Maria Grant gives big F-YOU to voters

On election night, November 6, 2018, Clinton Township school board president Maria Grant’s worst nightmare came true: She lost control of her board.

Four newly elected members plus last year’s election of a staunch board critic  created a new majority that seems prepared to wrest control of the school board away from the divisive Grant. Every January, the board members elect from their ranks a president.

Clearly aware she’s about to lose her leadership role to a new majority elected in a stunning repudiation by voters, Grant is scurrying to retain administrative control by hand-picking Clinton Township’s new superintendent in a move that has angered parents, residents and teachers — before she is ousted as president.

Grant will hire new Super “in the back room”

On Monday evening, November 19, Grant and her loyal majority will give a big F-YOU to voters by hiring the school district’s fourth superintendent in less than two-and-a-half years — just a month before the new majority takes over.

Grant issued a notice on Saturday, November 17 — just two days before the board will make the hire. The notice went out by e-mail only to parents with children in the district and was posted on the school website.

The rest of the community has received no notice.

They will do it “in the back room” away from public view during an “executive session” prior to the public school board meeting.

The new board of education — and voters who have rejected Grant’s “Supreme Soviet” style of autocratic control — will be stuck with whomever Grant anoints Superintendent.

The public will have no chance to even comment on the hire until after the hire is made.

Grant’s board fractured in 2017

In 2017, Lana Brennan was elected to the school board. A fair-minded but outspoken critic of the board, Brennan was the first thorn in Grant’s side. When Grant orchestrated the highly controversial, overnight reorganization of the schools without adequate public input, Brennan cast the only dissenting vote.

According to MyCentralJersey, Brennan explained that she didn’t “feel comfortable on voting tonight” because “people need more time to digest” the plan recommended by Superintendent of Schools Pamela Fiander.

A new board: Brennan + 4

Campaigning to end Grant’s war against teachers and the public, four newbie, highly credentialed candidates ran as a team and were elected November 6, 2018 by enormous margins, signaling voters’ dissatisfaction with the school board status quo.

Catherine Riithimaki, Catherine Emery, Regina Figueroa and Alison Grantham focused their campaign on ending the high turnover of superintendents, business administrators and teachers. The foursome also criticized the existing school board for failing to give teachers a contract for four of the last five years.

Along with Brennan — who is not politically connected to the other four — a new majority has been formed in that all five have expressed objections to how Grant controls the school district.

Grant’s superintendents

4 Superintendents under Maria Grant in 29 months

Superintendent Drucilla Clark
Resigned June 2016

Superintendent Gina Villani
July 2016 – July 2017

Superintendent Pamela Fiander
August 2017 – July 2018

Superintendent #4 — TOP SECRET
To be hired November 19, 2018

Maria Grant’s record of hiring superintendents has become the dirty little management secret of the Clinton Township schools.

Grant inherited Drucilla Clark, who resigned in June 2016 amidst speculation that she was unhappy with Grant’s overbearing style of management.

In quick succession, Grant conducted back-room selection processes and hired Superintendent Gilla Villani, who lasted just a year between July 2016 and July 2017.

Then Grant orchestrated the hire of Pamela Fiander, who served just 11 months from August 2017 through last summer.

Fiander replaced Superintendent Drucilla Clark, who was hired in 2012 following a search conducted by Pamela Fiander’s husband, Richard Fiander. According to the Hunterdon County Democrat, the latter was hired for $6,500 while Grant served on the board to recruit candidates for superintendent.

Including the superintendent to be hired November 19, that’s four superintendents during Grant’s board presidency in less than two-and-a-half years.

Grant scurries to hire a loyal administrator

The November 6 school board election was widely regarded as a referendum on board president Maria Grant — and Grant lost.

The new majority that will control the board in January was elected on promises to repudiate the school board’s poor treatment of teachers; its disregard and disrespect of the public; and its domination by a divisive board president.

On Monday night in the Clinton Township Middle School auditorium, Maria Grant will deliver a big F-YOU to the voters who elected a new majority to put a stop to Grant’s divisive mismanagement.

In a classic back-room move with just two days’ notice to only selected members of the public, Grant will hire a Superintendent who — in 2019 — will be beholden to a minority of the board and what will undoubtedly be the former board president who engineered the hire.

Who’s running the joint in 2019?

Clinton Township taxpayers, parents and teachers will be left wondering who is running their $30 million school district:

  • The new school board and new leadership they elected to “bring the focus back to quality education for our kids”?
  • Or a shadow school board controlled by Maria Grant and a hand-picked new superintendent that’s going to continue abusing teachers, disrespecting the public, and operating in the “back room?”

Who will show up at the Monday, November 5 school board meeting to demand answers?

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Clinton Township: Who’s worth voting for?

Who’s worth voting for in Clinton Township for town council, the local school board and the high school board? How about political candidates who show they respect and follow the law before they get elected?

“The essence of Democracy is an informed electorate.”
About ELEC

Among 13 political candidates on the November 6, 2018 General Election Ballot, 6 seem to already be in violation of New Jersey Election Law.

Before we give them a chance to show they will “uphold the law” as elected representatives — public databases suggest they’ve already shown they can’t be bothered to follow the law.

How’s that for blowing the job interview before the job interview?

Scroll down for the list of apparent election law violators.

ELEC

NJ ELEC Compliance Manual for Candidates 2018The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) monitors the campaign financing of all elections in the State. Its purpose is to ensure transparency in elections by giving the public a look at every political candidate’s finances — during campaigns well before election day.

How else are voters supposed to decide who’s worth voting for?

ELEC also publishes a Compliance Manual for Candidates that explains the law, details requirements of all candidates, provides examples, and includes all forms that must be filed before, during and after political campaigns and elections.

There’s no excuse for violating New Jersey Election Law.

It’s all public and online

Anyone can monitor any political candidate’s filings and reports day-to-day in ELEC’s public database.

