To the Editor:

With the ongoing global pandemic underway and deeply impacting all global constituents, many Chatham Township residents have (rightfully!) shifted their focus away from political and municipal matters that “can wait” to focus on their ongoing health and financial concerns (and those of their families).

Countering Mayor Mike Kelly’s rushed proposal to implement affordable housing on River Road—an urgent priority for hundreds in the Township—has had to be put on the back burner for many concerned residents in light of the exigent circumstances and the literal life and death matter we are battling. One would reasonably believe that our elected officials would be taking the same view – and, as such, doing everything in their power to ensure that controversial municipal matters be delayed to a more appropriate time (when citizens can give such matters the attention they warrant and properly exercise their rights to gather and be heard in person). 

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Unfortunately, to date, we have seen just the opposite from our Mayor and Chatham Township Committee. Rather, Kelly, Ness, Ewald, Swartz and Fondaco have authorized only a mere two-week (and therefore really meaningless) extension in the Fair Share Housing implementation schedule, evidence that they intend to continue to push through their “River Road agenda” with minimal public input notwithstanding that the entire world (other than apparently Chatham Township) remains closed for business for the indefinite future.  To state the obvious, every minute of time and resource expended advancing the “River Road agenda”, is not instead spent on measures safeguarding this community and its residents from COVID-19 and the related economic fall-out (which we should all agree is where our collective focus should currently lie).   

It has been raised in this forum before but it is worth pointing out again that the last implementation schedule ordered by the Court gave the Township Committee a unilateral right to extend all deadlines in the implementation schedule as appropriate or desirable in light of Covid-19.  While the Township Committee keeps insisting that they are tied to a set schedule of dates and so are “required” to continue to advance the "River Road agenda", the Mayor and the Committee seem to refuse to admit that they (in plain English) are permitted to extend those dates due to Covid by simply notifying the other parties (just a simple notice – not even a request is needed!).

Not yet directly articulated in this forum is the fact that the latest case management order in the Fair Share Housing Matter (from April 8th) goes a step further even and permits the Township Committee to go ahead and PROPOSE THE REVISED SCHEDULE! To repeat that again with the critical facts given its importance:  By tomorrow (April 21), our Township Committee will be permitted to draft and propose an implementation schedule to the Court and Fair Share Housing that our elected officials think make sense (in the words from the order) “based upon the then existing circumstances of the continuing public health emergency”.

As a concerned Chatham Township citizen, I implore our Mayor and Township Committee to take this authority and discretion that the Court and Fair Share Housing Center gave to them and use it to represent our interests.  I implore our elected officials to make a strong case to delay all governing body meetings (Committee, Planning Board, etc.) on the matter until we can realistically be expected to meet again in person.  I urge each of Kelly, Ness, Ewald, Swartz and Fondaco to use the leverage that they have from their unilateral right to delay (from the prior order) to take the position that we cannot hold public meetings on such a sensitive matter right now given the health crisis and, as such, need to postpone those meetings till (at the earliest) summer.

I urge the Mayor and our Township Committee to clearly state to the Court and Fair Share Housing Center that they do not believe Zoom is an appropriate forum for such meetings (including, in light of the fact, that citizens (myself included) have informed them that our questions weren’t addressed at the last Zoom “meeting” because the Committee didn’t see the “raised hand”).

Finally, I implore our Mayor and Committee members to have the common sense, strength, conviction and negotiating skills to make a strong case (on our behalves) that affordable housing (which has been pending for decades) can wait just a few more months in light of the exigent circumstances.  I, of course, expect that, if the case is actually made on our behalves, the Fair Share Housing Center and Court would accept such reasonable proposal given the current global crisis (and, frankly, as an attorney, I couldn’t imagine anything else in the current situation).

In sum, while I urge our Chatham Township Committee members to use the discretion that the Court has given to them here to draft an appropriate timeline for our benefit, I am not at all confident that this will be done due to the many leadership failures and the lack of strategic negotiating that we have seen from this Committee to date on affordable housing matters. 

In any event, we will know soon whether the current Committee members’ hearts lie with us (or, alternatively, on funneling the River Road site through to finalization while we are rightfully focused on protecting our health, jobs and families) when we see the new timeline that they draft for submission later this week.  If anything other than a suitably delayed timeline is proposed by our Committee, we, as a Township, at a minimum, will need to do some deep soul-searching about the competence, as well as the motives, of our elected officials.

Jacquelyn Ferrito,

Chatham Township