BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The 2019 municipal election in Bridgewater Township is only weeks away, but in a real sense, it permeated the most recent meeting of the township council.
The agenda for the council’s May 16 agenda session contained three resolutions calling for Bridgewater Mayor Dan Hayes, planning board chairman Ron Charles and planning board member Debra Albanese to recuse themselves from participating in and voting on the planning board application for the Center of Excellence project.
Councilman Filipe Pedroso, who has publicly voiced his disapproval of the center project, said it was he who had asked to have the three resolutions put on the agenda. Council president Matthew Moench said that evening that potential action could be taken at the council’s regular session scheduled for May 20.
The council approved a redevelopment ordinance several years ago for the Center of Excellence, on Route 202/206, which included plans for 400 rental apartment units, plus on-site amenities such as retail shops and restaurants, along with a hotel and a supermarket. Residents have appeared before the council several times in the past few months to voice their fears that the center project would increase traffic congestion in that area to unbelievable levels.
Councilwoman Christine Henderson Rose spoke of a document that came from township attorney William Savo, who was not present at the meeting, and another document from planning board attorney Thomas Collins, who was also not at the session. She asked how the council went from what the town’s paid attorneys were telling it, to the three recusal resolutions.
“I’m not making the connection,” she said.
According to the documents, the attorneys said the council had no standing for the proposed resolutions. Moench countered they were requests, not legal documents, and that the appearance of a conflict of interest should always be avoided.
The resolutions, he said, were also not binding on the individuals in question.
“That’s my understanding on these resolutions,” said Moench, himself an attorney, and a candidate for town mayor in the June 4 election.
Pedroso answered Rose’s question on who had crafted the resolutions by stating that it was he who had drafted them. He said he had then followed up with local resident Andrew Leven, who rewrote the drafts.
“In a way, it was teamwork,” said Pedroso.
It was Leven who had first brought the matter to the attention of the council in April, when he publicly asked to have Hayes, Charles and Albanese recuse themselves from the center application due to conflicts of interest. Hayes is up for re-election as mayor next month, and, Leven siad, has apparently utilized the Center of Excellence in his campaign literature.
Charles is listed on documents as Hayes’ campaign treasurer, Leven said, and Albanese is believed to be a campaign worker.
Rose then asked Bridgewater Township Deputy Attorney Michael Camerino, if the resolutions were adopted because the council believed there was a conflict of interest, would those individuals have to step down. Camerino said the council did not have the jurisdiction to ask planning board members to step down, and he added that the town attorney had given his written opinion.
“If the township considers adopting the resolutions, and ignoring the township attorney’s opinion,” said Camerino, “it could open (the town up) to litigation.”
Pedroso interjected that the resolutions were just recommendations to the planning board. Camerino said he had expressed his concern to the council about the resolutions being contrary to the town attorney’s opinion.
Pedroso responded that government sometimes had to step up for the people, and that if there was a potential conflict, the individuals in question should do the right thing, which he felt they should have done long ago.
“It’s basically making people accountable,” said Pedroso.
Councilman Allen Kurdyla said he wanted to go on record that he was not in favor of the resolutions.
“We’re entrusted to make decisions on legal opinions (that are) made by our attorney,” he said.
He added that, based on legal opinions, he had sometimes supported matters even if he did not like them, because legally it was the right thing to do, and that he would also never infer to ignore the public.
“Our obligation is to move forward, based on legal opinion,” said Kurdyla.
He also said that his concern was that the appearance of conflicts of interest could go a long way, and that he wouldn’t support the resolutions in question, based on the town attorney’s opinion. He said the council had done its due diligence on Leven’s earlier request by getting its attorney’s opinion, and that there was no basis for the resolutions.
Pedroso pointed out what he believed the legal peril was. He surmised that if people had a conflict of interest, and the council passed the resolutions and the individuals in question subsequently did not recuse themselves, it could result in legal action against the town later on if the Center of Excellence application was ratified.
Rose said the council had given an ordinance over to the planning board to work with the developer, and that final site plan approval had to meet the ordinance. As she said she understood it, if there was a need for individuals to recuse themselves due to conflicts with a political campaign, the decision might be seen as being indirectly influenced by relationships with the mayor.
The planning board was charged with negotiating what the redevelopment would look like, and the center was already considered an area in need of redevelopment.
Pedroso said he had been told it was not a site plan application, and that one of the main questions that persisted about the project was traffic. He also said he had been told it was “not the right time,” and added that he had reviewed the entire application, of which he had a copy.
If approved, he said, the project would “massively congest traffic on Route 206.”
Moench added that the application had to improve traffic, and that if it didn’t, then it should not be approved by the planning board.
Rose admitted that she was struggling with the matter, and that the council was talking about the reputations of two individuals who were serving the public, as if they could not act in a responsible and impartial way. She added that Councilman Howard Norgalis, who was unavailable for the agenda session, was the best person to sit on the application, and called him a “watchdog.”
Norgalis has said in the past that he would remain as the council representative on the planning board for continuity’s sake, until the center application is complete.
Concerning the council passing the recusal resolutions, Moench said that if the center application is ratified, he wants the public to have faith that due diligence has been done, that matters have been weighed and that the decision has been reached impartially. He said the appearance of the two planning board members was not impartial, and that the resolutions were in the best interest of the public, who might feel that the “fix was in” in future applications.
Rose said that a governmental entity suggesting two volunteers were in conflict with the application and involved with the mayor was a potential “Pandora’s Box,” a term Kurdyla had used earlier that evening about the resolutions, and what might happen if the attorney’s opinion on the resolutions was not followed.
Pedroso said he didn’t agree, and that he appreciated the volunteers. He also said that the resolutions didn’t undermine them, and he reiterated his belief that sometimes the governing body had to step up.
“It’s a special case,” he said, while adding that it was his intent to move the resolutions at the council’s next formal meeting.
Pedroso said he wanted to keep the resolutions on the agenda, so that the public is aware of them, while Rose felt that the volunteers’ reputations were being impinged upon.
The council deadlocked at two votes apiece about accepting the full agenda with all the resolutions, with Moench and Pedroso voting for it and Kurdyla and Rose against it. The council then voted, 3-1, to accept the agenda without the recusal resolutions, with Pedroso casting the lone dissenting vote.
The council’s regular meeting on May 20 was later canceled due to a lack of a quorum. The recusal resolutions did not appear on the agenda that was posted online at the township’s municipal website that day.
The next council meeting is slated for June 6, two days after the municipal election.