  • Want to know who donated money to a candidate? It’s in there.
  • What did a candidate spend money on? It’s in there.
  • Who is a candidate’s treasurer? It’s in there.
  • At what bank is the candidate’s campaign account held? It’s in there.

Well, it’s supposed to be in there if the candidate is following the law.

Anyone can also see which candidates that are on the November 6 ballot have not filed the legally required reports.

All candidates must file fund-raising and spending reports

If a candidate buys campaign signs or advertisements, or mails out campaign literature, using donations or their own money, they must file disclosures prior to the election.

ELEC sets dates when required financial disclosure reports must be filed and made public.

6 candidates on the ballot for Clinton Township Council, Clinton Township School District Board of Education, and North Hunterdon-Voorhees Board of Education have not filed disclosure reports by the dates required — or at the time of this publication — according to ELEC’s public databases.

ELEC requires political candidates to publicly disclose what monies they raised and spent — including their own money.

Which Clinton Township candidates seem to be in violation of New Jersey’s Election Laws?

If a candidate’s campaign buys signs or advertisements, or mails out campaign literature, using donations or their own money, they must file disclosures prior to the election.

Of 13 political candidates on the Clinton Township ballot, 6 have failed to file required ELEC documents and reports, according to ELEC’s public databases.

Listed in order of appearance on the 2018 Clinton Township General Election Ballot:

How can any of these political candidates seriously expect voters to believe they will “uphold the law” once they are elected — if they apparently haven’t bothered to comply with New Jersey’s Election Laws before the election?

NOTE: North Hunterdon-Voorhees School Board candidate Chris W. Kemprowski appears not to have raised or spent any funds on campaign signs or other campaign materials and thus appears to be exempt from disclosure requirements.

We can hear the excuses now:

  • “It’s no big deal — just a formality! I’ll file it later!”
    Translation: The law doesn’t apply to me. Get off my case.
  • “I was too busy!”
    Translation: I really haven’t got time to do the job, but I was asked to run and was told not to worry — just show up for a few meetings.
  • “I didn’t know!”
    Translation: And I won’t bother to learn the law once I’m elected.
  • “You’re kidding, right?? It’s a technicality! It’s not like they’re going to arrest me!”
    Translation: The law doesn’t apply to me. Who cares, once I get into office!

This is where trouble in our government starts. This is why taxpayers complain their elected officials are doing a lousy job.

Who should know better?

Perhaps the worst scofflaws are the political candidates who are already in office. They should know better:

  • Thomas Kochanowski — Clinton Township Council Incumbent
  • Rachel McLaughlin — Clinton Township Board of Education, Vice President
  • Alissa Olawski — Clinton Township Board of Education, Member
  • Robert Holliday — Clinton Township Board of Education, Member

If these people don’t bother to follow Election Law, what does that tell their constituents about whether they’re bothering to follow the law in their elected positions?

  • The Clinton Township Council has already been busted for violating the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act — while Tom Kochanowski was on the council.
  • The Clinton Township School Board has already been busted for violating the law — while Rachel McLaughlin was on the board.

Illegal campaign signs and advertisements

ELEC also requires all candidates to label campaign signs, mailing pieces and other “political communications” with a statement that identifies the candidate.

At least one candidate, Jean Paul “JP” Vincenti — for Clinton Township Board of Education — is in violation of this requirement. Vincenti’s half-page ad in the Clinton Township Newsletter (November 2018) does not include the required “paid for by” label identifying the source.

Clean up government — expect candidates to follow the law

Who deserves your vote on November 6 in Clinton Township? How about political candidates who show they follow the law before they get elected?

It’s shocking that almost half the candidates running for office in Clinton Township have not filed required ELEC disclosures.

How can citizens expect our State and Federal government to be clean, when they vote for local officials who ignore the law even before they get elected?

Concerned voters may file formal complaints about candidates with NJ ELEC: Request An Investigation.

To view each candidate’s actual ELEC records as of Nov. 1, see Clinton Township: Are 6 of 13 candidates violating election law?

VOTE on November 6!

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Clinton Township: Are 6 of 13 candidates violating election law?

New Jersey election law guarantees voters’ right to see the campaign finances of political candidates before an election. In a state where government corruption is rampant, election law requires political candidates to disclose campaign finances.

“The essence of Democracy is an informed electorate.”
About ELEC

Election violations in Clinton Township

6 political candidates running for office in Clinton Township — out of 13 on the 2018 Clinton Township General Election Ballot — appear to be in violation of New Jersey Election Law. According to New Jersey’s public campaign database, they have not filed the required financial disclosures.

If they don’t bother to follow the law before they get elected, what are they going to do about “upholding the law” after they get elected to run our town and our schools?

Incumbents clearly don’t “know better”

4 of the political candidates who seem to be ignoring the law are incumbents — already in office, already managing over $113 million of public funds.

  • Clinton Township has a budget of about $13 million.
  • Clinton Township School District has a budget of about $30 million.
  • North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District has a budget of about $60 million.

Voters are electing people to manage over $113 million of tax dollars. Do you hope they will bother to follow the law once they’re elected, if they’re not bothering to follow the law to get elected?

Which candidates seem to be in violation of New Jersey Election Law?

According to the ELEC database, which candidates appear to be in violation of New Jersey Election Laws? Listed in order of appearance on the 2018 Clinton Township General Election Ballot:

  1. Thomas Kochanowski (R) — Clinton Township Council (incumbent)
  2. Marc H. Strauss (R) — Clinton Township Council
  3. Rachel McLaughlin — North Hunterdon-Voorhees School Board (currently member of Clinton Township School Board)
  4. Alissa Olawski — Clinton Township School Board (incumbent)
  5. Jean Paul “JP” Vincenti — Clinton Township School Board
  6. Robert Holliday — Clinton Township School Board (incumbent)

All appear to be in violation of New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) requirements to file financial disclosures for the benefit of voters under the New Jersey Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act.

