CAMDEN, NJ — Camden Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs pulled four contracts that were set to be voted on Tuesday after a district advisory board member raised concerns that the contracts were with firms mentioned in a state task force report investigating New Jersey’s corporate subsidy programs.
The four contracts all link to associates and allies of South Jersey power broker George Norcross III, who is the subject of a report released by a task force appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy that alleged special interest involvement in the crafting and application of tax incentive programs targeting business relocation to Camden.
Board member N'Namdee Nelson raised concerns during the meeting after members of the audience requested further scrutiny of the resolutions.
District spokeswoman Onome Pela-Emore said that McCombs will discuss the situation with Nelson privately, likely still moving forward with approval in the coming days. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
"What happened last night was, we do not want to alienate the board, so we include them in decision making," she said. "And if they have concerns or questions, it is our prerogative and choice to engage them so that they are empowered."
Pela-Emore said that McCombs has the authority "to make decisions and approve all items" under terms of the state takeover of the district, which occurred in 2013.
The advisory board can offer suggestions to the superintendent but does not have veto power in a state-run district.
Another public meeting does not need to be called upon a decision made, Pela-Emore said.
One of the resolutions that McCombs pulled was a contract with Parker McCay, chaired by Norcross' brother Philip, appointed as special counsel for the district with a cap of $100,000. Kevin Sheehan, an attorney with Parker McCay, was found to have helped write sections of the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 as an unregistered lobbyist, and had frequent contact with officials at the Economic Development Authority seeking to benefit clients, according to a WNYC/ProPublica report.
Brown & Connery, selected as labor attorney in an amount not to exceed $400,000, employs attorney William M. Tambussi, who was part of a joint suit filed against Gov. Phil Murphy and the task force on behalf of George Norcross.
Another contract was with Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt, & Cappelli, LLC for solicitor services with a cap of $300,000. Former Gov. James J. Florio and Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli Jr., two of the firm's name partners, are allies of George Norcross. And early in the tax incentive investigation, Cappelli alongside other Camden Democrats issued a statement calling for task force chair Ronald Chen to resign.
A longtime Camden City-contracted firm, Bowman and Company, LLP (not to exceed $250,000) would maintain auditing service for the district. Partners with the firm jointly made donations over a period since 2006 to the Leaders Fund, a South Jersey political action committee for which Tambussi served as attorney.
The professional service contracts can be awarded without the need for competitive bidding due to public school contracts law, N.J.S.A. 18A: 18A-5(a)(1), the agenda read.
The resolutions list was passed minus the four controversial contracts. McCombs said near closing of the meeting that "we are going to pull those items and review them before moving forward."
Nelson spoke up just prior to action taken when the board was asked if there were any comments. He was previously discussing the need for members to be held accountable and open to dialogue when Pastor Amir Khan called out from the seats.
"Then maybe you should table those items until you can look at them a little further," said Khan, a Camden activist.
The first to speak during an earlier public comment portion, Khan pointed out the resolutions that he thought aligned the district with George Norcross.
"I personally would like to look at some of the things that Pastor Khan spoke of, just to check into those things and get some feedback," Nelson said in asking for the resolutions to be held.