had comments, rather than speak up in the Clinton Township council chambers, objectors could drive to Somerville and tell it to a judge in court at a hearing. To participate, you had to file a formal objection with the court first.

Switlyk and Mullay didn’t reveal housing densities of 10 units per acre, or that 400 of them will be built on land that had been approved for only 21 units — next to a small neighborhood on a two-lane, unstriped country road near Foran Field.

Then they gave a donation of $30,000 of public funds to FSHC — the private advocacy group threatening to sue Clinton Township. They hid that, too, until a group of taxpayers found it.

Shhhh… let’s sue our neighbors!

Switlyk and Mullay approved suing Readington Township to confiscate its sewer capacity for Clinton Township’s affordable housing, without any public discussion. This was part of the FSHC settlement deal.

Even though the Clinton Township lawyers that wrote the settlement agreement also work for Readington, Readington was told nothing. Switlyk and Mullay kept mum. After being tipped off, Readington called the lawyers on the carpet because a lawyer cannot be on two sides of the same deal. They cannot represent both parties.

With the legal conflict of interest exposed, Switlyk, Mullay, the mayor and the rest of the council had to back off.

How to hide financial trouble

A town Clinton Township’s size should have about $1 million in surplus. At the May 24, 2017 budget hearing, the auditor said:

“Our surplus at the end of this past year was $49,000. It’s low…In 2015 it was $849,000. They used $800,000 to balance the 2016 budget. That left them with 49.”

In other words, to avoid raising taxes and disclosing serious financial trouble to the public, Switlyk and Mullay voted to use almost all their surplus to balance the 2016 budget.

$908,000 deficit

But it was much worse. Having depleted the surplus, Switlyk and Mullay approved sending a check to the school board for over $1 million, throwing the township into a $908,000 deficit.

While they tried to explain it away, the auditor stated that in his 11 years working on the township’s budgets, he had never seen a deficit. (See Annual Financial Statement for The Year 2017. p. 26.)

Switlyk, Mullay, the mayor and the council had to certify to the State that Clinton Township is a “Non-Qualifying Municipality,” the equivalent of getting audited by the IRS. (Hunterdon Review, May 26, 2017)

Political double-talk

When difficult questions were raised by the public at the budget hearing, Switlyk said:

“How many topics are you going to bring up?”

Asked to explain the $908,000 shortfall, Mullay said:

“It’s paperwork. I mean, I hate to put it that way but it’s paperwork.”

He blamed “previous administrations” 13 years ago.

Where’s the school tax revenue?

In December 2018 the school board sued the council for payment of school tax revenues. An expert “Municipal Finance Officer” certified that:

“the Township has created an endless cycle in which it has become dependent on the school district’s tax revenue to fund its own budget…The Township’s scheme [deferring school tax payments] is essentially like using one credit card to pay off another. It is not sustainable.”

Re-elect 6 years of feeble government?

Switlyk and Mullay have hidden 6 years of feeble government and questionable fiscal management, and covered up the costs.

Switlyk has fashioned herself as the advocate for parks and recreation, while she fumbles on the township’s big policy issues — including massive tax increases — and passes the ball with no comment.

Mullay serves as Council President and tries hard to cover up Mayor John Higgins’ shenanigans. He has stood by while Higgins spent untold sums on years’ of “negotations” with the Fair Share Housing Center — but never bothered to develop a strategy to fight off the unfunded mandate of affordable housing, which is not about the poor, but about enriching developers by giving them control over the township’s zoning.

Vote November 5 — It’s your town’s future

Republicans who vote the party line should ask, can we afford 3 more years of these two “Republicans”?

Democrats should realize their votes count, but only if they vote.

Independents should be aware that in the expected light turnout at the November 5 election, their votes could turn the tide for Clinton Township.

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Freeholder John Lanza tells a whopper

lanzaAt the September 3, 2019 Hunterdon County Freeholder meeting, the editor of this publication announced that ExMayor.com is offering for sale official recordings of freeholder meetings going back to 2017 — recordings that the freeholders have destroyed and are thus no longer available from the County. Meeting recordings are routinely posted online by other counties, by municipalities and school boards for the convenience of citizens who don’t have time to attend public meetings. But not by the Hunterdon County Freeholders.

Then Freeholder John Lanza told a whopper.

It’s on the recording

Lanza, who is running for re-election, claimed he personally…

“…ordered those tapes be preserved. By state law we’re only required to keep them for 90 days. And in anticipation of one day having all of these recordings posted online, I ordered those tapes be preserved, and that order was continued by my successor, Deputy Freeholder Director [Matt] Holt, and continued by my friend — my present successor — Freeholder Director [Suzanne] Lagay. So best of luck… selling things to people that they can get for free… that we have preserved here since 2017 since I was director of this board. Good luck. [chuckles heard from Director Lagay]”

— Audio recording, Hunterdon Freeholders Meeting, 9/3/19

It is worth noting that Lanza — an attorney and municipal prosecutor who faces other problems — doesn’t know the state law he cites about retention of records. The county is required to keep recordings for 80 days, not 90.

(How did we get this recording? Click here for the details.)

Lanza told a whopper

Lanza claims he “ordered the tapes be preserved,” but the county says they were destroyed during the year  Lanza served as freeholder director.

For example, two of the recordings that ExMayor.com obtained and now offers for sale are for the March 21 and August 22, 2017 freeholder meetings. These were obtained under the Sunshine Law while Lanza was appointed freeholder director — during the 80-day window when the county is prohibited from erasing them.

Yet when TAPinto Flemington/Raritan requested those same two recordings just last month (September 2019), they “were not provided ‘because they were disposed of,’ County Records Custodian Samantha M. Gravelle wrote” to TapInto.

Lanza exclaimed that he should be thanked because people who want the recordings can get them for free.

