Business & Finance

Chatham Borough Council President Fife, Mayor Harris Recuse from Post Office Plaza Plans for "Potential Conflict"

Chatham Borough Council President Vicki Fife was forced to recuse herself from any actions involving the Post Office Plaza Redevelopment in the past, present or future due to potential conflict Credits: TAP Chatham
Robert S. Goldsmith, redevelopment land-use lawyer, found "potential for conflict of interest" in his investigation of council president Vicki Fife Credits: TAP Chatham
Council member Jim Lonergan read into the record the reasons the redevelopment of Post Office Plaza is important to the future of Chatham Borough Credits: TAP Chatham
Council president Vicki Fife and Mayor Bruce Harris had to leave the dais for the votes taken to rescind previously passed resolutions on the Post Office Plaza Redevelopment Credits: TAP Chatham
Resident Mike Dean asked if council members could benefit financially from any redevelopment projects after they left the council. The answer from legal counsel was yes. Credits: TAP Chatham
James Collander assumed the role of council president on Monday night while Vicki Fife was recused from voting on the Post Office Plaza redevelopment Credits: TAP Chatham
The investigation also discovered that Mayor Bruce Harris had a potential for conflict of interest because of his partner, Marc Boisclair, who also works for Town & Country Properties Credits: TAP Chatham

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

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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.

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