At stake in the upcoming May 14 municipal election is not only the potential elimination of the South Orange Fire Department, but also serious issues about transparency in government, conflicts of interest, and the future of development in South Orange. Question: does anyone really know what is going on behind the scenes and what the implications will be for us as homeowners and tax payers?
With the recent revelation that our current Village President, Sheena Collum, has been quietly negotiating to cede control of our fire department to Maplewood, I think the time has come to question and shed light on other issues of wasteful spending and lack of transparency.
Through requests made under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), I was surprised to learn that one planning firm, Topology, is wearing three hats for South Orange: 1) serving as Village Planner; 2) drafting our Master Plan; and 3) performing a Redevelopment study for Valley Street. This triple engagement appears to be fraught with conflicts of interest on a number of levels, and costing us a lot of money. In the past three years, South Orange has paid Topology about $600,000. What value has South Orange received in exchange for these payments? Why so expensive, particularly since the work for the Master Plan hasn’t even really begun? Why are we doing a Redevelopment Plan before we complete the Master Plan?
Beyond these sums, which some might consider excessive, I have questions over the extent of Topology’s involvement with South Orange given its close connection to Collum. While South Orange has been paying Topology under these planning contracts, Topology has sponsored events held by Collum’s company, the American Planning Association (“APA”). Collum is the Executive Director of the American Planning Association’s New Jersey Chapter and part of her job involves planning and promoting large scale development conferences which are sponsored by national building chains, along with local companies. From review of the APA’s website, one sees that in recent years Topology has been asked by Collum to speak at these events and Topology has also been identified as a sponsor. Given these facts, we need to take a closer look at what Topology is doing for us.
In 2016, Topology was brought in as Village Planner by Collum shortly after she was first elected. Despite my OPRA request, South Orange has failed to provide its initial contract with Topology, nor has it provided me with any requested resolutions where the Board of Trustees ever authorized payments to Topology anywhere close to the amount of $600,000 it has been paid to date. Through this same OPRA request, it was confirmed that South Orange did not put out a separate Request for Proposals related to Topology’s retention to draft our new Master Plan and did not obtain any competing bids at or around the time that Topology was retained to take on this important work for the Village.
Just recently in September of 2018, Topology was given even more work when it was retained to do a Redevelopment study to determine if we should put Valley Street into Redevelopment. Topology’s conclusions in connection with this study will have far-reaching implications for South Orange and the future of its development. For example, once a property is deemed in Redevelopment, it is eligible for a 30 year PILOT. As we have learned from past experience, this is likely to raise your taxes because the PILOTs take properties off tax rolls. The taxpayers must compensate with an increase in taxes.
Topology and Collum’s relationship is too close for comfort. Topology provides advice and consulting to our municipal boards, develops the new master plan, and determines whether Valley Street should be put into redevelopment. Through Topology, Collum has the ability and opportunity to exert influence over Topology that could support any finding she wishes. Can we trust Topology to provide objective advice and guidance on these issues? Or will it likely promote only one agenda: the sole vision of how Collum wants to see South Orange grow?