Lanza told a whopper. And it’s captured on the audio recording above — which you cannot download on the freeholders’ website.

County cites right to destroy recordings

In response to more than one Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for recordings, the County responded to ExMayor.com that it has the right to destroy meeting recordings under the County Agencies General Records Retention Schedule.

It’s clear the freeholders have relied on this method to keep the recordings from the public. The Schedule allows their destruction after “80 days or until either summary or verbatim transcript have been approved as minutes, whichever is longer.”

In 2016, Freeholders Matt Holt, Suzanne Lagay, John King and Lanza decided not to publish meeting recordings online because they were “concerned about the security” of the audio files. (See TAPinto.) Lanza promised to resolve those concerns and “step on it” to get them posted. That was three years ago.

You still can’t get them on the Freeholder website

For all the talk and bluster about recordings of freeholder meetings, no recordings of any freeholder meetings are available — for free or otherwise — on the freeholders’ website.

One can only ask:

  • What are the freeholders hiding?
  • Why did Lanza tell a whopper?
  • Why don’t the freeholders want you to hear their meetings?

 

The only place the destroyed meetings can be obtained online is ExMayor.com. One can only wonder how taxpayers would feel if the freeholders needed recordings and had to spend tax dollars to purchase them at ExMayor.com.

We’d love to see the Freeholders put us out of business and do what any ethical government body would do — make their meeting recordings freely available for download on their website.

But that means we first need freeholders who aren’t hiding anything and who are not afraid the public will hear how they operate. Lanza and his running mate Zachary Rich are on the November ballot.

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Erased Hunterdon Freeholder meeting recordings now for sale

Digital audio recordings of public meetings that the Hunterdon County Freeholders refuse to publish on their website are now available for sale via instant download here on ExMayor.com. Dozens of recordings go back to 2017.

The freeholders record their meetings, then delete or erase the recordings. During a narrow window of time, the law requires that the recordings be retained by the county. For the past two years, ExMayor.com has obtained these recordings under New Jersey’s Sunshine Law before they are destroyed.

The recordings are public records and in the public domain.

The freeholders have not cited cost as a reason for not publishing their recordings. They have cited “security” concerns as their reason for not publishing recordings that you may now download anyway.

Why are we selling freeholder meeting recordings?

We’re offering these recordings to the public because the freeholders won’t. We believe the public wants to hear audio records of the county’s business, and that the recordings are useful to:

  • taxpayers
  • news media
  • state and municipal officials
  • attorneys and litigants
  • the freeholders’ political rivals
  • and other parties interested in freeholder board proceedings.

Why is it important to have public access to these recordings?

Mainly because it seems the freeholders don’t want the public to hear them at work.

The freeholders:

  • Conduct their public meetings when most people are at work, at 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.
  • Routinely change the time and location of their meetings.
  • Delete their meeting recordings.

Government transparency is a trend

Other governing bodies routinely publish audio of their meetings. For example, the Somerset County Freeholders record and publish both audio and video of their meetings and stream meetings live on their website. More and more Hunterdon County municipalities (Readington Township, Tewksbury Township) and school boards (North Hunterdon-Voorhees, Clinton Township) routinely publish their public meeting recordings so people who cannot attend meetings can hear the proceedings.

Technology makes it easy for busy citizens play audio books, stream video and rely on podcasts to listen to news and events at their convenience. In the interest of transparency — not to mention keeping voters engaged and educated — government has learned to make its proceedings available on the fly.

The Hunterdon Freeholders have made it clear on the record that they are afraid of what people might do with those recordings. (See Hunterdon Freeholders to Millennials: Don’t listen to what we say.)

Why aren’t the recordings available for free on the Hunterdon County website?

The freeholders want you to go to their website to find out whether their meeting is at 4:00 or 4:30, or whether the time has been changed to 5:00 or 5:30 p.m., and whether it’s being held in Flemington or Kingwood, Clinton or Raritan.

But you can’t go to their website tomorrow to hear what they said at their meeting last night.

The freeholders have repeatedly refused to publish their recordings. In fact, based on responses of the county to our Sunshine Law requests, the freeholders destroy the recordings as soon as the law permits, after around 80 days. (Destruction of Public Records Act, Chapter 410, PL 1953). The recordings are apparently used only to produce required written minutes of meetings. The minutes are archived and available, but they are edited summaries, not transcripts.

The matter came to a head at the December 20, 2016 public meeting, when freeholder Rob Walton made a motion to publish the recordings like other governing bodies do. Freeholder John King seconded the motion but then withdrew it, so the motion could not be voted on.

The freeholders have taken no action in the almost three years since then to publish the recordings.

Why won’t the freeholders publish the recordings? “Security.”

Led by freeholder Matt Holt, the freeholder board engaged in an embarrassing “deliberation,” about posting the recordings to their website, for over 15 minutes. The following audio excerpts are from the December 20, 2016 meeting.

Holt nervously stumbled and bumbled through an almost incomprehensible explanation about the “security” of the recordings.

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, the, the concern is, the, the security of those recordings, and the inability to have them manipulated in any way, shape or form, beyond, 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, in their entirety… 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. ”

But the recordings would be secure

While other governing bodies freely distribute their meeting audio, Holt frets. Freeholder Rob Walton explained security for the audio mp3 files to Holt:

“They would be on our secured server, which has the same security as any other document that we have in the county.”

Duh. Just like any song you listen to on Spotify or Apple Music. Or on your mobile device.

Walton explains there’s nothing to this, it’s a no-brainer, that the public wants it, and that it would enhance government transparency:

But freeholders John King, Suzanne Lagay and John Lanza echoed and reinforced Holt’s Luddite paranoia. Maybe they don’t listen to podcasts or download mp3 files or understand how this marvelous technology works. They could ask a fifth grader.

