CHATHAM, NJ - Borough of Chatham Council President Vicki Fife and Mayor Bruce Harris were forced to recuse themselves from participating in redevelopment plans for Post Office Plaza due to "potential conflict of interest" it was revealed on Monday night at the regular meeting of the Borough of Chatham Council.
At the advice of special redevelopment counsel Robert S. Goldsmith, hired by the borough to investigate any conflicts, the borough council voted to rescind three resolutions previously passed that related to the Post Office Plaza redevelopment because Fife had voted on them.
Attorney Robert Goldsmith, hired to investigate conflict of interest, reports his findings on Monday night
Fife, along with her husband, Peter, both as realtors for Town & Country Properties, had introduced a representative from Vertical Realty Capital to the owner of the Cottage Deli. According to Goldsmith's report, that ignited sale negotiations that put Fife in a position where she "might have a claim for commission on the sale."
In relating the "salient" details he discovered, Goldsmith reported that Jacob Feldman of Vertical Realty sent a letter on Sept. 16, 2016, to Robert Falzarano, who was the Chatham Borough administrator at the time. In the letter, Feldman indicated that Vertical Realty was interested in purchasing the Cottage Deli property and building 200 residential apartments, but couldn't go forward without a "level of comfort" that the governing body would approve of the development.
Goldsmith related that on Jan. 23, 2017, the Borough of Chatham Council passed a resolution authorizing the planning board to make a preliminary investigation as to whether the properties in the proximity of Post Office Plaza were in need of redevelopment. The Cottage Deli was included in that resolution, which passed unanimously.
On Jan. 27, 2017 - four days after the resolution passed - a non-contingent sale agreement was reached between Vertical Realty and the owner of the Cottage Deli. The sale has yet to be completed.
"We recommend that council president Fife recuse herself from all actions involving the Post Office Plaza redevelopment," Goldsmith said.
In making his recommendation for recusal, Goldsmith cited 1993 "seminal case law Wyzykowksi vs. Rivas....provides that it is not whether there is actual conflict of interest that is the decisive factor, nor is it whether the public servant succumbs to the temptation, but rather it is whether there is a potential for conflict;"
According to the resolution passed by a 5-0 vote on Monday, case law also requires that "where potential conflict exists, votes taken by the governing body without the recusal of the conflicted member are subject to invalidation."
Vicki Fife acknowledged that she made an introduction in her capacity as a real estate agent in August of 2016
Goldsmith's investigation also discovered that Mayor Harris also had a "potential conflict of interest" because his partner, Marc Boisclair, has his realtors license through Town & Country Properties.
Harris had requested that Goldsmith determine if Fife's conflict would cast a shadow on him because of Boisclair's connection to Town & Country. It was determined by Goldsmith that Harris should recuse himself out of an "abundance of caution." Boisclair is not involved in the sale of the Cottage Deli.
During the public portion of the meeting, Chatham Borough resident Mike Dean indicated that the council had thrown Fife "under the bus." Dean asked whether a member of the council could benefit financially from the Post Office Plaza redevelopment after they had left office. The answer from Goldsmith was that it was not against the law for a former council member to benefit financially.
Dean also asked what the investigation cost the taxpayers. Mayor Harris said the answer would be forthcoming.
The council also passed a resolution authorizing the Chatham Borough Planning Board to "undertake a preliminary investigation to determine if certain real property within the borough" is in need of redevelopment.
The planning board will then vote - again - on whether to designate the Post Office Plaza as an area in need of development. That would eventually put it back in the hands of the council and, presumably, where the redevelopment plan stood before the conflict of interest investigation began.