FLEMINGTON, NJ – Allegations that Borough Council President Michael Harris has a “potential conflict of interest” over the Union Hotel redevelopment plan has led to “a stalemate … we have an impasse,” the Borough’s own redevelopment attorney told Council Monday night.
The allegation follows Harris’ one-time listing – before he was elected to Council – as a trustee of Friends of Historic Flemington, a citizens’ group that has sued the Borough over its approval of Jack Cust’s plan to redevelop the historic Union Hotel and surrounding properties.
The Borough has sought to resolve the dispute, but “settlement discussions, to my knowledge, are over,” redevelopment attorney Joseph Maraziti said, although he said they could resume.
Maraziti argued that Harris should recuse himself from matters involving the Friends and that the “the courts are very strict, and becoming more strict” regarding potential conflicts.
Regarding potential conflicts, “any action that that person is involved in is subject to being overturned by the court,” Maraziti said.
“My job is to protect the Borough from the situation where action taken by the Borough … is challenged on the basis of potential conflict of interest if Council President Harris is involved in a decision, or even, as the courts say, present in the room when those discussions” are held, the attorney said.
The rules are intended to ensure public confidence in the process, he said.
Harris had previously recused himself from some matters involving the Friends, “But then the scope grew and grew,” Harris said, leaving him out of important discussions.
Harris said the allegations had already been examined by the Borough’s previous redevelopment attorneys, and after that review he was then “appointed to the Redevelopment Committee,” he said, “so it’s reasonable that that concern was satisfied.”
“I don’t think all the facts were in front of them,” Maraziti said. Harris’ decision to not recuse is “leaving us in a stalemate,” Maraziti said. “We haven’t been able to move forward.
“I will not discuss any of the issues for so long as the Council President is in the room,” Maraziti said, citing his “professional responsibility.”
At the request of Mayor Betsy Driver, Maraziti drafted a four-page resolution to memorialize Council’s decision to accept Harris without his recusal, but it failed when no one seconded Councilperson Caitlin Giles-McCormick’s motion calling for a vote.
“I’ve never had a situation where it has come to this level,” Maraziti said. Typically, his counsel that an official recuse himself “is taken so as not to jeopardize the action of the governing body,” he said, and such recusals serve to help ensure “public confidence in the integrity of the proceedings.
“It’s all about the courts guarding the integrity of our government, making sure there’s respect for government,” Maraziti said.
Council is under pressure because under the redevelopment agreement with Jack Cust’s Flemington Urban Renewal LLC, the Borough is obligated to sell to Cust the building it owns at 90-100 Main Street, which contains Flemington Police headquarters.
Maraziti said Cust wants to close on the property Dec. 1, consistent with the agreement between Cust and the Borough. “This is a serious issue,” he said.
Some, including Councilperson Chris Runion, have suggested that the Borough enter into some kind of shared services agreement with Raritan Township for it to provide police services. But Raritan Township Committeeman Lou Reiner said today that he’s not aware of any such inquiry presented to a Township official.
Council has already declined to pay for an appraisal of a Central Avenue property that might be suitable for a police headquarters, and also failed to approve borrowing money to build a new home for the police.
Resident Robert Shore asked, “What if four members of this Council did the exact same thing as Harris?”
“I don’t know of any other facts of any other members of Council,” Maraziti answered. “I’d be happy to look at that.”
The Mayor said that if anyone had raised potential conflict of interest allegations against other Council members, “It would have been the same response. I have a responsibility” to avoid suits against the Borough.
Shore said Driver had accepted campaign donations from the Friends and advised the group “in a private meeting as to how they should be conducting themselves in social media and in other matters.”
And Councilpersons Susan Peterson, Caitlin Giles-McCormick and Chris Runion “have all taken money” from the Friends, Shore said.
Not so, said Lois Stewart, who is active in the Friends group, because the Friends “never gave money to anybody. Instead, some group members made donations as individuals.
“The voters of this community sent him here to do a specific job,” Stewart said of Harris. “And now somebody is trying to prevent him from doing the job he was sent here to do. This has nothing to do with the Friends, it has to do with the individual citizens of this community and what they want to happen.”
Councilperson John Gorman said Harris “is independent … and he will make a decision that’s proper. Whether he votes or not votes on different issues is going to be up to him.”
Recusals are not uncommon on governing bodies; Driver noted that a pending matter will soon come before Council, “and I will have to recuse myself.”
Driver said it’s likely she’ll introduce a resolution at the next Council meeting to break the stalemate. Maraziti said options include seeking a second opinion from another attorney, seeking a declaratory judgment from the court, or asking the Local Finance Board – which is part of the state Department of Community Affairs – for its advice.
Meanwhile, contract discussions with the local police union began last week.