Freeholder John Lanza wants your vote

Freeholder Deputy Director Lanza is running for re-election in November. At the December 20, 2016 meeting Lanza showed how he’s perfected political double-talk. He wants the recordings published, but he doesn’t.

Lanza said he’d approve publishing meeting recordings — but not now. Later.

“I agree with Mr. Walton. I agree that this stuff should be online. I have no problem with this whatsoever. How long would it take for us to be able to figure out what the security issue is, resolve it so that we can just move ahead? Because I’m willing to withhold my yes vote [to publish the recordings] conditionally, now, but I’m not willing to withhold it that much longer. This is something that has to be done and for the sake of, um, allaying legitimate concerns that my colleagues have regarding security, I’m willing to withhold the yes vote for now, but I do intend to vote yes on this at some point in the near future, very soon, so I think we should really step on it.”

Almost three years later, the only thing Freeholder John Lanza has stepped on is the public’s right to know. He has not “moved ahead” with publication of the recordings. But he wants taxpayers — especially those much-prized Millennials who love their podcasts — to re-elect him in November.

“Driving half-blind into…” podcasts?

In an article about that meeting, TAPInto Flemington/Raritan reported:

“Freeholder Mat[t] Holt… asked that Freeholders wait before acting on posting the audio until an upcoming 45-day technology security review is complete.”

“‘Diving half-blind into something makes no sense,’ Holt told the Freeholder board. Freeholder John King agreed and said, ‘We want to defer to the results of the IT security and infrastructure review.’ Freeholder John Lanza said that while sharing audio is ‘something we should be doing,’ he, too, has security concerns.”

Over two years after that “IT review” of “security concerns” was completed, the freeholders have taken no action to publish the meeting recordings they continue to make. After spending tax dollars to make the recordings, they spend more tax dollars to destroy them.

It’s taking longer for Holt and his crew to decide what to do with their mp3s than it takes Taylor Swift to write, record and release a new album.

Millennials Want To Know: Where’s my government?

The Hunterdon Freeholders have explained that they conduct their public meetings at 4:30 p.m, or 5:00 p.m., or 5:30 p.m., and sometimes at 10:00 a.m. (it depends — last-minute changes in time and location are common) to avoid conflicts with local municipal government meetings, which are typically held at 7:00 p.m. or 7:30 p.m.

By meeting hours earlier, the freeholders suggest people can attend both county and local meetings. The freeholders also move their meetings around, holding them in government chambers in towns around Hunterdon County — to make it “easier” to attend.

But most taxpayers work. They’re not able to attend meetings in Flemington or elsewhere at 5:00. Busy citizens — and the Millennials the freeholders claim they’re trying to attract to the mp3-less Hunterdon County — want to know, “It’s 5 o’clock — do I know where my freeholders are and what they’re doing? Where’s my podcast?”

Why worry about freeholders?

The county freeholders collect and control a huge chunk of local property taxes, which they decide how to channel and spend. Their 2019 budget is $88.491 million. Freeholders also funnel enormous funding from the state and federal government — to whomever they wish.

Their power over the distribution of money is immense, but few taxpayers even know who they are, much less what they do. And it’s clear that the freeholders prefer it that way.

Why has Lanza quietly buried the matter during his re-election campaign? Why do the freeholders still meet while everyone else is at work?

The Sunshine Law

As far as government transparency goes, one law taketh away, and another law giveth.

One New Jersey law permits the Hunterdon County Freeholders to record their public meetings and then to destroy those recordings. Another law requires the county to produce those recordings to any citizen that demands them, while the recordings still exist. That’s why we’re making them available for sale.

It’s long past time the State of New Jersey required local and county government to record and publish the recordings of public proceedings.

It’s no accident that the excerpts of the December 20, 2016 meeting provided above are not available. How’d we get them? The online news outlet, TAPintoFlemington/Raritan obtained and published the recording of that meeting before ExMayor.com started its collection.

What the freeholders are afraid of

The freeholders admit what they are really afraid of — someone might “manipulate” or “tamper” with their meeting recordings, “in any way, shape or form, beyond, beyond the actual security of [the county’s] website.”

Like this?

Or, are the freeholders afraid of you?

Do the freeholders prefer that we elect them — then leave them alone to operate while taxpayers have no reasonable chance to see or hear what their elected officials are doing?

A taxpayer who enjoys podcasts might say to Matt Holt, “Gimme a break! MP3 security???”

Public Hunterdon County Freeholder meeting recordings now for sale

Now anyone can purchase and instantly download official recordings of Hunterdon County Freeholder meetings here on ExMayor.com. Including the freeholders.

** This website and store have no affiliation with Hunterdon County or any government agency. No kidding, right?? **

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Threats and scare tactics from Superintendent Cone

On June 15, 2019 Clinton Township School District Superintendent Michele Cone warned parents that teachers might violate the law and go on strike just before 8th grade graduation. Families’ “plans for the summer” might be “interrupted.” Cone also reported that negotiations with the teachers’ union were going along swimmingly.

Except there was no threatened strike and negotiations were in the toilet.

Cone’s missive

The iron fist of the Clinton Township Supreme Soviet… er, school board… was coming down. Cone sent a Memo to the Community that was apparently delivered only to parents of students. Other residents and taxpayers say they did not receive it.

It seems the superintendent runs her very own rumor mill. Cone has developed a tool to influence the ongoing negotiations with teachers: cheap threats and scare tactics.

8th grade graduation “disrupted”

In her memo, Cone threatened that 8th grade graduation could be “disrupted” if the teachers go on strike. Cone said the teachers’ union “refused” to “give us a heads up if there’s going to be a strike.”

But the Clinton Township Education Association — the union — has said nothing about striking. Cone herself allows that “a strike is prohibited by State law.”

Is there a State law prohibiting Cone from promoting rumors and scaring parents — and threatening teachers?

