Clinton Township violates Sunshine Law, interferes with affordable housing fairness hearing

opmaAccording to a January 29, 2018 violations notice issued to Clinton Township by attorney Walter N. Luers on behalf of exMayor.com, the township violated the law throughout 2017 by failing to provide minutes of its planning board meetings.

The New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), N.J.S.A. 10:4-6, et seq., also known as the Sunshine Law, requires that any “public body” that holds a “meeting” “shall keep reasonably comprehensible minutes of all its meetings . . . which shall be promptly available to the public.” (See sidebar below.)

Sunshine Law Violations

The planning board conducted 13 meetings in 2017. Minutes are available for only six of those meetings. In addition, according to the township’s website there are no minutes from some meetings as far back as August, 2016. (See graphic.) While audio recordings of some, but not all, meetings are posted, the Sunshine Law requires minutes.

Why does this matter?

A Fairness Hearing has been scheduled in Superior Court by Judge Thomas C. Miller for February 12, to hear objections from the public about the township’s settlement agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC). In preparing filings, on January 15, 2018 exMayor.com filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for minutes of nine Planning Board meetings conducted in 2017. The township delivered minutes for only two of those meetings.

The township clerk responded that a meeting “record does not exist” for six of the meetings, including meetings from over a year ago, and that “drafted” minutes from one meeting are “not yet approved” by the planning board and “so are being withheld.”

That’s a violation of the Sunshine Law.

Also known as “The Sunshine Law,” the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act ensures that the public has access to the business of government. The Law requires public bodies to provide the public with: (a) adequate advance notice of all its meetings, (b) the right to attend its meetings, and (c) reasonable comprehensive minutes of all its meetings “which shall be promptly available to the public.” (See What Is The Open Public Meetings Act?)

Enforcement action may be taken

Attorney Luers stated in his letter to the township that:

“While there is no bright line rule about how many days or weeks constitutes ‘prompt’ disclosure, I am highly confident that no court would hold that a delay of several months constitutes ‘promptly.’”

Luers notified the township that if it does not correct the violations immediately and produce the missing minutes, enforcement may be pursued through remedies available under the Act.

Interference with Fairness Hearing

While the law requires any “public body” to always keep minutes of meetings and to make them “promptly available to the public,” in this case Clinton Township has interfered with the public’s right to participate in the upcoming fairness hearing in Superior Court regarding its settlement agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center.

exMayor.com has put the township on notice that:

“[its]…obvious violations of the Act… are prejudicing the ability of both Mr. Corcodilos and the public to participate meaningfully in the February 12, 2018 fairness hearing currently scheduled in In re Township of Clinton Compliance with Third Round Mount Laurel Affordable Housing Obligation, Docket No. HNT-L-000315-15.”

Several of the planning board meetings about which the township admits “record does not exist” — including a closed session from which the public was barred — pertained to matters directly or indirectly (who knows?) relating to the settlement agreement. Without legally-guaranteed access to those minutes, who can properly prepare comments for the Court?

Will the judge permit the Fairness Hearing to be held?

If you wanted to file comments or an objection with the Court, it was due yesterday,  January 29. If you needed planning board records to produce your Court filing, you were out of luck. Actually, Mayor Higgins and the council are out of luck — because they violated your rights under the law.

How can Judge Miller permit the proceedings to take place on February 12 if citizens were denied their rightful access to public records they may need to participate?

What’s the township hiding in the missing minutes?

Council meeting minutes are readily available on the township’s website for all of 2017. But key planning board minutes, where some of the affordable housing sites were discussed, are missing. It seems the township staff is perfectly able to produce some minutes, but not others.

Why?

According to available agendas from those meetings, the topics relevant to the fairness hearing include:

  • “pending litigation, specifically, the Clinton Township Third Round Affordable Housing Declaratory Judgement Action”
  • CRC Communities, which is one of the affordable housing sites designated in the settlement
  • Ingerman Development Co, LLC, one of the affordable housing sites
  • “Letter dated October 30, 2017 from Katharine A. Coffey, Esq., re: Ingerman”

Of special concern are missing minutes from a March 20, 2017 meeting to discuss “pending Mount Laurel Declaratory Judgment litigation” and a August 21, 2017 “Joint Special Meeting of the Mayor and Council and the Planning Board” to discuss “pending litigation, specifically, the Clinton Township Third Round Affordable Housing Declaratory Judgement Action.”

