BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Center of Excellence project has been one of the most discussed issues in Bridgewater Township over the past few years – and this time, the potential for possible political conflicts of interest was introduced.
Bridgewater resident Andrew Leven spoke before the council to ask it to draft and ratify a specific resolution for certain members of the planning board to recuse themselves from the application.
“I’m asking you to do something in your authority,” he said.
Leven asked to have Bridgewater Mayor Dan Hayes and Planning Board Chairman Ron Charles be recused from the Center of Excellence application that was now before the planning board, and possibly planning board member Debra Albanese as well.
“In my view, the mayor has hollowed out the land use process,” said Leven.
Leven elaborated that planning board members, of which Hayes is one, should function like judges, and should have no influence on the outcome of applications.
“The rules are imposed by law,” said Leven, who added that he believed those rules were being violated in regards to the Center of Excellence, with the aforementioned trio having a “personal interest in the outcome.”
The 110-acre Center of Excellence, which is located on Route 202/206, would include 400 rental apartment units, of which 10 percent would be affordable housing units. It is also projected to include on-site amenities ranging from retail shops and restaurants, to a hotel and a large supermarket.
Leven elaborated that Hayes, who is seeking re-election this year, has included the Center of Excellence in his campiagn materials, and that Charles and Albanese are essentially functioning as his campiagn workers. He also said that Hayes, in a letter to residents in his campaign literature, had stated that the Center of Excellence would be a positive for the township and would help lower taxes, reasons why he should be re-elected to office.
“(He) has apparently pre-judged it,” said Leven of the Center of Excellence application.
Leven also noted that the applicant’s case regarding the Center is not finished, that there is still evidence to come before the planning board and that the public has not yet had the opportunity to speak about its potential adoption. He said the Center of Excellence is a land use issue that has been made political, and that Hayes — who Leven said is running on the Center — will be voting on it unless he is recused as a planning board member.
Leven also said that the same applies to planning board members working as Hayes’ campaign staff, with Charles supposedly acting as Hayes’ treasurer. He added that Albanese’s spouse, Anthony Albanese, is believed to be the campiagn chair for Hayes, and as such she should have to recuse herself also.
Considering the potential for conflict, which Leven said in a letter he gave to the council was the deciding factor as opposed to an actual conflict of interest, laws were designed to objectively handle the public interest, and that with the Center of Excellence, Hayes, Charles and Albanese's personal interest and involvement in the approval of the Center is “lacking in objectivity,” according to state and ethics laws.
In the letter Leven gave to the council, he told council members that although they are not supposed to direct the planning board, they “do have a critical role to play.” He said they need to act as checks and balances, and should pass a resolution recusing Hayes and Charles, and possibly also Albanese.
“This is not about the merits of the Center of Excellence, but a broken land use process,” said Leven, who added that Hayes couldn’t vote as a planning board member while using the Center as a politician, as such actions would leave the residents defenseless.
“Defend us,” finished Leven, to applause from an audience some 100 individuals strong, many wearing red "Preserve Bridgewater" t-shirts.
Councilman Filipe Pedroso told the residents they were not defenseless, as it was they who had the ability to vote. The council did not take any formal action Thursday regarding a possible resolution.