The superintendent’s rumor mill

Cone says that according to “the rumor mill” there is “talk of a strike” by Clinton Township teachers — and that “we have 8th grad graduation scheduled for June 20th and we don’t want to have that special event disrupted.”

Cone wants parents to know that if they “have plans for the summer… we don’t want those interrupted” by teachers striking before and during graduation.

Interference with negotiations through threats

Cone states explicitly that her “note” is intended as an update “on the negotiating process” between CTSD and the CTEA. She would “love to have the negotiating process resolved” because “everyone[‘s]… wonderful summer” depends on it.

The clear threat, of course, is that if the teachers don’t cave in on the lengthy negotiations before graduation, everyone will have a lousy summer.

Threats, scare tactics, selective distribution of information, and the not-so-subtle message to parents that teachers are the problem.

Administrative Promiscuity: Michele Cone, aka #4

Since 2017, when the teachers’ last contract expired (they’ve been working two years without a contract after working three years just before that without a contract), the CTSD has had 4 superintendents under the management of school board president Maria Grant:

  1. Drucilla Clark
  2. Gina Villani
  3. Pamela Fiander
  4. Michele Cone

4 supers in less than 2 years? Such administrative promiscuity is extreme even for the rough-and-tumble CTSD. Since June 2017, Grant has also had 4 school board business administrators:

  1. Anthony Juskiewicz
  2. Edward F. McManus
  3. Richard J. Kilpatrick
  4. Michael Falkowski (acting)

It seems Grant loves to spend money on search firms and to disrupt management of the district. Scrub ’em up and get ’em ready!

Or, perhaps, not. What better way for Grant to control both the school board and the administration of the schools than to show supers and BA’s how soon they, too, could be out the door?

“It’s not fair to ask more than 200 teachers to work without a contract”

The CTSD is notorious for bad faith during teacher negotiations, and it’s easy to see that Cone has learned to apply the tactics her boss uses. (See Maria Grant tells 1.19% of the truth about teachers.) Clinton Township school teachers have worked without a contract for 6 of the past 8 years.

On April 9, 2019 the Hunterdon Review delivered a blistering editorial about the school board’s failure to settle the teachers’ contract:

“During the last round of negotiations the CTEA worked with an expired contract for three years, from 2013 to 2016. Prior to that, the teachers and staff worked under an expired contract for two years… It’s not fair to ask more than 200 teachers to work without a contract”

It seems Michele Cone is trying to speed up negotiations the way she’s been taught: by threatening teachers, parents and students alike.

Oops.

Three days later, after taking a scathing tongue-lashing from parents at the June 17 board meeting, Cone and the school board issued a new statement, pretending they had cleared up the question of whether there might be a strike.

But it appears this notice was as bogus as Cone’s memo.

Class was in session on June 17

At the second public comment section of the June 17 board meeting, two teachers gave a lesson to the superintendent and the school board.

The well-versed representatives of the CTEA — Mary Claire Spadone and Kelly Hill — disclosed that Superintendent Cone had lied about a possible teachers’ strike, and had misrepresented that “the [negotiations] process has moved along very well over the last year…”

“This statement is completely untrue. We are at the exact same place we were last year when the board filed for impasse.”

“Dr. Cone alluded that as pressure to come to an agreement continues, a strike may happen… When speaking to Dr. Cone last week… I qualified that she was confused… She was also reassured on more than one occasion that we would not take any action that would negatively affect our students or their families… To insinuate that we would disrupt a celebration such as graduation is utterly offensive — utterly!”

[All audio excerpts are from the official recording of the June 17, 2019 board meeting.]

Who will call Michele Cone to account for misleading “the community?” How does it feel to be #4?

The Iron Fist is nothing new at CTSD

How does Grant do it?

It’s no mystery how board president Maria Grant controls contract negotiations. Even after 4 new board members were elected last year, Grant refuses to put any of them on negotiation committees. Kevin Maloy, Mary Beth Brooks, Alissa Olawski, and Grant herself control the contracts, with Lana Brennan supplying the 5th vote to ensure it. At the June 17 meeting a power struggle erupted and the public cheered the 4 new members — but Grant locked them out.

The key to Grant’s power is Lana Brennan, who ran for school board “to make things better.” When the 4 newest members threatened Grant’s iron fist, according to district insiders Grant cut a deal with the naive Brennan. In exchange for Brennan’s vote to keep Grant in the president position, Grant and her minority would nominate and elect Brennan vice president. Grant is in charge because Brennan is her 5th vote.

Out-of-control school board presidents who rule with iron fists, and their closely held superintendents, are nothing new in Clinton Township.

Board president Jeanine Gorman sold taxpayers a $35 million middle school at a time when student population was predicted to drop precipitously. (Want to buy an empty school building, anyone? You’re paying for it anyway.) Superintendent Elizabeth Nastus was nothing short of notorious. (See Clinton Twp budget rejected: Board has no credibility.)

Board president Jim Dincuff set a standard to rival despots of any stripe when he attacked board members and citizens alike with unfounded accusations. (See Jim Dincuff: The damage continues.) He did his best to give sweetheart contracts and payouts to his favorite superintendents (Superintendent Carroll Declines Contract Renewal) and oversaw brazen violations of the New Jersey Sunshine Law.

Time and time again, Clinton Township voters put the wrong people in charge of their schools, children, teachers — and of the biggest slice of their property taxes.

Another superintendent busted

What credibility does Michele Cone have now that her attempts to mislead the public about the teachers has been exposed? It seems it’s time for board president Maria Grant to strap on the rubber apron and clean house once again.

A 5th superintendent would nicely round out Grant’s tenure as board president. Board members — er, Grant’s #1 and #2 loyals — Kevin Maloy and Lana Brennan seem ready once again to vote with Grant to defend her role as Commandant of Clinton Township’s Supreme Soviet.

