WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council adopted an ordinance on Tuesday granting Pleasant Valley Productions the license to operate the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center (OSPAC). The licensing agreement between the township and Pleasant Valley Productions spans three years with a nominal annual fee of $1, according to the ordinance.
The ordinance passed 3-1, with Councilman Joe Krakoviak voting against it and Council President Jerry Guarino recusing himself due to a conflict, as he currently sits on the board of Pleasant Valley Productions.
The vote came after a wave of criticism from members of the public as well as Krakoviak, who explained that he was hesitant to approve another license without fully understanding what occurred with New Jersey Arts Incubator (NJAI), the previous managers at OSPAC.
"Several weeks ago, Facebook posts began to allege wrongdoing at OSPAC by the management firm NJAI," said Krakoviak.
He made it clear that allegations made against NJAI have no connection to Pleasant Valley Productions, but expressed concern that the administration "began the process of recommending the appointment of Pleasant Valley Productions” around the same time these allegations surfaced.
“At the same time, I began to try and get information about what had been going on at OSPAC,” he said. “I thought it likely from the little we knew my concerns had been realized. I believe we first needed to know what happened at OSPAC and to determine how that might of arisen from the license agreement and township supervision.”
While not dismissing nor giving credence to allegations floating around social media, the council members who voted in favor of granting Pleasant Valley Productions the license did so with possible past mismanagement in mind.
Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown proposed that a board be included in the license agreement to act as an overseeing body. However, for the sake of generating benefits for the arts community, Matute-Brown said she felt it was important to vote on this now to ensure that OSPAC would be available to the public for the summer months.
“I don’t want the mistakes of the past to hinder what in the next couple of weeks could be progress, what could be community gathering, what could be community building,” said Matute-Brown.
She also acknowledged that the previous license agreement did originally have a board included, but that it ultimately went defunct. This time around, she emphasized the belief that she and her colleagues would be committed to creating a functioning board that could help create accountability and public trust.
Public opposition and criticism to OSPAC has been palpable over the last two weeks since the ordinance was introduced, with West Orange resident Micaela Bennett being an outspoken critic of the previous managing firm’s alleged transgressions.
“How do you permit a nonprofit designed to provide community theater to then also run and manage an organization?” said Bennett. “How do you split the funding; how do you figure out the financials? How do you figure out the in-kind derived benefit from that kind of relationship?”
Bennett rose to speak on this issue during the last meeting, where she urged the council to table the ordinance until there was a better understanding of the accusations being made against the previous managers.
“I’ve heard about the embezzlement of money; I’ve heard about making profit off of OSPAC by a private company that was entrusted to manage OSPAC; and I would implore this council to investigate what has happened historically that leads us to the point where a rushed and bizarre ordinance is put in front of you and you’re asked to act upon it,” she said at the time.
Bennett also noted during the last meeting that she would be willing to share any information she has with the local police as well as the attorney general and Essex County Prosecutor’s Office about “how inappropriately this has been managed by people who have been elected to manage a business that is supposed to be a nonprofit.”
“The fact that a for-profit company managed OSPAC and profited off of OSPAC but the township got no money is unconscionable, and I ask you to table this until you know what happened,” said Bennett.
During that meeting, Township Attorney Richard Trenk noted that this is the topic of a pending investigation that is not being handled by the township. Beyond the fact that an investigation is being conducted, no other information has been shared at this time.
Trenk also reiterated that no connection “in any way, shape, or form” has existed between OSPAC and Pleasant Valley Way prior to this conversation and that the investigation “has nothing to do with Pleasant Valley Productions.”
In other news, the council announced on Tuesday that the West Orange Fire Department will officially have a new contract after resolutions passed settling with the department’s two respective unions.
The collective bargaining agreement with both the West Orange Firefighters Association FMBA Local 28 and the Superior Officers Association will cover the period of Jan. 1, 2018 through Dec. 21, 2022.
As part of the new contract, which the two unions agreed to in February after nearly a year of negotiating with the township. FMBA Local 28 President Angelo Tedesco explained that "anyone hired after 2018 will not receive health benefits into retirement, but will receive them on the job.”
Contract negotiations between the township and the police department are still ongoing, with health benefits upon retirement for new hires remaining at the forefront of the conversation. Click HERE to learn more about these negotiations.