Attorney Luers raised this specific issue in his letter::

“In addition, we are also concerned about the joint closed meeting between the Planning Board and the Township Council on August 21, 2017. It is not clear to me what exception under the Act permits two governing bodies that have separate responsibilities from meeting together while excluding the public. And, here, in the absence of minutes, the public cannot even guess what would justify such a meeting.

Is the township intentionally hiding its business?

Mayor John Higgins and the council avoided telling the public about their affordable housing settlement until after they signed it, so the public had no chance to ask questions, make comments or voice objections in their own council chamber.

Instead, these officials set it up so residents have to drive to Somerville to tell it to a Superior Court judge — after making even that harder by requiring objectors to submit their comments in writing two weeks in advance.

But now it’s evident that the mayor and council made it even harder for concerned residents to prepare written objections for the Court — by illegally withholding minutes of planning board meetings going back well over a year, in violation of the Sunshine Law.

At this point, it’s difficult to assume anything but that the mayor and council are intentionally violating the law to hide something and to illegally lock Clinton Township residents out of a fair and open process.

[UPDATE: See article on nj.com, “Clinton Township violates Sunshine Law, interferes with affordable housing fairness hearing.“]

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Windy Acres: The fatal fraud in Clinton Township’s affordable housing scheme

Clinton Township’s affordable housing settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center hinges on all the seven projects within it delivering the number of housing units Mayor John Higgins and the council have agreed to. If any one of the sites fails, Clinton Township will face massive penalties and contingencies defined in the plan:

  • High-density (10+ units per acre) re-zoning of any other properties necessary to deliver the units promised;
  • The “need” to use litigation to sue Readington, Lebanon, Town of Clinton, and the Readington Lebanon Sewer Authority (RLSA) to force them to provide water and sewer capacity;
  • Spending any municipal funds necessary to deliver the units promised — think massive bonding;
  • And much more.

(Interestingly, other towns that are in similar negotiations with FSHC have not agreed to the onerous 10+ units per acre zoning penalty. Only Clinton Township.)

Windy Acres: The 2-decade fraud

There’s always been a fraud in Clinton Township’s affordable housing plans, since Pulte Homes tried to build 1,165 housing units on Windy Acres — then fewer, then fewer still, because Pulte could not come up with the sewer capacity.

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No one has ever been able to sewer the Windy Acres site — the old, bigger version, or the new, smaller version. Without sewer service, Windy Acres does not qualify to be in an affordable housing plan. And everyone knows this because it’s all over the public record.

Pulte tried and gave up

Pulte Homes, one of the biggest developers in the U.S., lost its shirt because it could not sewer Windy Acres.

Desperate, Pulte sued the RLSA. It lost. See “Appeals Court Upholds dismissal of Pulte lawsuit.”

Desperate, Pulte sued Clinton Township. After Mayor Tom Borkowski and his lawyers tried to settle with Pulte — to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, said Borkowski again and again — Clinton Township finally hired a powerhouse commercial litigator that brought Pulte to its knees.

After over a decade of trying to sewer Windy Acres, Pulte gave up. Amidst reports that Pulte put between $25M-$30M into Windy Acres, it finally sold the land to Clinton Township for $7 million.

Politicians tried and failed

Every affordable housing plan involving Windy Acres — including the one put forth by councilmen Jim Imbriaco, Peter Marra and Spencer Peck in 2010 — failed because no one could procure sewer capacity for the site.

News articles memorialized the fatal problems with sewers for even the smaller version of Windy Acres, which has nonetheless been put back into Clinton Township’s plans today. See “Affordable housing plan opposed by Clinton Township citizen’s group.”

“… litigation… ultimately resulted in the abandonment of a prior plan by Pulte Homes in 2004 to build affordable housing on the Windy Acres site because it ‘did not provide a realistic opportunity to deliver affordable housing.’ There was no access to water or sewer. This hasn’t changed, but the township owns the property.” – The Hunterdon Review, Nov. 4, 2010

Everybody knows

The reasons why Windy Acres cannot be included in an affordable housing plan are simple, and they have been written into the public record for many years.