Unless someone stops them.

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Mayor Higgins snaps when ExMayor exposes 7X-higher tax rate

Clinton Township raised its municipal property tax rate dramatically compared to a host of other neighboring towns this year, but the Council tried to gloss over it at the May 8, 2019 public hearing on the budget.

And Mayor John Higgins snapped when an ExMayor exposed the stunning increase.

(Source: Clinton Township official recording, May 5, 2019 council meeting.)

New Jersey law guarantees the right of citizens to make comments at public government meetings without interference by a governing body. During a budget hearing, N.J. has a statutory requirement that the public be heard before a public budget is adopted.

13.45% increase in Clinton Township municipal tax rate

The boost in the municipal tax rate Clinton Township residents will be paying is 7 times higher than the increase in Readington Township.

This year, Readington increased its tax rate just 1.78% compared to Clinton Township’s 13.45% increase. Readington is the nearby town most similar to Clinton Township.

The next highest tax rate boost is in Tewksbury: 3.30%. Clinton Township’s increase is 4X higher than that. No town in the list below is even close to Clinton Township’s boost.

(The tax rate is cents per $100 of your property value.)

Because tax rates are based on a town’s population, budget and property values, it is not reasonable to compare tax rates across towns. (As can be seen, tiny High Bridge has an enormous tax rate, while enormous Readington’s is about half that, while tony Tewksbury’s is lower than both.) However, the percentage of change in tax rates is a legitimate comparative metric of how municipal governments manage their finances. (Source of data: Hunterdon Review.)

A massive boost in the budget

Clinton Township’s municipal budget is up 6.99% for 2019, from $12,524,148 to $13,400,000 — almost a million bucks.

Readington’s budget is up 1.99%.

Who funds the budget increase?

Part of a town’s budget is funded by revenue sources including State aid and fees collected by the municipality. Taxpayers pay the rest.

Readington’s taxpayers are paying just $286,949 of its budget increase.

Clinton Township’s taxpayers are paying $1,000,000 of its budget increase.

Readington’s revenue from property taxes will go up just 1.96% in 2019.

Clinton Township’s taxpayers will contribute 13.16% more to the town’s budget than last year.

Where’s all that money in Clinton Township going?

We’ll tell you in the next edition where taxpayers’ money seems to be going.

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Don’t Vote June 4! This Primary smells like…

Here at ExMayor.com we pride ourselves on voting in every election and in exercising our franchise. But we’re not stupid.

We looked at this year’s Primary Ballot. And we realized that if you vote on June 4, 2019, Primary Election Day, in Clinton Township, NJ, you’re a sucker. You’re wasting your time.

Because this Primary makes Clinton Township government smell like ass.

Here’s your Official Primary Election Sample Ballot

That’s your official Clinton Township sample ballot.

Read it carefully. Then fold, dispose and flush twice because it’s a long way from your house to the Clinton Township Council Chamber, to the Sheriff’s Office, and to the Board of Freeholders.

That’s right: You get no choices. There’s just one candidate for each open slot!

The Republican Party gives you no choices

The GOP party bosses have already made your choice for you in every race. The Hunterdon County Republican Committee offers you just one candidate for each vacant seat on the ballot.

The GOP shows you its ass.

Hunterdon GOP boss Patrick Torpey follows in the steps of his predecessor, Henry Kuhl, who used to say, “All we care is that Republicans get elected. We don’t need to give you choices of Republicans.”

(Check out what happened on the GOP Committee just a few years ago: Hunterdon County Republican Committee Members Question Validity of Candidate Endorsements.)

So, why show up to vote?

The Democratic Party gives you no choices

The Democratic party bosses have already made your choice for you in every race. The Hunterdon Democratic Committee offers you just one candidate for each vacant seat on the ballot.

There’s plenty of… what’s it called… ass to go around.

So, why show up to vote?

Why does it matter?

In Clinton Township, the Democrats run local candidates who don’t campaign to win. In fact, the local Dem party bosses convince a couple of candidates to run each year by telling them, “Don’t worry! You’re not going to win! We just need two names on the ballot!”

They campaign to call attention to their party in order to attract donations from Democrats for State and Federal election campaigns. The Republicans know the Dems don’t campaign to win in November — so the Republicans know that whatever GOP candidate for Mayor or Council wins in the Primary is a shoe-in in November.

So, that’s right — no matter which party you belong to, your next Council member actually gets elected in the June 4 Primary. And you get no choices because there are only 2 GOP candidates for 2 seats — and both are the incumbents.

You might as well stay home. You have no choices on the Primary ballot.

Why do you belong to a party?

The purpose of America’s two-party system is to cultivate smart, capable new candidates in the Republican and Democratic parties to give Republican and Democratic voters a choice about who will be on the General Election ballot.

But you get no choices. You’d do better on June 4 to go wash your car for all that voting is going to do for you. All the candidates you see on the Clinton Township Primary Ballot for local office are going to win no matter what you do!

And you wonder why Clinton Township government — uhhh — smells so much like ass.

Who decides?

Who decides that you get no choices? Your Republican and Democratic Committees in Clinton Township. You probably don’t know it, but you elect those Committee members in the General Election. Though you probably have no idea what their job is.

Their job is to find, cultivate, educate and deliver good potential candidates for elected office to you — the Republican and Democratic voters of Clinton Township. Or, that’s what the Committee members of each party are supposed to do.

But they hide. They prefer you don’t know who they are.

These Committees meet in secret. They vote in secret to decide “who gets the line on the ballot.” And you get to vote — if you’re dumb enough to show up at the polls on June 4.

If they were doing their jobs, you’d get to see candidates debate so that you could choose the best candidate to vote for in the Primary.

But there are no debates. Because there are no opposing candidates.