Vincenti also appears to be in violation of campaign labeling requirements in an ad he ran in the Clinton Township Newsletter. (Click here for details.)

ELEC

Established in 1973‚ ELEC monitors the campaign financing of all elections in the State. All political candidates who raise or spend money on their campaigns — even their own money — are required to report their finances to the public.

“The essence of Democracy is an informed electorate.”
About ELEC

ELEC publishes candidates’ financial disclosures — and also shows which candidates have not filed the required disclosures.

ELEC Records: Candidates in apparent violation

The following images — showing candidates failed to file required financial disclosures — were captured on November 1, 2018 from the public ELEC database.

ELEC Records: Candidates in compliance

The following images — showing candidates filed required financial disclosures — were captured on November 1, 2018 from the public ELEC database.

NOTE: North Hunterdon-Voorhees School Board candidate Chris W. Kemprowski appears not to have raised or spent any funds on campaign signs or other campaign materials and thus appears to be exempt from disclosure requirements.

The quality of government is up to you

Keep political candidates honest. Expect them to follow the law before they get elected.

For more details about how candidates fail to obey New Jersey Election Laws, see Clinton Township: Who’s worth voting for?

Do your homework before you cast your ballot.

VOTE on November 6!

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Clinton Township’s affordable housing partner indicted

On the heels of one affordable housing controversy after another, a partner of one of Clinton Township’s seven affordable housing projects has been indicted by a Hunterdon County Grand Jury.

Suspended, disbarred, indicted

According to reports in the Hunterdon Review and TAPInto Flemington/Raritan, Annandale attorney Walter N. Wilson, 63, was indicted by the Grand Jury on June 28, 2018 and “charged with two counts of third-degree misapplication of entrusted property.”

NJ.com reported that in January 2015 Wilson’s  license to practice law was suspended “after he failed to supply the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics with requested information on clients and attorney trust accounts.” Wilson was representing Hunterdon Humane Animal Shelter at the time he was suspended.

Wilson was disbarred by the State Supreme Court in November 2016.

Clinton Township affordable housing partner

Walter Wilson is a partner in Kerwin-Savage, a New Jersey General Partnership based in Bernardsville, New Jersey. The partnership’s Alton Place Development has been designated by the township as one of seven housing sites to fulfill its obligation to construct 373 new affordable housing units.

A general partner of the concern, Michael Savage, confirmed Wilson’s involvement to the township in a February 1, 2017 letter. The date on the letter is February 1, 2017, but the signature is dated January 30, 2017 — the same day the partnership apparently met with Mayor John Higgins to discuss its Alton Place development.

108 Alton Place is slated for 28 affordable units. Inclusion in Clinton Township’s plan gets the developer a bonus — high-density rezoning of the property for 10 units per acre so it can build an additional 110 market-priced housing units. Such high density would never have been possible for the site without inclusion in the township’s affordable housing plan, and is considered a windfall for a lucky landowner or developer.

Testified about Clinton Township affordable housing plan

According to a press release issued by Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns, Wilson was indicted for allegedly issuing two checks totaling $34,168 “for his own use” from a trust fund, “which he knew was unlawful.”

After being suspended and disbarred but before his indictment, Wilson testified in New Jersey Superior Court in a January 29, 2018 court filing about details of his Alton Place affordable housing site’s inclusion in Clinton Townhship’s affordable housing plan.

A controversial housing plan

The plan is defined in a February 5, 2018 settlement agreement between Clinton Township and Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC). The agreement caused controversy because Mayor John Higgins and the council did not discuss or disclose it publicly prior to approving and signing it on December 13, 2017. (See Affordable Housing Deal Signed Without Public Input and Mayor Higgins’ 51-second, 805 housing-unit massacre.)

Additional concerns were raised when it was disclosed the township paid a $30,000 “donation” to the FSHC to complete the negotiations, and that the township agreed to sue neighboring Readington Township to confiscate that municipality’s sewer capacity for Clinton Township’s use “if needed.”

Even after the massive housing deal was approved by the mayor and council, they conducted no public hearings about it in council chambers. Instead, Mayor Higgins told concerned residents they had to go to court in Somerville, NJ if they wanted to make comments or objections — but only after filing their comments and objections in writing to the court.

The court approved the settlement deal on March 23, 2018.

A year earlier

According to township e-mails obtained under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA), a year earlier, on January 18, 2017, Kerwin called Mayor Higgins to request a meeting “to discuss [Kerwin’s] interest in developing Alton Place.” Higgins e-mailed Kerwin agreeing to the meeting as long as attorneys from both sides were present.

Two days later, in a January 20, 2017 e-mail to Higgins, Kerwin wrote:

“I would rather not bring our attorney to the meeting for several reasons. One, I do not require his advice, two, I dont [sic] want our discussion restrained by the attorneys. I will agree to sign off on a disclaimer provide [sic] by [Clinton Township attorney] Mr. [Jonathan] Drill if that is the issue.”
[Emphasis added]

After Higgins replied again that he would meet only if attorneys were present, Kerwin agreed and the meeting was scheduled (and presumably convened with attorneys) for January 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm. It was on the date of the meeting that the Kerwin-Savage partnership signed the disclosure that Wilson was a partner.

In between disbarment and indictment

In between Wilson’s disbarment and indictment:

  • Mayor John Higgins met with Kerwin-Savage to discuss inclusion of the partnership’s Alton Place site in Clinton Township’s affordable housing plan, knowing Wilson was a partner.
  • Higgins and township attorney Jonathan Drill presumably negotiated with Wilson’s partnership.
  • Higgins and the council approved the plan and settlement including Alton Place.
  • Wilson and his partners testified to the court about Clinton Township’s affordable housing plan and settlement with FSHC.
  • The court approved the deal.