  • The cost to build an on-site sewer treatment plant is cost-prohibitive. Even Pulte gave up.
  • Off-site sewer service would require connection to the Readington-Lebanon Sewer Authority’s system. RLSA has confirmed again and again that it will not provide sewer capacity.

Mayor Higgins and the current council know this, which makes it all the more shocking that they continue to pretend Windy Acres is a “realistic” affordable housing site. The inclusion of Windy Acres in the township’s affordable housing plans was always a political scam. Putting Windy Acres into the plan exposes Clinton Township to years of litigation — as it has in the past.

When 25 acres of the original Windy Acres property were subdivided for potential affordable housing, it was with the sober vision that at some far-distant time, sewer capacity might be had, and at a reasonable cost. But nowhere in the foreseeable future.

Until Mayor John  Higgins came along and tried the scam all over again.

Why is Windy Acres a scam?

There are two well-documented reasons why Windy Acres cannot realistically be sewered.

Building a new sewer system on the site is prohibitively expensive.

Why? Because of the Category-1 stream on the original 292-acre Windy Acres. The stream is still there. Effluent from a sewer plant into Category-1 waters may not degrade the quality of the water. A C-1 waterway is so pristeen that trout breed and grow in it. Effluent from a plant would have to be of equal or higher quality than the stream water itself. If the technology exists to accomplish this, Pulte found it prohibitively expensive, and it remains so. Township professionals have testified that, statistically, any such plant would be likely to trigger DEP violations because no one can guarantee its effluent will not contaminate the stream.

Sewer service from the RLSA does not exist.

According to the RLSA, there has not been capacity available in its system for Windy Acres. Just as important, Windy Acres is not in the RLSA sewer service area (SSA). Pulte attempted to sue RLSA capacity holders several years ago in Superior Court. Lawyers from 12 capacity owners showed up — some from major corporations — and the judges all but laughed Pulte out of court. The court ruled that Pulte could not take an asset from its owners. Thus, a connection to the RLSA has not been a viable legal option. But that doesn’t prevent anyone from suing the RLSA again — a contingency included in the settlement agreement signed by Clinton Township.

Every plan has been a fraud

Regardless, several iterations of politicians — with the support of township attorneys — have tried to put Windy Acres in the township’s affordable housing plan in a game of Russian roulette. Every plan has pretended Windy Acres could be sewered within the time constraints required. Every plan was revealed to be a fraud.

This public testimony, presented in March 2015 when Mayor Higgins added Windy Acres into the last iteration of Clinton Township’s affordable housing plan, reveals the history of sewer failure for Windy Acres. It also showed once again, in 2015, why Higgins’ inclusion of Windy Acres was yet another scam.

(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.)

The new fraud

Windy Acres is now included in the Fair Share Housing Center settlement agreement, and is to include 89 municipally-built affordable housing units.

Mayor Higgins heard the testimony above in 2015. Nonetheless, he included Windy Acres in the plan. He testified that he seemed to have special information that Readington would not reject a request for sewer capacity for Windy Acres.

“We have had past conversations with officials in Readington who indicated that their ordinance does provide a, um, priority for affordable housing projects within their township, and they might, they may see it the same way for an affordable housing project adjacent to the township. Lots of work to be done but, um, it is not a foregone conclusion at this point in time that that sewerage would not be forthcoming.”

Clearly, Mayor Higgins had not had any conversations with Readington or the RLSA about getting sewer capacity. Readington officials had already provided a statement to the Clinton Township Community Coalition stating that “Readington’s sewer capacity is all allocated and therefore there is none available at this time.” Higgins didn’t know that because he had not, in fact, bothered to speak to Readington about it — even as he advanced his theory.

Almost three years later, at the time of this publication, Readington’s position is that it has no available capacity for Clinton Township.

Higgins still put Windy Acres in his plan.

What happened between 2015 and today? Nothing.

In spite of information and testimony provided in March 2015, Clinton Township included the fraudulent Windy Acres in its affordable housing plan — yet again.

Today, Higgins has signed a deal binding the town to build 89 affordable housing units on Windy Acres, and to provide sewer for them.