Wash my car

If you decide not to waste your time on Primary Day, and don’t need to wash your car, you could wash mine. For all the good it’s going to do you. Because the next 2 Council members in Clinton Township don’t get elected — they get chosen by the GOP bosses way before any election.

Good luck choosing your party’s best candidates in the Primary on June 4.

And you wonder why Clinton Township government smells like ass.

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Did your town pay off Fair Share Housing Center’s lawyers to “settle” affordable housing threats?

Before it agrees to end its affordable housing litigation against a town, the Fair Share Housing Center‘s lawyers demand cash payments — ranging up to $100,000. The question arises as to whether these payments are a kind of “extortion” extracted from towns.

Questionable purpose of payments

Taxpayers in these towns are usually unaware they are paying off FSHC’s lawyers. Although these pay-offs are written into the signed agreements (which are public documents), it seems town officials like to keep the payments quiet.

What raises red flags is that the stated purpose for these payments varies across the agreements. It would seem the purpose would be consistent if the payments were legitimate and above board.

The payments

Scroll down to see what your town paid. Don’t see your town? Scroll down lower to submit it for the list.
This is a partial list of payments New Jersey towns made to Fair Share Housing Center to settle the threat of affordable housing litigation. These payments have nothing to do with the actual construction or delivery of affordable housing.

A limited sampling of just 56 towns reveals payments of $854,250 to Fair Share Housing Center, in exchange for FSHC signing the deals. There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey. With your help, we’d like to include them all.

[List updated June 26, 2019. Updated figures in text appear in red.]

 MUNICOUNTYPAYMENTPurpose of payment
1AllendaleBergen$4,000reasonable attorney's fees
2Atlantic HighlandsMonmouth$5,000[none specified]
3BarnegatOcean$5,000attorney fees
4Berkeley HeightsUnion$15,000[no purpose specified]
5Bernards TownshipSomerset$15,000attorneys fees and costs
6BernardsvilleSomerset$3,500attorneys fees
7ChathamMorris$15,000attorneys fees and costs
8Clinton TownshipHunterdon$30,000donation
9ClosterBergen$5,000[none specified]
10Delran TownshipBurlington$25,000attorney's fees
11East RutherfordBergen$7,500attorneys fees and costs
12EmersonBergen$7,500attorneys fee and costs
13Far HillsSomerset$15,000attorneys fees and costs
14Franklin LakesBergen$25,000[no purpose specified]
15Franklin TownshipSomerset$5,000[none specified]
16GarwoodUnion$4,000[none specified]
17Green BrookSomerset$3,750attorneys fee and costs
18GreenwichWarren$5,000donation
19HaddonfieldCamden$10,000attorneys fees and costs
20HaworthBergen$7,500attorneys fees and costs
21HaworthBergen$7,500attorneys fees and costs
22High BridgeHunterdon$3,000attorneys fees and costs
23HillsdaleBergen$4,500ongoing legal expenses
24HolmdelMonmouth$15,000[no purpose specified]
25Hopewell TownshipMercer$50,000[none specified]
26Howell TownshipMonmouth$15,000attorneys fees and costs
27LambertvilleHunterdon$5,000attorneys fees and costs
28Lawrence TownshipMercer$25,000[none specified]
29Long Hill TownshipMorris$5,000attorneys fee and costs
30MahwahBergen$20,000[no purpose specified]
31MaplewoodEssex$5,000[none specified]
32MarlboroMonmouth$75,000attorneys fees and costs
33Mine HillMorris$5,000attorneys fees and costs
34MontvaleBergen$25,000payment of fees and costs
35Montville TownshipMorris$45,000attorney fees and costs
36MoorestownBurlington$40,000attorneys fees and costs
37Morris TownshipMorris$15,000attorneys fees and costs
38MorristownMorris$4,000attorney fees and costs
39Mountain LakesMorris$3,000attorney fees and costs
40North CaldwellEssex$7,500[none specified]
41Ocean CityCape May$15,000attorneys fees
42OradellBergen$5,000attorneys fees and costs
43RamseyBergen$7,500attorneys fees and costs
45Raritan TownshipHunterdon$15,000attorneys fees and costs
46Red BankMonmouth$7,500attorneys fees and costs
47RidgewoodBergen$10,000attorneys fees and costs
48Scoth PlainsUnion$15,000attorneys fees and costs
49TeaneckBergen$5,000attorneys fee and costs
50WaldwickBergen$5,000attorney's fees
51Warren TownshipSomerset$50,000attorneys fee and costs
52WatchungSomerset$7,500donation
53West WindsorMercer$100,000attorneys fees and costs
54WestfieldUnion$12,000donation
55WestwoodBergen$5,000attorney fees and costs
56Woodcliff LakeBergen$7,500attorneys fees and costs
TOTAL PAYMENTS$854,250Cash into FSHC war chest

The 56 towns above agreed to pay FSHC an aggregate $854,250 to settle. This list is incomplete. There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey. Not all towns have settled with FSHC — but there are many more than listed above, so we don’t yet know how much in total FSHC’s lawyers have pulled down in such payments.

Who decides what the pay-off is — and its purpose?

The purpose of these payments is described in each agreement, but it varies without explanation.

Some towns agreed to reimburse FSHC for its “attorneys fees and costs.” Other towns, like Clinton Township in Hunterdon County, agreed to make a “donation” of taxpayer money to FSHC. Many payments were agreed to by municipal officials without stating any purpose.

Why does one town pay FSHC’s “attorneys fees and costs” of $50,000, while another town makes a “donation” of $30,000 — but pays no attorneys fees at all? Why do some towns pay nothing? Are their officials just better negotiators?

What does FSHC do with all that money? We’re reviewing its tax filings to find out.
Perhaps most puzzling, why do the New Jersey Courts that approve these myriad agreements overlook the varying amounts and disparate purposes of these payments — and the fact that FSHC extracts payments of any kind?