Timeline

January 2015
Wilson’s  license to practice law was suspended.

Controversies

The township’s beleaguered affordable housing plan continues to cough up controversies, including “unusual” problems with its largest designated affordable housing site that’s scheduled to receive 400 new housing units (see Mayor’s #1 affordable housing builder has “unusual” problems).

The township also violated New Jersey’s Sunshine Law when it withheld planning board minutes going back over a year, and was put on notice that it was “prejudicing the ability of… the public to participate meaningfully” in court-mandated hearings about its affordable housing plans. (see Clinton Township violates Sunshine Law, interferes with affordable housing fairness hearing.)

November 2016
Wilson disbarred.

January 18-20, 2017
Kerwin-Savage requests meeting with Mayor Higgins to discuss Alton Place affordable housing site without attorneys.

January 30, 2017

December 13, 2017
Clinton Township council approves affordable housing settlement deal with FSHC which includes Alton Place property — without public deliberation or disclosure of what was in the deal prior to voting on it.

January 29, 2018
Kerwin-Savage submits testimony — including partner Walter Wilson’s — to Superior Court about Clinton Township’s affordable housing plan and settlement.

March 23, 2018
Court approves affordable housing settlement deal, including Alton Place.

June 28, 2018
Wilson indicted.

More Lawyer Problems: Conflicts of interest

This is not Clinton Township’s first controversy about lawyers in the matter of its affordable housing planning.

Before the court could conduct a scheduled February 12, 2018 Fairness Hearing to approve the township’s original affordable housing settlement agreement, officials suddenly withdrew the agreement and the hearing was cancelled. (See Township’s Housing Plan Crashes.)

The withdrawal came quickly on the heels of an objection that was filed with the court that enumerated multiple conflicts of interest of the township’s lawyers and the special master appointed by the court to advise on the matter. That objection asked the court to:

…remove township planning board attorney Jonathan Drill and municipal attorney Trishka Waterbury Cecil from the process and proceedings because the attorneys and their firms have a conflict of interest in that they also represent Readington Township, which the settlement agreement they negotiated with Fair Share Housing Center threatens to sue “if needed.”

(See Objection: Why the Court should reject the affordable housing settlement.)

By withdrawing and modifying the settlement, the township avoided having to publicly explain and confront the conflicts. The modification was to remove one of the township’s key affordable housing sites, the notorious Windy Acres. (See Windy Acres: The fatal fraud in Clinton Township’s affordable housing scheme.)

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North Hunterdon-Voorhees BOE: E-mails point to violations of trust, ethics & the law

Parents at the May 8, 2018 North Hunterdon Voorhees Regional High School board meeting cried foul — and presented evidence, claiming that school board member Lisa Approvato violated the New Jersey School Ethics Act.

They also complained that school board president Francis Goger intentionally misled the public about decisions made in secret about a popular coach’s employment — in possible violation of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, which requires public governing bodies to make all decisions and to take all actions in public.

Ethics Violations

Asbury resident Peggy Furman read from two e-mails dated February 5 and February 16, 2018 that she said are in the public record, and that were written by board member Lisa Approvato to Superintendent Jeffrey Bender.

Furman said the e-mails reveal violations of the New Jersey School Ethics Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24, because Approvato interfered with the Superintendent’s official duties relating to recruiting and hiring.

Furman suggested that Approvato improperly used her position on the board to influence Bender’s decision about whether to recommend that a cheerleading coach’s employment should be renewed. Approvato’s daughter is reportedly on the cheerleading squad.

Furman then read from case law and explained what constitutes evidence of ethics violations:

Furman read again from the February 16 e-mail and called other statements made by Approvato to Bender “a clear attempt to tarnish the reputation of a member of the North Hunterdon High School staff…”

“I discussed all of this with you at the last board of education meeting and it fell on deaf ears,” said Furman to the board. No board member responded to the issues or questions Furman raised.

Board president Francis Goger misleads the public about decision made in secret

Clinton Township resident and parent Chris Rush said during the public comment period at the school board meeting:

“I’ve been sleeping. After the last board of ed meeting my eyes were opened, and I can promise you that I will not be sleeping for the rest of the duration of my children going to this district.”

Rush then read copies of two e-mails she said were written by NHV school board president Francis Goger. In the first e-mail, dated April 22, 2018, Goger wrote to another parent about a controversy surrounding the board’s forthcoming decision about whether to renew the employment contract of the high school’s cheerleading coach. Goger promised to take parents’ input into account.

But the board president broke that promise before he’d even made it, said Rush.

3 days earlier, Goger told board members the decision was already made

Rush then read from another e-mail she said was written by Goger on April 19, “three days prior to [the other] e-mail, and prior to the 4-24 board of ed meeting… from Mr. Goger to the board of ed.”

In that e-mail, Goger notified the rest of the board that, contrary to the commitment he had made to concerned parents, “The decision has been made and whatever the coach’s supporters have to say is not going to change anything.”

The full, official audio recording of the board of education meeting from which the above excerpts are taken is available on the NHV website.

Possible violations of New Jersey Sunshine Law

Goger tells the board that he will inform the public that “Mr. Bender has the full support of the board for decisions he has to make every day” without allowing individual board members to decide for themselves — after they hear from the public at a forthcoming meeting — whether or not they actually support the specific decision at hand by the Superintendent.

This would not be the first time the NH-V board had a problem with the Sunshine Law. See NHVSD Board President Beverly Thorne: (Oops! I did it again!) Ignores NJ Open Public Meetings Act.

In 2012, the Clinton Township school board was investigated by the County Prosecutor, who found violations of the Sunshine Law and issued sanctions. See Prosecutor slams school board with Sunshine Law violations, says minutes are wrong.

It is worth noting that the same attorneys continue to represent and advise both boards — Brenda Liss at NH-V and Vito Gagliardi at CTSD.

