July 7, 2022
Open Letter to Marc Brooks, Executive Director, NJ Water Supply Authority
Dear Mr. Brooks:
On June 22 the mayor and council of Clinton Township voted unanimously not to oppose the permanent closing of county route 629 over Round Valley Reservoir — without one public comment at the meeting. This is telling, because almost 2 weeks after that furtive action, an article about the matter on exmayor.com was viewed over 3,600 times in less than 6 days. Many Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough residents who knew nothing about the proposed road closing have expressed outrage and opposition.
Based on what I now know about the 629 proposal, I am presently 100% against it. Everything surrounding this pitch can only be called lame and embarrassing.
I am a former mayor of Clinton Township and live on Old Mountain Road, along with over 100 other households. We’ve been patiently waiting for the road to reopen after over 4 years of dam reconstruction. Open for over 60 years, the road was closed briefly after 9/11 then reopened. The road is our best, fastest and most economical route to points south and to the Hunterdon Medical Center Emergency Room.
The closure has been proposed “informally” by the New Jersey Water Supply Authority to the County Engineer. The Engineer must decide whether to recommend to the County Commissioners whether to close this important county road.
According to official documents obtained from Clinton Township under OPRA, the County Engineer requires from the NJWSA:
- a formal proposal for the closing
- formal resolutions of support from Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough
- that the public have an opportunity to comment on the matter prior to any formal proposal made to the county “to minimize potential for complaints in the future if the closure becomes permanent.”
Nowhere is there any indication of any rush or even a deadline for the towns to take formal action, or to receive public comment.
Lebanon has not yet decided how to proceed, citing the need for more information, to consider all the ramifications to the public and to its businesses, and to get input from its residents. Lebanon will discuss the matter in public later in July and seems in no rush.
Clinton Township, however, acted immediately and precipitously on June 22 to not oppose the road closing and to pass the buck to the county without any public comment, and with only the minimum required “legal notice” to the public and to affected residents. Certainly, the people we have elected can do better than that.
There are many notices posted at the huge fence that blocks entrance to 629 at the intersection of Old Mountain Road and Cherry Street. But Clinton Township couldn’t be bothered to post a notice there to affected residents, or to use its “Email Alert” system, inviting their input and concerns. Nor did the township publish any notice in its monthly newsletter, even though Mayor Brian Mullay knew about the proposal as early as April 7 and acknowledged then that it would be controversial.
The County Engineer should be aware that there are already loads of public objections to the proposal as well as complaints about the failure to ensure adequate opportunity for public comments. One need only check the Clinton Township and Lebanon Facebook groups and Nextdoor.
The NJWSA has provided the skimpiest justification for the closure: vague references to “security reasons” that local officials were told “not to discuss publicly.”
On June 22 Mayor Mullay told the council that:
“There are security concerns which in my opinion are major, but which we can’t get into the details of… but I very much understand the rationale behind their desire to close it.”
- What security expertise and qualifications does Mayor Mullay possess to warrant offering his opinion to justify closing a road? What rationale is he referring to?
Asked by a council member, “Why?” Mullay answered:
“We can’t have that discussion in public, but it satisfied me, that’s all I’m going to say.”
- By what legal authority does Mayor Mullay limit public council deliberation about a public road funded by taxpayers? Does the rest of the council have this information? Was this discussed in closed session?
Responding to a concerned resident via e-mail, Mullay said this:
“I understand your concern of a lack of transparency. I believe I mentioned that I wish I could go into more detail during the Council meeting. All that I am able to say is that the security concern that the Authority has is related to dam safety. I toured all the project sites with the Authority, during which time we discussed in detail the dam security issue that is leading them to make the request for closure to the County. It is unfortunate, but the sensitive nature of that information cannot be discussed publicly (in fact, I was asked not to discuss it publicly). Suffice it to say, I found the information compelling.”
- What secret clearance does the mayor possess? What warranted the NJWSA’s disclosure of sensitive security information to him, and under what legal authority did it then instruct him to withhold the information from the public? This cloak-and-dagger stuff must be, suggested one resident, from watching too much “24” on tv.
