CHATHAM, NJ - Chatham Township residents received a Valentine's Day surprise that they didn't appreciate when Township Department of Public Works employees removed signs opposing the affordable housing development plans from front lawns on Friday morning.

When questioned by residents, DPW employees said the move was ordered by Robert Hoffmann, Chatham Township administrator. Residents were told by the Chatham Township Police that they could pick up the signs at the municipal building at 58 Meyersville Rd. Hoffmann explained the action as a misunderstanding in an email sent out at 12:27 p.m., stating that his directive was not clear.

In his email response, Hoffmann said: "The signs were supposed to be removed from Esternay Field, under the Municipal Building sign and at Stonywck (Stonewyck) and near Colony Pool. My intentions to the DPW were not clear. The lack of clarity is my fault. The DPW is putting signs back as best they are able."

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Friday, Feb. 14, also marks the day that Chatham Township has a mediation session with Superior Court Judge Michael Gaus in regard to litigation with the Fair Share Housing Center on its third round obligation for affordable housing.

Candace Lane resident Erin Burgo didn't wait for the sign to be returned. She called the Chatham Township Police and asked if she was in violation of any law. The officer who arrived at her home said that she was not breaking the law and that her sign could be picked up at the municipal building.

"This was no misunderstanding," Burgo said. "I called the police and they did not say I was in violation of any ordinance or law. I went to the municipal building and brought back 20 to 25 signs with me."

When contacted by TAPinto Chatham for clarification on whether residents were breaking any law or ordinance, the Chatham Township Police declined to comment and referred all questions to Robert Hoffmann.

"I think this was planned for a Friday before a holiday weekend," Burgo said. "The offices will be closed on Monday. It's a waste of time, money and resources to have four DPW employees driving around violating our rights and stepping onto our property. I'm angry. Ironically, there is a 'Bloomberg 2020' sign on Meyersville road that was not touched and it was right next to the road. The timing is very suspicious. I think Robert Hoffmann orchestrated this so that those signs would end up in a dumpster by the end of the day. The people who work for them took the brunt of it while he was out of the office."

A photo of one of the signs removed on Valentine's Day by DPW employees

Chris Felice, also a resident of Candace Lane, has filed a civil lawsuit against the township in regard to the Chatham Township Committee's actions on affordable housing. He was the one who emailed Hoffmann for a response when he saw a DPW employee remove a sign from his lawn at 10:21 a.m.

"This was no misunderstanding on the part of the DPW employees, they were told to go around town and take these signs down by the township administrator," Felice said. "The same person who happens to be the leading voice behind the push to turn over the current municipal building for a AH development site and build a brand new municipal building that will cost us millions more dollars than he is estimating.

"This was a serious violation of our first amendment rights and further shows the committee is not interested in what the township residents want. They want to be left alone to make town altering decisions in private executive sessions and tell us about it later. If we are opposed to it they want to shut down our right to voice that opposition. As township residents, property owners and taxpayers we have every right to voice our opposition to things the township committee is doing. They can either engage with us and listen to our point of view or ignore it, but they should not infringe upon our right to free speech and try to shut it down in any way. I have no idea why Bob Hoffmann, our township administrator, thinks he has the right to weaponize the DPW employees against township residents by trespassing on their property and taking down signs displaying political free speech opposing current municipal actions."

Lauren Rigal, a resident of Candace Lane, said that she doesn't think the explanation given by Hoffmann makes any sense.  

"Everyone is very upset," Rigal said. "There is no precedent for a government agency coming onto private property and taking personal possessions. It was very disturbing. My sign and my neighbor's sign was set way back on our lawns.

"I'm confused by that explanation. When has DPW ever gone house-to-house removing any sign? That makes no sense at all. No one had answers at town hall and the police were unaware of any law that was being broken. If someone goes into a store and steals something and then says I was confused as an explanation, and that's it? It was theft, plain and simple. DPW did what they were told to do. We need more of an explanation than they were confused."