Add your town to the list

If your town has settled with FSHC but is not listed, and you would like it added, you can obtain a copy of the “Fair Share Housing Center settlement agreement” from your municipal clerk. The document is public and cannot be legally withheld from you. You may need to submit an OPRA request to obtain it. Your town’s website may have the OPRA form available online. The settlement agreement must be delivered to you within 7 business days.

Please e-mail a link (preferred) to your town’s settlement agreement to admin@exmayor.com or e-mail a copy of the complete agreement. Or send both.

The pay-off is usually listed after the other main terms of the agreement are recited, usually in a paragraph numbered in the 20s. Here’s one example of what the clause agreeing to pay looks like, in West Windsor’s settlement agreement:

How much did your elected officials quietly pay FSHC’s lawyers to make a deal?

Thanks to all who have submitted settlement agreements for inclusion.

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Maria Grant tells 1.19% of the truth about teachers

Clinton Township school teachers have worked without a contract for 6 of the past 8 years.  The last contract expired 2 years ago in June 2017. The school board has failed to negotiate and settle it.

Do we know the truth about why it’s taking so long to work out this contract?

One thing we do know: A school board that hides minutes of its meetings is hard to keep up with when you’re looking for the truth.

Double-talk

At the April 12, 2019 meeting, school board president Maria Grant lectured about her approach to contract negotiations:

“As part of this decision-making, we want everyone in the community to have the same information that we do, so that you can understand how we have arrived at our positions in the negotiations.”

Except Grant has long been giving the community platitudes and re-hashed political double-talk about the negotiations. In other words, she’s not telling the truth.

Of course, loads of towns have no contract!

In the May 2019 edition of the Clinton Township Newsletter, Grant wrote “A Letter from The CTSD Board of Education.” CTSD uses taxpayer money to buy two pages in this newsletter every month.

Grant tried to calm the mounting protests of parents and teachers about her board’s abysmal failure to negotiate and settle the teachers’ contract.

It’s difficult to negotiate these contracts, proclaimed Grant — but loads of other school districts in Hunterdon County and across New Jersey have the same problem!

Except it’s not true.

Only 1.19% of all school districts have no contract

An April 23, 2019 article published by the New Jersey School Boards Association reveals that, out of 590 school districts in the state,

“Fewer than 10 districts have not yet reached an agreement for contracts that expired on June 30, 2017 or earlier.”

The CTSD’s failure to settle its contract with teachers is an outlier, an anomaly, a failure, an oddity, an exception, a freak, a deviation.

Through further research and an interview with a NJSBA spokesperson, ExMayor.com has confirmed that the number of contracts unsettled since June 2017 is actually at most 7 out of 590 — or 1.19% of all school districts.

And Clinton Township School District is the only district in Hunterdon County without a settled teachers’ contract since June 2017.

Maria Grant is telling 1.19% of the truth to the public. Also known as prevaricating, deceiving, misleading, and equivocating — or, in school-board parlance, “information.”

Utter disrespect for teachers and taxpayers

In her paid political announcement in the April Clinton Township Newsletter, Grant asserts:

“The Clinton Township Board of Education has the highest level of respect for each and every district staff member and we appreciate all that they do for Clinton Township’s students.”

Claiming Clinton Township is somehow in the same boat as loads of other towns — when it isn’t — doesn’t show respect. It shows a mockery of the responsibility of leadership.

“…we want everyone in the community to have the same information that we do, so that you can understand how we have arrived at our positions in the negotiations…”

A long history of abusing teachers

This isn’t the first time the school board has failed teachers, parents, students and taxpayers. The board took longer than 3 years to negotiate and sign the previous 3-year contract. The teachers worked from 2013 – 2016 without a contract.

Before that, they worked for 2 years without a contract.

Does anyone see a pattern? Board president Maria Grant has led the school district’s recitation of silly mantras that suggest it’s all the teachers’ fault.

In February, Grant said at a board meeting that a mediation process has brought teachers and the school board “closer together.” Everything’s fine, folks! Nothing to see here!

Three months later, the frustrated teachers continue to show up for work every day, but they have cut back on after-school work. At the April 29 board meeting, they marched in protest.

Can you spot the political double-talk?

In a February 2, 2018 letter to parents, Grant said “the definition of impasse is when the two parties engaged in attempting to negotiate a mutually acceptable contract are no longer able to reach an agreement without assistance and; therefore, the negotiations have stalled.”

Who gets paid to resolve employment contracts?

On February 13 the Hunterdon Review said in a biting editorial:

“Clinton Township teachers deserve a contract… We just know that it’s not fair to the teachers who are in charge of teaching the children of the community to have to work for this long without a contract… We think the school administrators get paid well enough to resolve this matter.”

Superintendent Michele Cone is paid $150,000 per year. Interim Business Administrator Michael Falkowski is paid $500 per day, an effective $125,000 annual salary rate.

Long-time board attorney Vito Gagliardi is also getting paid to handle negotiations. So is Phillip Stern, of the law firm DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kurzman, Davis, Leher and Flaum (yes, that DiFrancesco) — hired by Grant and the board to “mediate” with the teachers.

Get the picture why it takes so long to negotiate teachers’ contracts in Clinton Township?

Get the picture why certain members of this school board like to keep the public out of their public meetings? (See Maloy, Grant, Books vs. The Public.)

Talk to the teachers, Stupid

The solution has been offered by the teachers again and again.

Mary Claire Spadone, co-president of the Clinton Township Education Association (the teachers’ union), said at a recent board meeting that the teachers would like to meet with the whole board, a sentiment that was echoed by other teachers and parents who spoke.

The board refuses. At least, Maria Grant — the only authorized spokesperson for the board — refuses.