It appears Goger may have used his position to influence or intimidate other board members into silence.

Further, Goger tells the board that the matter “is being addressed by administration and by the full board” — even though the board has not yet met. Yet he goes on to state that “the decision has been made.”

Goger effectively tells the board members that they may not consider the public’s comments or input.

Perhaps more important, Goger suggests the full board made a decision on the employment of the cheerleading coach — days before the full board met in public. That would be a violation of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, or Sunshine Law.

Finally, BOE president Goger’s April 19, 2018 e-mail is to the entire school board. It appears to be an official deliberation with a quorum of the board, in which Goger attempts to influence the board’s behavior, and which may constitute an illegal meeting of a governing body without the public present. Goger deliberates about decisions of the board that the board has not yet made officially and in public.

Until just a few years ago, the NH-V school board did not publish audio recordings of its public meetings. Were it not for these recordings, the public would still be in the dark. See North-Voorhees School Board: Why don’t you record public meetings?

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Fake News: Amended settlement is a “win-win” with less “financial risk”! (NOT!)

What should you believe? What the mayor said, or the legal agreement he signed?

Mayor John Higgins says the new amended affordable housing settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) is “a really good thing for the township” because by substituting the LeCompte property for Windy Acres “the financial risk in this instance is associated with CIS, not us.”

The trouble is, Higgins is not telling the truth.

The truth is in the settlement agreement. And the settlement agreement says Clinton Township taxpayers are on the hook for untold financial risks because the settlement agreement hands FSHC a blank check — and the keys to the township.

Higgins explained that a developer — Community Investment Strategies (CIS) — would purchase and develop the LeCompte affordable housing project.

Higgins says:

“…the benefits to the township include the, ah, for instance at Windy Acres it’s our project so we would be on the hook for financing if really good financing is not obtained. Ah, the financial risk in this instance is associated with CIS, not us.”

But the settlement agreement says:

The settlement agreement says that if there’s any problem delivering the housing on the LeCompte site, the financial risk falls on the Township. (And the planning board has already raised serious questions about the township’s choice of affordable housing developers.)

10.c. “In the event for any reason that the LeCompte development is not under construction for any reason within 48 months of the court’s approval of this Agreement at a fairness hearing, the municipality shall take all necessary steps to provide and demonstrate the provision of a realistic opportunity for the units identified for development on the site. The Township shall do this by funding the development using municipal funds…

The agreement clearly creates a financial risk for the Township.

Considering that the Fair Housing Act does not require any such expenditure, why is Clinton Township — or any other town — agreeing to anything  of the kind?

NEW JERSEY FAIR HOUSING ACT
N.J.S.A. 52:27D-301 et seq. Amended July 2008

52:27D-311 Provision of fair share by municipality.
11.d. Nothing in [the New Jersey Fair Housing Act] {P.L.1985, c.222 (C.52:27D-301 et al.)} shall require a municipality to raise or expend municipal revenues in order to provide low and moderate income housing.

The township’s planner says:

“The one benefit of them [CIS], um, you know, sort of owning this project is that they will almost entirely fund the project, where as the mayor explained there is significant risk associated with the development of the Windy Acres site.”

Um, you know, sort of… they will almost entirely fund the project?

Say what??

But the settlement agreement says:

9. “…in the case where an application for outside funding is still pending, the municipality shall provide a stable alternative source, such as municipal bonding, in the event that the funding request is not approved.”

How is there no significant risk when the township has agreed to bond if a problem arises with getting outside funding for LeCompte? Taxpayers will pay untold amounts. The agreement has no limits.

Higgins says:

“I think it’s a real gain for the township, um. When we have… we really like 100% affordable projects because they’re a nice compact footprint, they don’t come with so-called extra housing. But they do come with financial risk. So this, this takes that site out and, and really, the financial risk to us at this point, um, for 100% affordable, is limited to the 84-unit Marook– uh, development we plan to do on Marookian. So it’s, it’s a, it’s a really good thing for the township.”

The financial risk is limited to Marookian? The agreement puts the financial risk on  LeCompte and Marookian exactly the same way!

But the settlement agreement says:

“The parties recognize that the Marookian and LeCompte developments… may not receive sufficient funding… the municipality shall… make up the difference… by funding the difference…”

The mayor calls the new deal “a real gain for the township” and he distinguishes between the financial risk posed by LeCompte and that posed by Marookian — but the mayor signed a contract that says “the parties recognize” that Marookian and LeCompte can trigger the same financial risks for the Township.

The mayor signed a deal that says in the event there’s a problem obtaining funding for either site, Clinton Township will “fund the difference.”

In whose version of reality is that “a really good thing for the township?”

Take that, Readington, old buddy-type pal!

Not content to mislead Clinton Township residents, Higgins throws a callous misrepresentation at Readington Township as well.

When Readington hit the ceiling upon learning Higgins’ settlement deal included a commitment to sue that town “if needed” to seize its sewer capacity for Windy Acres, Higgins removed Windy Acres from the deal — and disingenuously cast himself as Readington’s hero.

Higgins said:

“Yeah, and it, it eliminates friction with, uh, Readington, for instance, in terms of, you know, both of us going for, uh, sewer capacity within the same, uh, sewer district. So, I think it’s a real gain for the township.”

But the truth is:

Clinton Township can in no way “go for sewer capacity” in Readington’s sewer service district. That would be like your neighbor claiming he’s a nice guy because he isn’t going to “go for thee money” in your bank account after all! 

Clinton Township is not a part of the Readington-Lebanon Sewer Authority and has no right to or access or claim on RLSA capacity. That is to say, the Windy Acres site was bogus from the start because it relied on confiscating another town’s assets.

“Sounds like a win-win-win!”

After shamelessly delivering total and complete misinformation and fake news about the amended settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing Center, a resident’s public comments triggered self-congratulations all around at the February 7 council meeting.