Since 2015, Mayor Higgins and his administration have done absolutely nothing to develop on-site sewer capacity for Windy Acres, or to do the “lots of work” he promised to obtain sewer capacity from Readington.

Said Higgins in 2015:

“…it is not a foregone conclusion at this point in time that that sewerage would not be forthcoming [from Readington].”

Three years later, can Clinton Township residents say, FRAUD!?

What happens when the fraud is exposed?

The agreement Higgins signed spells out what he has also agreed to if he still can’t get sewers to build Windy Acres:

And, “if needed,” Higgins has agreed to sue to obtain sewer and water capacity:

The Clinton Township lawyer who included this clause cleverly defined later in the agreement exactly where that sewer capacity is, and who’s going to get sued: Readington, Lebanon, and the RLSA:

Could this have been avoided?

Maybe. If Mayor John Higgins and the Council had handled the settlement deal transparently and disclosed it to the public in advance, and invited the public to review, comment on and provide input it — before Higgins signed this fatally flawed deal.

Maybe some smart residents would have seen these problems and alerted the mayor to them.

The mayor invites you to a public hearing at NHHS about the settlement!

In 2005, when Clinton Township contemplated a similar affordable housing settlement agreement with Pulte Homes, Mayor Tom Borkowski convened a special public meeting at North Hunterdon High School. Hundreds turned out and gave their input.

“We want the public to come out and see it and partciaipte,” said Borkowski in a May 5, 2005 Hunterdon Democrat article. “We’re hoping for a big turnout.”

Not this mayor. Not John Higgins. Not council members Brian Mullay, Amy Switlyk, Dan McTiernan and Tom Kochanowski. According to an official involved with the FSHC settlement who is not authorized to speak about the matter publicly, a township attorney advised officials not to present the settlement deal to the public before voting on it.

The public isn’t qualified to partcipate

But Mayor Higgins doesn’t think much of the public’s qualifications to help with government. Here’s what he said at a recent Hunterdon County Freeholder meeting about another land-use matter that would have benefited from public input:

“I don’t know very many people in the township that have enough knowledge of … our land use ordinances to provide any real meaningful criticism or meaningful suggestions on how to improve them.” – Mayor John Higgins, Sept. 5, 2017, Freeholder Meeting

(More about that freeholder meeting was reported by TAPInto Flemington-Raritan.)

Later, at the January 3, 2018 Clinton Township Council meeting, Higgins was asked whether he really believes that’s true:

“Mmm-hmm… that’s correct…”

Without meaningful input from the public, the fatal Windy Acres affordable housing fraud has been allowed to make its way into a contract that binds residents as well as future mayors and councils.

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The litigation will begin when Clinton Township cannot fulfill the terms of the FSHC settlement agreement because Windy Acres cannot be sewered on time, as promised.

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Mayor’s #1 affordable housing builder has “unusual” problems

affordable

Clinton Township Mayor John Higgin’s #1 designated affordable housing builder, CRC Communities, Inc., has a 12-year history of “unusual” problems with its two stalled Clinton Township projects (both of which are included in the settlement deal), according to Clinton Township planning board records.

CRC is one of two named developers in a massive settlement deal that was never disclosed to the public before it was approved and signed. (See Mayor Higgins’ 51-second, 805 housing-unit massacre.)

The CRC problems described in planning board documents include N.J. DEP water-quality regulation “errors,” “duplicative” work, surveying problems, a Category-1 stream missing from plans, apparent violations of DEP wetlands rules on official plans, questions about its consultants and project engineers, and questions about management practices.

The CRC website lists no address for the company, no names of owners, principals, or contacts. The only contact information is a 732 area-code telephone number and a generic “info” e-mail address. A page describing “Some of Our Recently Completed Communities” includes eight named housing developments, but Google searches turn up no such “recently completed” developments.

Problems since 2005

It seems Mayor Higgins and the council are impressed with CRC’s record at the planning board over the past 12 years. (“In December of 2005 CRC submitted a Preliminary Subdivision application…”) That’s how long CRC has been planning to construct 19, then 16 homes at Longview Manor, a 170-acre property, according to planning board records.