Pretty stupid — for a bunch of people who control the education of Clinton Township children.

Want sourced facts instead of political double-talk from elected officials? Sign up for ExMayor.com — get updates in your e-mail!

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Maloy, Grant & Brooks vs. The Public

The plan was to get rid of the audience before conducting the public’s business.

The audience was full of teachers, parents and taxpayers who wanted to hear about the school budget, the failure of the school board to resolve the teachers’ contract, and other board business.

Let’s lock out the public for 4 hours

For the April 29, 2019, 7:30 p.m. Clinton Township school board meeting, board president Maria Grant planned to adjourn the meeting prior to conducting board business.

She would take the board into a “two hundred & forty (240) minute” executive session in the back room and lock out the public while the board talked in private.

That’s 4 hours.

Well after 12:00 midnight, the board would reconvene its regular public meeting — after the public was asleep in their beds — and make decisions, spend money, hear reports on facilities and finance, and much, much more.

The public would be welcome to show up at around, oh, 1:00 a.m., to hear the rest of the “public” part of the meeting.

But something went wrong

According to the recording of the meeting and a report published in the Hunterdon Review:

“Board member Alison Grantham suggested having the [4-hour-long] executive session at the end of the meeting so visitors wouldn’t have to wait hours for the public section of the meeting.”

Grantham made a motion and it was seconded.

Grant was left in shock.

A lengthy discussion — argument — ensued, with Grant pounding her gavel. Grant wanted to know, what about “the people who saw how it was advertised and potentially could come later…?” That is, after the 4-hour delay, after midnight?

“I mean, what about that?” intoned Grant.

The crowd erupted in guffaws.

Maloy, Grant & Brooks vs. The Public

Five board members voted to move the 4-hour-long “non-public” executive session later so the public could see and hear and participate in the business part of the meeting.

Board members Alison Grantham, Catherine Emery, Catherine Riihimaki, Regina Figueroa and Lana Brennan didn’t want the public locked out.

Board members Kevin Maloy, Maria Grant and Mary Beth Brooks voted against the public. They insisted on a 4-hour intermission so they could meet in the back room — then let the public back in well after midnight.

They lost to the bright light of public scrutiny.

Print this column and tack it on your calendar around Election Day, 2019. Then you’ll know whom to vote off the Clinton Township school board for 2020.

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School Board: 5 months of missing meeting minutes

What right do you have to know how your school board is spending $23.5 million of your property tax dollars? You have the right to see it all in writing.

Except when a public governing body violates the Sunshine Law — then you have to fight to get the information.

The Clinton Township school board’s interim business administrator Michael Falkowski has refused to deliver 5 months’ worth of meeting minutes covering 7 public meetings and as many “closed” sessions.

On May 3, 2019, the editor of this publication submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to Falkowski, who serves as the official records custodian to the school district.

OPRA REQUEST May 3, 2019

“I would like copies of the following government records… Complete minutes of public and closed school board meetings between the dates August 27, 2018 – May 3, 2019, inclusive.”

Falkowski denied the request for minutes of all meetings of the school board after December 2018, stating that the minutes will not be “loaded online” until the board approves them.

“In regards to your request for minutes, the audio of all our meeting are available online, and the Board Approved written minutes have been loaded up through December 2018.  The remaining written minutes from January 2019 to the present will be loaded online once Board Approved…”

Except that’s not how the Sunshine Law works.

Here’s what’s on the CTSD website:

What the law requires

The New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires the school board to keep minutes of “all its meetings,” including meetings that are closed to the public, and those minutes “shall be promptly available to the public.”

Audio recordings of meetings do not qualify as legally required minutes.

The law doesn’t mean 5 months later, it doesn’t mean “after the school board has time to approve the minutes,” and it doesn’t make production of minutes optional or discretionary. It says the minutes “shall be promptly available to the public.”

In a 2012 case, John Paff, Chairman of the NJ Open Government Advocacy Project, sued the Camden City Board of Education for access to its meeting minutes. Paff reported that as a result of his litigation:

“…the Camden Board of Education must make the minutes of its closed meetings, redacted only as necessary, publicly available within thirty days of the meeting or three days prior to its next public meeting, whichever comes first.”

Paff further reported that the Camden BOE’s claim that it must first “approve” the minutes has no “basis in law.”

5 months of important issues

Why is the Clinton Township board of education withholding 5 months’ worth of minutes of its meetings from the public?

Falkowski suggests the board has not had time or opportunity during the past 5 months to “approve” the minutes before they can be released to the public. Yet, at its April 29 meeting the board scheduled a 4-hour “executive session” meeting that would be closed to the public.

That’s longer than most public school board meetings.

The board seems to have plenty of time to meet in secret, but no time to “approve” its meeting minutes to fulfill its obligation to be transparent.

In the next year, Clinton Township taxpayers will contribute $23.5 million of property taxes to the operation of the school district — yet the board denies taxpayers minutes of meetings where the board spends those millions.

During the past 5 months the board has met to discuss and work on loads of important, controversial matters: its budget, a 2-year delayed contract for teachers, a lawsuit that it filed against Clinton Township (the municipality), and much more. But records custodian Falkowski refuses to make public records of those meetings available to the public under the Open Public Records Act.

Withholding Information: Par for the course

When the board approved its new budget on April 29, the Hunterdon Review reported that business administrator “Falkowski did not respond with [sic] requests for more tax payment budget details.”

The public has become accustomed to the Clinton Township school board’s withholding of public information. It’s par for the course. Now, get out your checkbooks and pay your $23 .5 million school property tax bill.

This isn’t the first time this school board has violated the public’s legal right to know: Deliberate, Willful & Knowing: School board keeps breaking the law after resolving to end violations. Worth noting is that the same lawyer who advised the board when it last violated the law, Vito Gagliardi, advises the board today.

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