“Sounds like a win-win-win! So I mean, a lot of wins for the township in the amended agreement then…!”

Real News: Clinton Township has been set up

Again and again and again the amended settlement agreement requires Clinton Township taxpayers to provide undefined, unlimited funding — including new bonding — to pay for these projects if anything goes wrong with this plan.

The deal is a set-up by Fair Share Housing Center — and the mayor and council walked into it like rubes or, perhaps, like politicians who have some other agenda.

The plan is designed to fail
Fair Share Housing Center has ensured that many of the affordable housing sites in this plan are included under “durational adjustments.” This means they are not presently compliant with affordable housing criteria. They lack some critical requirement like water, sewer, funding or permits or approvals.

The plan is designed to fail.

Taxpayers will pay
If those critical requirements are not met on schedule, FSHC will swoop down and require Clinton Township to pay with “municipal funds” — or “bonding.”

This agreement hands FSHC a whole series of blank checks signed by taxpayers.

Can the mayor and council guarantee the penalties and contingencies will never be invoked? Of course not.

  • Then why did John Higgins, Brian Mullay, Amy Switlyk, Dan McTiernan, and Tom Kochanowski put those penalties and contingencies in the agreement?
  • Why did they hand the keys to Clinton Township over to a group of private lawyers who are Public Enemy #1 to every town in New Jersey — then hand FSHC a $30,000 donation to boot?

For the same reason they agreed to sue Readington Township for sewer capacity. Fair Share Housing Center told them to.

FSHC controls township zoning
Worse, the penalties and contingencies give FSHC control over Clinton Township’s zoning for years to come.

The mayor and council have agreed in advance that undefined properties in town will be re-zoned “at a density equal to or exceeding 10 units per acre net density” until the terms of the agreement are satisfied.

Under this agreement, FSHC owns Clinton Township.

It’s all in the “new, amended” settlement agreement

It’s all in the new deal that Mayor Higgins has completely misrepresented as “a really good thing for the township” with the silent backing of four council members. It’s all in the agreement the mayor signed. Read it.

(All audio excerpts and quotes are from the official recording of the February 7, 2018 council meeting.)

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Township’s Housing Plan Crashes

In a stunning reversal, the Clinton Township Council gutted its affordable housing settlement deal with the Fair Share Housing Center, at its February 7 meeting, just five days before the scheduled Superior Court Fairness Hearing.

Conflicts appear to have crashed the deal

Apparently unable to respond to objections filed with the court about conflicts of interest involving the township’s attorneys, Mayor John Higgins pulled the plug on the Windy Acres component of the plan. The council voted on February 7 to amend the deal to remove the Windy Acres site.

Higgins and the council reportedly worked on the plan for a year and thought they had it wrapped up when they voted to approve it in a rush on December 13, 2017. But it came crashing down, apparently under the weight of objections.

The bone of contention is that the township’s attorneys negotiated and wrote the settlement deal, which provided that “if needed,” Clinton Township would sue neighboring Readington Township to obtain sewer capacity for Windy Acres. But the same attorneys also represent Readington, and the same attorneys can’t be on two sides of a transaction.

Higgins has stated publicly that the contractual provision to sue Readington was merely “an option” — but one he did not intend to take.

At the January 3, 2018 council meeting, Clinton Township attorney Trishka Waterbury Cecil, whose law firm Mason Griffin Pierson also represents Readington, explained to the public that it did not “obligate” the town to sue — but did not explain why, then, it was included. The agreement requires the township to use litigation “if needed.”

“Overkill”

Then Cecil nervously dropped the bomb: She said the clause was “overkill” — but included it anyway, and let the township sign it.

Mayor Higgins did not explain why the town council agreed to the provision to sue if he didn’t intend to use it. “Overkill” seems to be an understatement that Readington was not prepared to accept.

According to Court records, the township filed a response to an objection submitted by developer Clinton 94, but did not respond to the conflicts objection, suggesting the town was unable to surmount the conflicts of its lawyers. The township seems to believe that the last-minute removal of Windy Acres from the deal, which eliminates the lawsuit threat, thus moots the conflicts objections.

No time to comply with Open Public Meetings Act

But conflicts of lawyers were not the only potentially fatal problem the agreement faced in court. When discussing the amendment to the settlement deal on February 7, Higgins skirted all the objections filed with the court for the fairness hearing. He mentioned none of them.

The township faced a cascade of problems that could have led Judge Miller to reject or stay the settlement agreement at the impending February 12 Fairness Hearing. Not least among them was a complaint filed by exMayor.com alleging the township prejudiced the ability of the public to file proper objections because the township illegally withheld public records.

According to a letter submitted by exMayor.com’s attorney to the township, the township admitted to multiple violations of the Open Public Meetings Act because it failed to create and make available records of written planning board minutes going back a year. Lack of access to these records interfered with the ability to file objections.

Conceding the Windy Acres sewer problem

It also seems likely the town realized it would have a difficult time defending its commitment to provide sewer service for the Windy Acres site. This is an historic problem that has sunk all other efforts to develop affordable housing there, including by Pulte Homes. (See Windy Acres: The fatal fraud in Clinton Township’s affordable housing scheme.)

(This is 12 minutes excerpted from the official Planning Board recording of the March 16, 2015 meeting, where sworn testimony was taken on the township’s latest affordable housing plan. The audio is noisy but understandable. The recording is not available on the township website. It was obtained under OPRA request.)

Any of these issues could have led the court to reject or stay the settlement agreement until the problems were cured.

Readington outraged

The conflicts problem arose after Readington officials learned about the provision to sue Readington Township and the Readington-Lebanon Sewer Authority “if needed” to obtain sewer service for Windy Acres.

Readington officials were reportedly outraged, especially in light of the fact that Clinton Township’s Special Counsel for Affordable Housing, Jonathan Drill, and its municipal law firm, Mason Griffin Pierson, also work for Readington.

