FLEMINGTON, NJ – News that four prominent local residents were charged with trespassing at the Union Hotel here prompted a heated outbreak of claims and counterclaims on social media last week.
Accusations of political payback and retribution, “fake news” and overzealous and inconsistent enforcement of borough ordinances were just some of the allegations. Some claimed TAPinto’s report was libelous.
Councilperson Betsy Driver was among those critical of TAPinto’s reporting. In an interview this afternoon, she said, “I’d prefer to see more care taken before besmirching prominent residents and business owners in town.”
The statement was in reference to the article’s headline, which incorrectly reported, “Facebook Video Leads to Four Arrests on Union Hotel Trespassing Charges.”
The four people charged were George Eckelman, Richard Giffen, Steve Romanowski and Gary Schotland.
The four were issued summonses but were not arrested, Borough Councilperson Marc Hain said. Hain is also the Police Commissioner.
But, Hain said, they will be arrested, and a court appearance for the four has been set for Jan. 22.
When the court sees that the four were charged but not processed, the judge will then direct each of them to go to the police department where - because of the charge - they will be arrested and processed, according to Hain.
The arrest and processing will require each to be photographed and then fingerprinted, Hain said, and the fingerprints will be entered into a database.
Both Hain and Mayor Phil Greiner said the charges were not politically motivated in an way.
“This was handled by the Police Department as they would any other matter with no political interference whatsoever,” Greiner said today. “I haven’t spoken to police about this case. Period.”
The Mayor said, “the matter was handled as routine business,” and that’s why he doesn’t have more details about the accusations. “This is not something politicians should be meddling in,” he added.
“I have not been involved in any part of this investigation,” Police Commissioner and Councilperson Hain said. Hain said he believed that other members of Borough Council were also not involved with the investigation in any way.
Each of the four charged have a lengthy and unblemished history of local involvement.
Giffen is a structural and Professional Engineer who was appointed to the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission in 2016. He resigned from that post on Jan. 4.
Giffen and Schotland have been active with Friends of Historic Flemington, a group that has argued for “adaptive re-use” of the hotel. Schotland owns 123 Main St. here and has owned local commercial and residential properties for more than 15 years.
Romanowski is the owner of 78 Main Street and holds a mortgage on the Union Hotel.
Eckelman is a general contractor noted for his authentic historic renovations, including the landmark Large House on Main Street here. He is also an attorney.
Police said the charges stem from a video that was posted to social media, leading borough construction official Jeff Klein to alert them.
Police said they investigated. The video’s purpose was to inspect the hotel’s interior and while inside, discussions were made to post a video “to inform the public on the condition of the building,” police said.
However, no one was properly hired to complete the task, according to police.
Romanowski had loaned a previous would-be hotel re-developer $605,000 towards its effort to restore the hotel. When it defaulted on the loan, Romanowski filed to foreclose; the building is scheduled to be sold at auction on Wednesday pursuant to a Superior Court order, with proceeds going to reimburse Romanowski the $715,000 it says he’s now owed in principal and interest, and other costs.
Police said Romanowski told them he was allowed access to the building, “which proved to be false.” That may be a matter for a judge to decide. According to a copy of the mortgage document obtained by TAPinto, if the lender declares default, the lender has the right to “take possession of and manage the property.”
No one has publicly claimed that any of the four forcibly entered the hotel, and those familiar with the circumstances believe Romanowski has a key to the building.
Those who suggest the borough’s charges were politically motivated note that three of the four accused have been vocal critics of Jack Cust’s Courthouse Square development plan that includes the hotel.
Giffen has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the plan. As an engineer, he has challenged claims that it isn’t economically practical to restore the hotel.
Romanowski has a five-year involvement with hotel, and has shown his own alternative development plans for it and 78 Main St.
Schotland has at least twice been involved in lawsuits against the borough, alleging Borough Council exceeded its authority and didn’t follow state rules governing land use and redevelopment agreements and also claiming it violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.
Critics of the charges also say that those who previously entered the hotel without permission were not charged with any violations.
The controversy has continued on Facebook over the weekend, but Hain doesn’t know much about it.
“The first I heard about this was several days after the video was posted,” he said. “I do not have a Facebook account.”