Flemington Borough, Mayor and Clerk Targeted in Lawsuits

The Union Hotel - although not referenced by name - is at the center of two lawsuits filed this week. Credits: Rick Epstein / TAPinto Flemington-Raritan file photo

FLEMINGTON, NJ – Friends of Historic Flemington – an advocacy group that is seeking to preserve the historic Union Hotel – filed two suits against the borough in Superior Court this week. If the court accepts the claims made in one of the suits, Borough Council would have to begin anew the process that led it to designate the Union Hotel and surrounding properties as an “area in need of redevelopment.”

The suits describe the Friends group as a “Group of citizens, professionals, business and property owners concerned about Flemington’s historic buildings and historic district.”

In the first suit, the group claims that Flemington Borough and Rebecca Newman – who is the borough’s Municipal Clerk and records custodian – violated the state’s Open Public Records Act. According to the suit, Collingswood-based attorneys Maley & Associates filed a request for public records on June 23, and resubmitted the request on July 7 after Newman claimed she didn’t receive the first request. A second request for records was filed July 18 and although attorney M. James Maley, Jr. agreed to extend the deadline to Aug. 25 for both requests, the records Newman provided on July 18 “failed to provide all of the documents requested” and no further records were received, constituting a denial under the law, according to the suit. The suit seeks immediate access to the records, which it did not specify, and attorney’s fees.

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The second suit was filed on behalf of resident Lois Stewart, Gary Schotland – who is one of the owners of 123 Main Street – as well as Friends of Historic Flemington. The suit names Flemington Borough, its Borough Council and Planning Board, and Mayor Phil Greiner as defendants.

It alleges that the Aug. 8 Borough Council meeting held at Borough Hall was in a room “too small to accommodate all of the members of the public who attempted to attend the meeting.

“Because of the size of the room, several members of the public were forced to stand in the hall and were unable to witness in full detail the actions taken by the Council,” according to the suit, which it claims was a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.

Because no amplification or speakers were used, comments made by Council members and public commenters were not “audible beyond the room” and “Council had knowledge that members of the public were excluded,” it states. It also claims that the “Chairman of the Council ... asked people to move out of the doorway because they were blocking the entrance.”

The suit asks the court to render void the actions taken at the meeting and compel that future meetings be moved to a “venue large enough to accommodate all of the members of the public who wish to attend.”

The suit also seeks to invalidate the area designated as one “in need of redevelopment,” which would include the Union Hotel. According to the suit, the resolution approved by Council on Aug. 12, 2013 authorizing the Planning Board to investigate whether the redevelopment area “qualified as an area in need of redevelopment” did not comply with a then-new state law, which gave that authority only to a municipality’s governing body. Further, the resolution did not specify whether it would be a condemnation area or non-condemnation area, which also violates state law, the suit charges.

The suit also claims violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment at this year’s Aug. 8 meeting. It says the three-minute limit imposed on public comments was “applied discriminatorily based solely on the speaker’s viewpoint.”

The suit says that M. James Maley, Jr. –  the attorney who filed both suits – was allowed to speak “just over three minutes” while resident Edna Pedrick was allowed to speak for about six minutes.

Maley did speak a second time for a bit longer than three minutes, but was told the “public meeting was not the proper forum” for his comments, according the suit.

Finally, the recent Sept. 12 Borough Council meeting violated the Open Public Meetings Act, the suit alleges, because the location was changed from Borough Hall to the old Historic Courthouse without sufficient public notice. It seeks that the actions taken at the meeting be voided and that all future meetings be held in a larger venue.

Maley said today that defendants named in the suit have not yet been served.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Edna Pedrick's name.

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