Readington officials report that none of the attorneys — or Mayor  Higgins — bothered to notify Readington of the multiple conflicts of interest they created with the FSHC agreement, or that they included the provision to sue the neighbor town.

A solution out of LeCompte’s left field

With Windy Acres removed from the stack of seven affordable housing sites designed to deliver a total of 805 new housing units to the township (373 of which are to be “affordable”), Mayor Higgins announced a replacement known as the LeCompte property.

LeCompte is located at the southern corner of Route 31 north and Valley Crest Road. The new plan designates 10 acres of LeCompte to receive the 89 affordable units originally slated for Windy Acres. Residents may know Robert LeCompte as the owner and operator of Valley Crest Farms, which operates the popular produce stand at Route 31 and Allerton Road.

According to Mayor Higgins’s statements at the February 7 council meeting, Robert LeCompte will sell 10 acres of his land to a Lawrenceville-based affordable housing developer, Community Investment Strategies (CIS). The Hunterdon Review reports CIS will build the required units “at its own expense.”

However, this new site appears to come literally out of the LeCompte property’s “left field” because Mayor Higgins stated he doesn’t know which part of the property the owner might sell to CIS.

Another “durational adjustment”

The LeCompte site appears to be a hasty, last-minute substitution. It has been tagged as needing a “durational adjustment,” which means the township will have to figure out how to make it comply with requirements for water and sewer — later.

Nothing about it seems to be certain:

  • CIS has not purchased or contracted for the 10 acres, merely “expressed an interest.”
  • The mayor offered no evidence that Robert LeCompte has committed to selling his land to CIS. (In fact, LeCompte bought the land out from under Clinton Township’s nose several years ago when he out-bid the township for it.)
  • CIS has made no commitment to build the housing units.
  • The site does not have water or sewer capacity allocated to it.
  • It is not known which 10 acres of his property LeCompte might sell to CIS, or where the units would be built.
  • No timeline has been offered.

No evidence has been provided that the new site complies with State affordable housing law, which requires that a chosen site “provides a realistic opportunity” to deliver the affordable housing units required.

Un-researched article

Hunterdon Review reporter Claire Knapp’s article suggests the newspaper apparently did not check directly with LeCompte, CIS, or Readington to verify any of the claims Higgins made at the council meeting.

Nor did the Review attempt to confirm Higgins’ claim that Readington was “told by former Clinton Township Mayor Nick Corcodilos that the FSHC settlement stated Clinton Township would be suing Readington for sewer capacity to serve Windy Acres.” Neither party was contacted by Review reporter Claire Knapp.

Knapp’s article — and Mayor Higgins — failed to mention the other controversies swirling around the sudden amendment of the settlement deal, including the OPMA complaint that was included in exMayor.com’s objection to the court, and the attorneys’ conflicts of interest, or objections filed by several other parties including developer Clinton 94.

Township attorney Jonathan Drill has confirmed that the Fairness Hearing scheduled for February 12 has been cancelled, as previously reported here. A new Fairness Hearing has been scheduled for March 19, 2018. Those wishing to participate are required to submit their objections in writing to the court no later than Friday, March 2, 2018.

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Objection: Why the Court should reject the affordable housing settlement

On January 29, 2018, exMayor.com filed an objection with the Superior Court to Clinton Township’s affordable housing settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing Center.

The objection focuses on several issues including the township’s violations of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), conflicts of interest of its planning board and municipal attorneys, and conflict of interest of the court’s appointed special master in the case. Nj.com and the Hunterdon Democrat reported the OPMA violation story.

Doing public business behind the veil

In light of these problems, exMayor.com has asked the court to reject or stay the agreement until the OPMA violations are cured and the township schedules a public hearing in the township, not in court, so the township council may present the settlement agreement and the affordable housing plan to the public, and so the public may participate fully in the process.

Conflicts galore

The objection also asks the court to remove township planning board attorney Jonathan Drill and municipal attorney Trishka Waterbury Cecil from the process and proceedings because the attorneys and their firms have a conflict of interest in that they also represent Readington Township, which the settlement agreement they negotiated with Fair Share Housing Center threatens to sue “if needed.”

These attorneys are on both sides of the transaction and the objection asks the court to consider what the proper action is to cure the conflict.

Conflict of the court’s special master

The objection also asks the court to remove special master Michael Bolan from his role as advisor to the court on the settlement. Bolan was the township’s professional planner in 2005 when a similar affordable housing settlement deal was prepared with his help — a deal that included Windy Acres, which is one of the properties in the current settlement. Bolan advocated for the settlement in 2005 in a questionable manner and later was not reappointed township planner in part due to it.

An unfair process

These conflicts of interest and the township’s failure to keep planning board minutes as far back as 2016 combine with the council’s secretive behavior to suggest an intention to deprive the public of a fair and open government process.

The objection goes on to say that:

“A fairness hearing ensures the process and substance of this settlement agreement is fair to the public. The OPMA guarantees the right of citizens to an open and public government process — that is what makes it fair. The formation of this public policy was not open or public or transparent — thus it was not done fairly. In fact, it seems clear this governing body went out of its way to avoid ever discussing, presenting or disclosing the settlement deal to the public. Its failure to produce minutes of planning board meetings is particularly troubling.”

The objection document includes a Certification and a Letter Brief that detail the history of the matter and present arguments to support the request to the court to stay or reject the settlement.

While the court has cancelled the February 12 Fairness Hearing, it appears that a new Fairness Hearing will be scheduled after the council amends the settlement agreement. It is unknown at this time what the amendment will be.

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Feb. 12 Superior Court Fairness Hearing Cancelled

According to the clerk at the Superior Court Law Division in Somerville, NJ, the February 12 Fairness Hearing for the affordable housing settlement between Clinton Township and the Fair Share Housing Center has been cancelled.

