FLEMINGTON, NJ - The great divide between certain borough council members and Mayor Betsy Driver got a little deeper at the last council meeting, calling into question the future governance of Flemington.
On Feb. 9, the mayor and some members of the council attended a retreat scheduled with the borough attorney, Tara St. Angelo, at her office in Clinton Township, which is about 7 miles from Flemington.
The meeting, which had been discussed at the Jan. 27 council meeting, was categorized as an open forum for elected officials to learn more about general procedural issues, ethics, the Open Public Meeting Act and the Open Public Records Act, and also to ask specific questions on closed session items such as personnel issues and lawsuits.
On the morning of the session, almost two hours after it began, councilman Michael Harris posted on Facebook that the mayor held a “closed session meeting.” He went on to state, “Following my inquiry, I was informed in writing that no clerk would be present ... Proper public notification was not provided by posting on the bulletin board 10 days prior; notification does not appear on the municipal calendar; it was not included as part of the official calendar.”
For all of those reasons, Harris said, he and councilman Chris Runion refused to participate in the meeting. He wrote, “We are questioning the legality of this meeting, the lack of transparency to the public and a clear violation of the spirit of the OPMA law.”
Again, using social media as a forum, Harris posted later in the day that the meeting was first described to him as “a training session for mayor and council to be led by the lawyer in executive session and that ‘action could be taken.’”
He explained that the rationale for holding the training in executive session, instead of in front of the public, was so the mayor or council members may ask questions that could warrant an exemption. However, Harris took exception with the fact that the subject matter – such as contracts and litigation – that would allow for the meeting to be held in closed session was not specified.
“This doesn’t conform with OPMA, nor is it transparent,” he wrote. “When there is a council meeting, special or otherwise, it needs to be noticed, the clerk needs to be there and the public gets to comment."
Later that day, also using social media as her platform, Driver shot back an extensive response.
She wrote on Facebook that what Harris posted amounted to, “serious allegations.” She said that she requested the training retreat be held in executive session over a month ago, “for the purpose of receiving attorney advice regarding important issues all governing bodies face.”
She noted that council members, including Harris, suggested dates for the session to be held and added that Harris participated in a similar session during his first year on the council.
Driver posted that his statements about the legality of how the meeting was noticed and that the clerk, Sallie Graziano, would not be present at the meeting were “false.” She took her criticism further, writing, “By claiming it was not properly noticed, he is, in fact, claiming our licensed borough clerk did not do her job. She did. And for councilman Harris to claim otherwise is an attack on a hardworking borough employee.
The mayor said Harris’ statement about public comments was incorrect.
“Had anyone wanted to show up at 11 a.m. when we convened the properly noticed meeting, they would have been given time to comment prior to us retiring into executive session,” she wrote.
No explanation for why the meeting was held in Clinton was offered on Facebook nor at the council meeting.
When asked after the meeting, Driver said it was held at the offices of Gebhardt & Kiefer because their office had the necessary AV equipment for the PowerPoint presentation. The borough doesn’t own a functional projector, she said.
She added that there is no statutory requirement that meetings take place only in certain places.
“The fact that it was held 15 minutes up the road in Clinton is a non-issue and legal,” wrote the mayor.
No action was taken at the meeting, according to Driver, nor did any discussion of current or pending council business occur.
“This was simply a training session for council members,” she posted, “to help them become better at being elected officials.”
The mayor observed that Harris and Runion likely would have benefitted from attending the meeting. Her post closed with, “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Harris chose to not attend this valuable training where he would have learned that his conspiratorial interpretation of state law is baseless and wrong. Instead, he chose to use that time to malign and libel his council colleagues, our borough clerk and our borough attorney.”
In a telephone interview after the meeting, Harris was adamant about his concerns. He said that Driver using his comments to imply he was criticizing the borough clerk is a “silly smear,” and that his questions about procedure were not an attack on Graziano.
Driver said that Graziano contributed to the choice of retreat dates because she had to be present, and Harris maintains that he based his decision not to attend after receiving information from a “credible source” that the clerk would not be attending and “someone would be assigned to take minutes.”
The mayor, along with most of the other council members, continued to raise concerns about Harris’ statements and his use of social media at the council meeting Feb. 10.
Driver said Harris was “jumping to a whole lot of conclusions.”
Council president Caitlin Giles-McCormick and vice president Kimberly Tilly both said Harris showed a lack of respect for the clerk. Giles-McCormick added that he was, “willfully ignorant of the facts” and “misusing his office.”
Councilman Jeremy Long said Harris’ post “greatly concerned him,” and he took a strong stand against the use of social media.
“The animosity on these posts are toxic to this [governing] body and breeds cynicism,” he said. “We must use social media judiciously if we want a strong and efficient government. Enough is enough, let’s move forward.”
At the council meeting, Harris continued to question the process, such as why initially he was told that “action could be taken” and how the retreat was noticed and why it was held out of town.
“If we want the public to participate,” he said, “we need to make sure they know what we’re doing.”
“This is a matter of integrity,” Harris added. “I am an active councilman. I ask questions and I hold people accountable.”
During public comments, resident Steve Tuccio weighed in saying, “Sallie [borough clerk] does a great job.” He added that, “no good comes of social media” and advised the council to “air your dirty laundry in closed session.”
However, after the meeting, Tuccio claimed that in the past, he was denied the opportunity to speak prior to an executive session, which is something that Harris’ alleged, “there has been a past practice of excluding public comment.”