Government

Ordinance Revamping Committee Structure Passes Unanimously After Testy Discussion

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Credits: Barbara Rybolt
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Credits: Barbara Rybolt
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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The ordinance amending and updating terms of various township committees was the only ordinance out of the five up for adoption, that drew significant public comment at Tuesday's Berkeley Heights Township Council Meeting. 

The ordinance brings each of four previously established committees into compliance with rules governing the operation of the township's government under the Faulkner Act. The act, passed in 1981, allows New Jersey municipalities to adopt a mayor–council–administrator form of government.   

"Voters elect a mayor and six council members at large for staggered terms with partisan elections. The mayor serves a four-year term; council members serve three-year terms. An organization meeting is held on January 1. Up to six administrative departments may be created by ordinance. In this 'weak mayor' form[1] of government, the mayor votes only to break ties, and the township administrator supervises the departments.[2]," according to Wikipedia.

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Currently only three communities in the state have chosen to operate under this form of government. 

When originally adopted, chapters 2.93, 2.94, 2.95 and 2.97 of Title 2, "Administrations and Personnel" of the Code of the Township of Berkeley Heights included language which does not apply to the mayor-council-administrator form of government Berkeley Heights adopted in 2007, in particular related to meetings by various sub committees, including: Communications Committee; Downtown Beautification Committee (DBC); Memorial Park Renewal Committee and the Peppertown Park Renewal Committee. 

The ordinance presented for a public hearing and final adoption on Tuesday, Feb. 7, amended the original ordinance so it is in compliance with the Faulkner Act, which does not allow for sub-committees of the council. 

Council President Marc Faecher said of the four committees in Title 2, "These are ad hoc committees ... not subject to OPRA (Open Public Record Act) or OPMA - (Open Public Meeting Act)." The committees "cannot affect policy, cannot spend money ... don't have to (keep) minutes or file annual reports, " he said.  The changes being made in the original section of the ordinance  include a compromise because the committees have to keep minutes.

The committees are not required to set regularly scheduled public meetings, or hold these meetings in a particular place and, because they are not public meetings, do not have to allow their meetings to be live-streamed or recorded or put on social media sites.

When the ordinance was introduced, a number of residents questioned why the changes were being made.

Mayor Robert Woodruff reminded residents if they had previously spoken on the issue their comments are already on the record and, "If you are simply going to reiterate what you said before, there's nothing wrong with saying "I continue with my position as previously stated."

Resident Tom Maciejewski disputed the idea that the committees were advisory committees. "The DBC, in particular, does not act just as an advisory committee ... There's a lot of actions it takes, especially with the planning and zoning board that I think makes it fall under OPMA." "I think this new ordinance is going in place just to hide what is going on in the community." 

He agreed with a suggestion by Stephen Yellin that an audio recording of meetings would resolve concerns of volunteers who did not want to have videos of the meetings on YouTube or other social media platforms.

Zoning Board member Bruce Mustacchi said, "All we (on the Zoning Board) have gotten from the DBC is just recommendations." When a purely advisory committee, such as the Peppertown Park Renewal Committee, makes a recommendation to the Township Council, "It's all on you" to decide. "There's nothing secret ... it's a group of citizens who come together to help the township."

 

Resident Todd Scorzafavia said, There "should be nothing secretive" happening and warned, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." 

Dr. Thomas Foregger said, "I think the DBC is ... more than advisory. They do incur expenses. They do influence and advise" on the downtown appearance and other issues.

Township Attorney Joseph Sordillo said the DBC "did not meet with the planner, the planner asked to meet" with the committee, which is a "distinct difference."

Mayor Robert Woodruff confirmed, "Our planner asked to speak to them. What is of moment is us authorizing the planner to do it."

Foregger asked how the meeting was authorized.

Sordillo said, "He is the Township Planner" and "our administrator authorized him to meet with the committee."  Something the administrator was authorized to do by the Township Council "when he was appointed," Sordillo said.

Gay Hollowell, a member of the Memorial Park Renewal Committee and Peppertown Park Renewal Committee, reminded everyone "each committee has a liaison from the council," and that council member "gives committee reports" at the meetings, "if there is anything to report. The liaison can give a year end report," also. In the case of the Memorial Park Renewal Committee, which took two years to renew the park, "Look across the street and see a beautiful park. That's the annual report," she said.

Scorzafavia, who will be a member of the Timber Drive Committee which was created during the first part of Tuesday night's meeting, said, "I'm very disappointed," because after hearing him and others speak of "safety first," in regards to the proposal to build a YMCA facility on Locust Drive, "you approved, without input from the Timber Drive group, lease negotiations ... I'm extremely disappointed with what I've seen tonight."

Woodruff told him the comments were to be on this particular ordinance, while he was talking about another issue.

Scorzafavia said, "Thank you for shutting me down."

Woodruff responded, "You can speak to the agenda or..."

Scorzafavia replied, "I'll come right back."

Sordillo interjected that this is "the public hearing on an ordinance" and called Scorzafavia's behavior "extremely improper."

Scorzafavia, talking to Sordillo, said, "You had an attitude ... You've been looking at your cell phone all night ... I have a personal responsibility as a community member..."

Woodruff asked, "What does this have to do with the ordinance? ... It has nothing to do with the ordinance."

At this point, people were talking over one another.  Scorzafavia, back by his seat in the front row, loudly said, "They don't want to hear it," to no one in particular.

Faecher attempted to address that concern by telling Scorzafavia the lease negotiations were just negotiations and not final. The end results will include input from the Timber Drive committee and information from traffic studies. The final lease "must comply with all aspects of traffic," he said.  

The hearing was then closed to comments, but Scorzafavia interjected, "I'm here for the safety of my child."

Things got so loud someone yelled "We are having a meeting."

A visibly frustrated Mayor asked Police Chief John DiPasquale, "Will you address this, Chief."

The chief quickly walked from his seat on the other side of the room and down to Scorzafavia and escorted him out of the council chambers.

Scorzafavia said, "As I said, I'm very disappointed," as he walked out with the chief.

Councilman Craig Pastore, who normally does not explain his vote had a prepared statement he read before voting.

"I’ve been volunteering in town for many years, and I know the reasons why people offer their time. Every volunteer I have met is in it for the right reasons.
 
"They have pride in this town and want nothing but a quality community to raise their families. Even with their busy schedules they continue to give up their time to make this one of the best places to live. Without volunteers, BH is just a shell. It takes the drive, intelligence and creativity of many different individuals that makes our town unique and desirable for everyone.
 
"I have to say, I have been made aware of gossip and rumor occurring on social media about some of these volunteers, and it is very disheartening. This is one of the reasons why I am voting for this ordinance. Everyone makes their own choices, however when you are part of posting negative and judgmental views about others in our community, you have made a decision to be part of the problem and not the solution.
 
"This is to protect those volunteers from having others post their pictures and comments when they cannot defend themselves. It is easy to feel power behind a keyboard, but it’s important to realize that there are real people on the other side of that keyboard, just trying to do the right thing for all of you.
 
"My suggestion is to put away your keyboard, roll up your sleeves, and get involved."

Other council members spoke before the final vote, which was unanimously in favor of the ordinance. 

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