From the June 5, 2017 Clinton Township Planning Board Meeting Minutes:

During and after the preliminary subdivision process, CRC encountered an unusual number of engineering and surveying issues, including:

  • Four of CRC’s consultants went out of business resulting in duplicative and expensive plan preparation.
  • Due to errors by the original engineer and environmental consultant, the existence of an off-tract C-1 stream, which required a 300-foot stream buffer to be located on the Longview Manor property, was not revealed until after the subdivision had been fully engineered and approved.
  • Additional engineering errors showed a 50-foot wetlands transition area where a 150-foot wetlands transition area was required by DEP letter of interpretation.
  • Surveying errors were discovered after discussions with the Hunterdon County Planning Board.
  • A second aquifer test and report had to be done by a new hydrogeologist due to issues that could not be resolved by the original hydrogeologist.
  • CRC had to engage in extended negotiation with the Hunterdon County Engineer’s office due to that agency’s insistence on extensive frontage improvements along Cokesbury Road. These frontage improvements would have violated the 2007 Litigation Settlement Agreement and required unobtainable DEP permits for disturbance of wetlands, wetlands transition areas and stormwater resource protection area buffers.

In spite of this litany of “unusual” problems, the planning board unanimously approved CRC’s request for a 4th extension of its approvals — just months before CRC was included in the township’s affordable housing settlement as the #1 developer, in terms of number of units to be constructed.

Higgins’ #1 affordable housing developer gets a 700% bonus

Under the secretive settlement deal signed by Higgins on December 13, 2017, CRC’s two properties constitute the biggest affordable housing project undertaken in Clinton Township’s history. CRC is listed as the developer of 416 of the 805 total new housing units to be constructed. (See Mayor Higgins’ 51-second, 805 housing-unit massacre.)

Only 105 of the 416 CRC units are actually affordable housing units. The rest are “bonus” market-priced units granted to CRC by the agreement. Clinton Township does not need the 311 market units in order to satisfy its legal obligation to build affordable housing.

According to the settlement agreement, Higgins and the council have granted CRC the right to build 311 market-priced housing units in exchange for building the 105 affordables, on the same two properties where CRC has approvals for just 36 market units — Longview Manor and Headley Farm Estate. That’s an instant 700% increase in CRC’s housing yield on the same properties where it has not yet been able to build a house.

4 extensions of approvals

Last June, CRC applied for one of many extensions on its Longview approvals, “due to its inability to proceed due to detrimental local and state housing market conditions.”

After granting “two one-year extensions of the preliminary subdivision approval, the second extension expiring on November 16, 2014,” the planning board “granted a three-year extension expiring November 16, 2017.”

Having enumerated the “unusual” problems on the Longview site, and after enumerating the three approval extensions granted since 2012, on June 5, 2017 the planning board approved a fourth extension.

Now the mayor and council have granted CRC hundreds of housing units and more time to construct them. What did CRC do to earn re-zoning of its properties and a 700% yield bonus?

7 sites but only 2 developers named

There are seven new “affordable” developments designated on seven sites in the township, but only two developers are identified in the agreement: CRC and Ingerman, which is named to build the 66 affordable-only project at the Old Beaverbrook Homestead. According to its website, Ingerman is a family-run developer based in Collingwood, NJ. Its management team is presented on its website.

Why CRC?

According to an article by Mayor John Higgins in the January 2018 edition of the Clinton Township Newsletter, CRC, Ingerman and other undisclosed developers were chosen by the council and the planning board behind closed doors, in “executive session.”

To date, Higgins has not disclosed who the other developers are. They are not disclosed in the settlement agreement, even though it binds the township to deliver all the housing units described on the seven sites — or face stiff penalties.

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To date, Higgins has not disclosed what criteria were used, how or whether due diligence was done, and why a developer with CRC’s record was chosen to undertake the biggest housing construction project in Clinton Township since Beaverbrook — and the township’s biggest affordable housing project ever.

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Mayor Higgins’ 51-second, 805 housing-unit massacre

How long does it take to add 805 new housing units to Clinton Township, if the mayor and council don’t tell anyone they’re doing it?

How long does it take to add 400 new housing units just in the tiny Village of Annandale?