The NJWSA reportedly told Lebanon only verbally that heavy trucks could undermine the road’s stability. Yet it has provided the towns with nothing substantive from any relevant authority to support its proposal.
The County Engineer was wise to wave away the NJWSA’s “informal” proposal. Mayor Mullay and his council were foolish and irresponsible to take formal action without due diligence and without formal documentation to defend their rushed vote. Mullay could not even offer anything substantive to the council. Not even the township engineer was present.
After contacting relevant officials and reviewing available documents, based on what I now know about the 629 permanent closure proposal, I am presently 100% against it. I see no justification or evidence that it would be prudent to permanently close a major Hunterdon County through road that so many residents from Clinton Township and Lebanon rely on. Moreover, while the county is spending tax dollars on an “Eco-Tourism” initiative, does it make any sense to close the most stunning, gorgeous drive through nature in Hunterdon County?
To change my position, first the NJWSA would have to provide a formal assessment and position statement from US Homeland Security, or other relevant authority, about new security risks at this specific dam and road. The document might be redacted for security reasons, but I need to see that a proper authority did the proper analysis and recommends the closure. Mayor Mullay’s opinion and whatever the NJWSA did or did not tell him is not sufficient. Violation of the NJ OPRA is not acceptable.
Second, you’d have to provide an assessment and recommendations from the US Army Corps of Engineers about the risk of damage to the dam from truck traffic on this specific dam and road. Did the State of NJ really put out a bid for dam work that would not withstand the kind of traffic that has been going over that road for over 60 years? The NJWSA noted to me that the NJ DEP has expressed only “verbal support of this proposal.”
It seems everyone is “passing the buck” on approval to permanently close the road, and the only backstop is public outrage — and the only solution is public comment.
I am stunned that Clinton Township Council voted unanimously to not oppose the closure by stating that “it’s the county’s decision, not ours” and “we have no choice,” without a shred of documentary evidence that the road closure is necessary, for any reason, whether engineering/structural or related to homeland security.
Where have we heard “we have no choice” before? For over 10 years residents of Old Mountain Road led the successful war to stop Pulte Homes from putting over 1,000 housing units on Windy Acres, even to the point of having to sue the township. If we had listened to “We have no choice” from then-mayor Tom Borkowski, the planning board and he council, there would be no Windy Acres Park today.
Do we have to sue someone again, this time to protect a road we rely on?
I’m even more stunned that the NJWSA would ask Hunterdon County to close the road and transfer it to the NJWSA without supporting documentary evidence. I’m shocked that NJWSA and the county would put the cart before the horse and, in a seemingly deft political ploy to pass the buck, first ask the towns for formal support when the NJWSA itself has offered the towns nothing formal upon which to base a decision the towns can defend to the public.
If there are legitimate “security reasons” that are documented and verified (even if some of this is “secret”), then our local and county governing bodies should have all the evidence they require to make an informed decision about closing the road. But they must be able to document and defend their decision.
This entire enterprise seems less than half-baked and steeped in bureaucratic and political manipulation of our naïve elected officials. I do not support the present shenanigans because this dog don’t hunt.
I’m still waiting to see the information Mayor Mullay and the council used to support their premature action, which in any event is unforgivable for lack of any effort to first obtain public comment, especially from residents affected most.
I ask the NJWSA to kindly:
- Provide the public with evidence of independent assessments of this road and this dam/dike, as well as formal recommendations regarding road closure, from US Homeland Security and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
- Recommend to Clinton Township that the council repeal its premature, unsupported June 22 resolution — which was devoid of any documented basis or public input — because it’s the right thing to do.
- Provide to Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough a complete, formal proposal that has the full, formal support of the NJ DEP and the county, prior to expecting the towns to provide formal resolutions of support. I’m sure you recognize the importance of due diligence when elected officials must make important decisions that affect taxpayers.
- Ensure that NJWSA and the towns have taken necessary and meaningful measures to inform residents about this proposal and to provide ample opportunity for public comment “to minimize potential for complaints in the future if the closure becomes permanent.”
While I respect the NJWSA’s desire to ensure the safety and security of our towns, that is meaningless without protecting and ensuring the sacred right of the public to know what’s going on and to participate fully in our own government.
ExMayor, Clinton Township