FLEMINGTON, NJ – The mayor said the appointments he made Monday to the Historic Preservation Commission were done the same way as the appointments he makes to other borough boards.
But his critics say he’s politicizing the group that reviews proposed construction and demolition in Flemington’s Historic District.
Historic Preservation Commission Chairperson Elaine Gorman said the Historic Preservation Commission was established in 1980 with a goal to “preserve the historic character of the Historic District.”
HPC duties include approving the type of windows and siding that might be used on homes in the district. But as Jack Cust’s plan to redevelop the Union Hotel and its surrounding properties inches along – including a major hearing yesterday in Trenton – the HPC is gaining increased attention. If the Cust plan is finalized and presented to the Planning Board, it will be subject to HPC review. The Commission has already published a preliminary nine-page position paper on the Union Hotel plan.
At Monday’s Borough Council meeting, Mayor Phil Greiner named residents Alan Brewer, Lauren Imolek and Donald Eckel to vacancies on the HPC.
Gorman said she saw the names on the resolution with “shock and dismay.”
It was “News to the HPC,” she told Council.
“The process has not been followed,” Gorman said. “It’s always been the responsibility of the HPC to seek out and locate qualified candidates for our commission.” In the past, the group has required applicants to submit a resume and agree to an interview, she said. Applicants that the HPC decided were qualified were then offered to the mayor for appointment, and then voted by Council.
“None of this was done for two of the three candidates” the mayor appointed on Monday, Gorman said, and “there was no discussion” with HPC members.
HPC had recommended that the mayor appoint Eckel and resident Caitlin Giles-McCormick to the vacancies on the commission. But the mayor declined to appoint Giles-McCormick.
“For some reason, the mayor suggests appointing Mr. Eckel to an alternate position for a very short time rather than as a regular member,” Gorman said.
Greiner didn’t dispute Gorman’s claim about previous HPC appointments, but said “that’s the exception, not the rule” regarding mayoral appointments and “no offense was meant” by not naming Giles-McCormick.
HPC Vice-Chairperson Richard Giffen said serving on the Commission is a lot of work and, “It’s very important that we have the right people to share the work.”
Giffen added that, “It’s very disappointing that you’re ignoring our advice, putting two candidates of your choice.” He called one of the mayor’s choices “not suitable” and said the other “we have not even met.”
Giles-McCormick told Council she has a lot of respect for the HPC and wants is prepared to work hard for the group.
“I felt like I was part of them already,” she said about the HPC. “I’m a millennial, the generation everybody keep talking about.” But she said she was disheartened and disappointed, “that I’m not being considered” for a seat on the HPC.
“The only reason that I wouldn’t be considered is because I’ve asked critical questions” about Main Street redevelopment, she said, even though, “I’ve been incredibly respectful, incredibly open-minded about all those things ... it’s hard not to think that’s the reason that I’m not considered.”
The mayor wouldn’t comment on her qualifications in a public meeting because, “I just don’t think that’s appropriate,” he said, even though Giles-McCormick pleaded with him to be specific.
Councilperson Susan Peterson, who is Council’s liaison to the Commission, said it “breaks my heart to see a young mother here that has been through the process where we have another candidate that the volunteers have not met yet.”
“Why now all of a sudden is being done differently? Is it because of the development?” she asked.
Councilperson Brooke Liebowitz said the HPC “should not be politicized” and suggested that HPC’s recommendations may be part of an effort of “handpicking” HPC members who oppose the Union Hotel redevelopment plan.
Councilperson John Gorman noted that he has served 31 years on Borough Council.
“This is not the way you do it,” he said. “We’re playing political games up here.”
He is Elaine Gorman’s husband.
“I don’t like the way this is being played out,” Councilperson Gorman said, adding that he and Elaine recently returned from vacation to discover, “This whole thing is being set up.”
He then recused himself from the discussion and vote on the appointments.
Peterson said it’s likely that some HPC volunteers will be likely to resign if the mayor insisted on the appointments, something Greiner called “a threat.”
“I’m asking you to continue a more collaborative approach,” Peterson said. “It’s only fair.”
Peterson voted “absolutely no” against the appointments. Council President Marc Hain and Liebowitz voted in favor. Councilpersons Brian Swingle and Kim Tilly were absent on Monday.