Check related articles in Recent Posts section at right.
How long does it take to massacre the character of semi-rural Clinton Township with Mayor John Higgins’ new policy of Bring On The Sprawl! — without a word of warning to the public?

The 51-second massacre

On Dec. 13, 2017, at the last Clinton Township council meeting of the year, in the last minute of the meeting, Mayor John Higgins — who just got re-elected — and the council took exactly 51 seconds to vote to sign a legal settlement deal with the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) obligating the town to add 805 new housing units at any cost necessary to Clinton Township.

(The full recording of the meeting is available on the Clinton Township website, but there is no mention of the settlement deal until the very end of the recording.)

No details about the deal were ever discussed in public.

“I didn’t.”

At the January 3, 2018 meeting, Mayor Higgins was asked:

“When did you present this settlement agreement to the public in any meaningful detail prior to taking action on December 13?”

Higgins answered, very softly:

“I didn’t.”

That’s not how open, transparent government is supposed to work.

How many new housing units?

Under State law, like other New Jersey municipalities, Clinton Township has an obligation to provide a certain number of affordable housing units.

Under the FSHC settlement deal, the Township has agreed to provide 373 actual, new affordable housing units, above and beyond any affordables it has already earned credit for. That’s supposed to settle the obligation without any extra housing the Township doesn’t don’t need or want.

To put 373 housing units in perspective, The Mews in Annandale, behind Cryan’s Tavern, is 221 units.

The Mews — An “inclusionary” development. 221 housing units, Only 35 are affordable.

So why did Higgins and his council sign up for 809 new units?

Smart towns avoid inclusionary sprawl

For the past decade, New Jersey towns have diligently focused on building their own municipal affordable units, usually in cooperation with a special affordable-housing builder who builds just those units and nothing more.

Previously, towns got suckered into letting commercial housing developers — think Hovnanian, Pulte — build their affordable units. Such inclusionary developments require towns to give a bonus to those developers. For every affordable unit they build, the developers are allowed to build 4 or 5 more units of market-priced housing. That’s 80% market and 20% affordable.

(The Mews is a >5:1 market:affordable development put up by Charles Kushner, who later went to jail. Yes, that Kushner — the father.)

Clearly, that kind of deal sucks for a town. But it’s actually worse. To provide that kind of unit yield to the developer, it often means re-zoning a property that might be allowed to have just one house on 5 acres to accommodate 50 housing units on the same land.

You get the idea — such inclusionary  developments are where sprawl comes from.

It’s what previous mayors for the past 10 years have fought hard to avoid. So why did Mayor Higgins and the council sign a deal to add 805 new housing units when all we need to satisfy our obligation is 373?

Protecting Clinton Township?

While the mayor has published a statement and a FAQ about the settlement deal, the truth and details are buried in the settlement agreement itself.

Here’s what Higgins wrote in his statement about how his “settlement deal” is going to protect his town:

Oops! Higgins said he was avoiding deals that slam Clinton Township with 4 market units for 1 affordable, but it’s exactly what this deal does. The deal sneaks in hundreds of market housing units Clinton Township doesn’t need.

The 805-unit massacre

Here are the numbers, which can be found on the indicated pages of the settlement agreement.

The Truth: 4X and 5X more housing than Clinton Township needs

Clinton Township needs 373 new affordable units. The mayor’s “FAQ” does not answer this question, which will be asked frequently: How come you agreed to 809 new units?

  • The developer of the CRC Longview and CRC Headley Farm projects, where the township needs 105 affordable units, gives the developer 75% market units — or 311 market units. That’s housing almost 2.5 times the size of The Mews — market housing Clinton Township doesn’t need. These brand new 416 units will be tucked up in Annandale, right above The Mews.

The Headley Farm site was previously approved for only 21 units. Now it’s 400+.

  • The developer of Alton Place gets a bonus of 110 market units for 28 affordables, a 4:1 ratio, for a total of 138 new units.

Wait a minute — Higgins said he’s “protecting” the township from “80% market” and “20% affordable” deals!

Wait a minute — hasn’t Clinton Township already done this before? Yep: John Higgins is paying tribute to Marra & Imbriaco: The Windygate Legacy.