According to the clerk, the Fairness Hearing must be rescheduled after the council amends the settlement agreement.

Settlement to be amended

Clinton Township just issued a revised agenda for its February 7 council meeting, adding a 6:00 pm closed session about the settlement. The agenda includes an Action Item upon return from closed session at 7:00 pm:

“Motion regarding proposed amendment to settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing Center in In the Matter of Township of Clinton v. State of New Jersey, Docket No. HNTL-315-15.”

It appears the terms of the settlement will be modified, resulting in the cancellation of the Fairness Hearing. The Court clerk said a new Fairness Hearing would have to be scheduled for an amended agreement.

Marookian site approved by Court

The Court also issued today an “Order Approving The Marookian Affordable Housing Project And Certifying The Township’s Compliance Plan To Date As To That Project.”

This appears to be the Court’s decision about an objection filed by a developer, Clinton 94, LLC, that sought to remove the Marookian site from the plan and to substitute its own. The Court order does not appear to rule on other objections filed about the settlement agreement.

What is the amendment?

It is not known what “amendment” the council will make to the settlement agreement on February 7, or what if anything the amendment will have to do with any of the other objections filed.

Does not affect Feb. 5 public hearing about 66 units in Annandale

It is worth noting that this does not affect the February 5 planning board meeting concerning the 66-unit development slated for the Old Beaverbrook Homestead in Annandale. That public hearing is still on. (Click here for more information.)

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Your last chance to protest 66 new housing units in Annandale

Shhh…!

Monday, February 5, 7:00 pm (at the Clinton Township Public Safety Building, where council and planning board meetings are held) is your last and only chance to protest, comment on, or ask questions about the 66-unit high-rise affordable housing development the mayor has promised to build on Beaver Ave. next to the firehouse in Annandale. This will be built near Foxfire off Austin Hill Road.

The planning board is required under law to let you speak. Here’s the meeting agenda.

Campaign promises

Some who live near the development site have said on Facebook that when Mayor Higgins went door to door last fall to campaign, he “explained” this 66-unit high-rise development on the Old Beaverbrook Homestead. But he did not tell voters about the extra 400 units he’s going to build just up the road at Headley Farm.

This is your chance to organize your neighbors and turn out to address the planning board about the 66 units. At this meeting, the planning board will hear public comment, then vote on the final site plan approval.

Once they vote to approve the final site plan, there’s no more opportunity for public input.

What you can ask about at the planning board meeting

On January 29 (this past Monday), at the last minute, the planning board asked the Clinton Township Environmental Commission (CTEC) to review the plans — specifically, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this project.

In just two days, the CTEC volunteers quickly turned this rush review around. (They don’t get paid.) The CTEC found loads of deficiencies in the plan.

The CTEC’s report dated January 31 concludes that:

“a decision for this project [should] be postponed until additional information is provided by the applicant in order for the CTEC to further advise the Planning Board of potential environmental impacts.”

For residents who want to protest approval of this housing project, this report makes a great roadmap to a postponement of the approval of the 66 units.

Except that the attorney sabotaged the public

Minutes after the CTEC report was delivered, planning board attorney Jonathan Drill quickly issued an e-mail to the planning board telling them to ignore it.

Drill claims the hurry-up CTEC review is too late because the planning board already appoved the applicant’s EIS a year and a half ago — June 6, 2016!

But the planning board never asked the CTEC to review the plans in 2016, never showed CTEC the plans at all until earlier this week.

Why not?

You can ask if you show up.

Is the fix in?

Virtually ever aspect of the affordable housing settlement agreement signed by Mayor Higgins screams there’s hanky-panky going on.

What’s most interesting about the deficiencies the CTEC found in the EIS for the site is this:

“A C1 stream runs through the northern portion of the Site along with its associated wetlands. There is no discussion in the EIS on the impacts to the hydrology, and subsequently the wetlands, from the construction and placement of 18,700+ square feet of impervious surface.”

Over 10 years ago, the presence of a C1 stream is what killed Pulte Homes’ Windy Acres project.

Is this a done deal?

This project is not a done deal until the public gets its say during the public hearing next Monday at 7:00 pm.

If you live on Austin Hill Road, in Foxfire, in Annandale, or anywhere else in town and something about this 66-unit high-rise project doesn’t seem right to you, this is your last chance.

Some of the deficiencies the CTEC report hands you on a silver platter for public comment (CTEC is very thorough):

  • No discussion of traffic in the EIS as required by §165-72C(3)(h)
  • No discussion in the EIS of socio-economic impacts as required by §165-72C(3)(i)
  • No discussion of artificial lighting as required by §165-72C(3)(k)
  • No discussion of the impacts of building on steep slopes (15-25%)
  • No Phase I Environmental Site Assessment was provided to the CTEC, that
    would identify underground storage tanks (USTs) (e.g., diesel fuel, gasoline), farm
    dumps (such as the conditions at Windy Acres) and other environmental hazards
    associated with a historic farming operation such as pesticides or with historic buildings such as lead-based paint and/or asbestos.
  • And loads more. The CTEC is very thorough.

According to attorney Drill, the planning board already waived all of that in 2016.

You can ask why, and you can protest that it’s wrong to ignore all those deficiencies.

We did just that in 2005. That’s how we killed Windy Acres. You may not want to “kill” this project, but you can demand that all the critical deficiencies the CTEC found should be addressed.

Otherwise, why did Drill and the planning board waste the CTEC volunteers’ valuable time on this rush EIS review?

Where was the mayor’s announcement in the CT newsletter?

Is it funny the mayor didn’t write a letter in the last CT Newsletter to announce this critical meeting? And to invite all to come participate?

It seems the problem is, You didn’t call Mayor John Higgins on the phone to have a private discussion about this matter.

Like loads of missing planning board minutes, you won’t find the official CTEC report anywhere on the Clinton Township website. You’ll find it here.

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