Mayor Higgins isn’t “protecting” Clinton Township against developers. He’s just making it easier for them. They don’t have to bother suing Clinton Township for a “builder’s remedy” — Higgins is handing it to them.

Shhh…

But Mayor Higgins and the council didn’t breathe a word about the deal to the public before executing it.

At a recent Hunterdon Freeholder meeting, Higgins complained developers have it too hard. He said it’s important to consider the “viewpoint of the developer.”

Higgins said towns need to make development easier for developers:

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

The deal that council members Higgins, Brian Mullay, Amy Switlyk, Dan McTiernan and newcomer Tom Kochanowski approved sure helps developers.

The deal Higgins touted last week at the Republican Club meeting, and in private to his supporters, has not been fully disclosed in any council meeting, nor has the council taken comments from the public.

But it sure helps developers.

Higgins To Residents: You can all go to…

In his written statements, Higgins has informed Clinton Township residents that on February 12 they can drive to the New Jersey Superior Court in Somerset County if they want to comment on or object to the 809 housing-unit massacre that will fulfill Clinton Township’s negotiated obligation to provide 373 affordable housing units.

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But first you have to submit written comments to the Court no later than January 29, if you want to qualify to speak to the judges on February 12.

There’s no indication whether Higgins, Mullay, Switlyk, McTiernan and Kochanowski will be on hand to respond to you.

That’s your government in action — serving you!

The “FAQ” and the “Statement” don’t begin to tell the whole story about the extreme penalties Clinton Township has agreed to swallow.

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Freeholder candidate Van Doren admits role in govt data breach

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

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

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

Van Doren added:

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

Peter Melick explains it

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

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

The justification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They remove the files to Melick’s home

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

Said Melick:

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

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

Said Van Doren:

“I didn’t authorize him to do it.”

But Van Doren also said:

“We had a discussion and I trust the concern that if the office is going to need to be left open so that employees could get access to other files they needed, that they didn’t have access to those files. That was when it came up in the conversation, well why don’t you take them and hold them until the appropriate time when they could be transferred to his successor. In hindsight was it the appropriate thing to do? No it wasn’t. It came out of the conversation that occurred, there wasn’t any intent, there wasn’t anything nefarious.”

The Gang

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

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

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

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

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

Files were turned over by Landon

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

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

Authorized by the attorney

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

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

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

No official authorization

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

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

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

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

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

What happened to the files?

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

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

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

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

Van Doren gives Landon a bonus

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

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

Desiderio voted against the measure and explained her vote:

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

The measure passed 3-2 with DiMare also opposed.

What happened to the guy who turned over the records?

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

The offer was for the job of Administrator.

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

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

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

Clinton Township’s official Personnel Policy requires that:

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

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

What happened to Shaun Van Doren?

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

Full meeting recording

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he says Jesus agrees with him.

equal payGovernor Christie vetoed pay parity for women

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

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

Wait a minute. What’s that? Jesus?

Doherty says Jesus agrees with him

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

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

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

eggshellsWomen make Doherty walk on eggshells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 3 Amigos who “represent” Hunterdon County

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

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

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

Voters walking into voting booths

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

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

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

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Administrator hired by Mayor Higgins was under investigation

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

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

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

At a Tewksbury Committee meeting

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

The article goes to say:

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

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

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

The Review reports that Deputy Mayor DiMare:

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

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

Clinton Township

The Review reports:

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

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

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

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

Resident says attorney gave “bad advice”

The Review reported that:

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

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

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

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

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

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Clinton Township’s RFP for patronage jobs

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

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

RFP or RFQ?

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

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

RFP, embarrassment, or a set-up?

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

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

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

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

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

All that Clinton Township’s RFP asks for is:

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

It doesn’t even ask for resumes.

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

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

Is poor behavior in charge?

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Clinton Township at Risk: The affordable housing factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving money or hiring old friends?

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

patronage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higgins turns Clinton Township over to the Freeholders

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

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

Purpose is to help developers

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

Said Higgins:

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

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

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

The public? What does the public know?

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

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

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

Who’s in charge? Politicians.

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

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

Local rule? What’s that?

Public input? What’s that?

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

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

How politicians shut out the public

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

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

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