SUMMIT, NJ – What started as the first comment during the public input session of Tuesday night’s Summit Common Council meeting erupted into arguing, name-calling and accusations of deceit and impropriety among the council members.
Summit resident Guy Haselmann told the council members that he had filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for all of the relevant documents after the June 21 council meeting in which a parking ordinance was introduced and put up for a vote, even though it was on the agenda only as a discussion item.
Haselmann said the vote had been taken despite the fact that more than 30 residents asked the council to delay the vote until after the summer, and Council members Steve Murphy, Mike Vernotico and Mayor Jordan Glatt had also asked for the vote to be delayed as all said they had not gotten enough information on the ordinance prior to the meeting.
“For me, parking was not the issue,” Haselmann said. “For me, the council was continuing to operate without transparency. In many ways, five council members violated the sunshine law.”
He said he had filed the request for documentation, and received 440 pages of materials, including e-mails that had been sent between five members of the council discussing the parking ordinance, although the e-mails did not include Glatt, Vernotico and Murphy. Some of the e-mails included incendiary remarks about other council members.
“Given the tone of the June 21 meeting, Councilwoman Dickson was moved to write a letter to the editor … saying she would ‘strive to calm’ dissent on the board. But after the June meeting, she sent an e-mail to Nuris Portuondo in which she said ‘Jordan was pathetic,’” Haselmann said. In another e-mail from Portuondo to Dickson, Portuondo called Vernotico a “jerk.”
Haselmann cited an August 2011 New Jersey court decision in which the judge specified that e-mail communications between members of a governing body are subject to the sunshine law, and that the public has the right to be privy to any “meeting.” The e-mails that circulated between the five council members prior to the June 21 vote on the parking ordinance are in clear violation of the law, Haselmann said.
Council President Dave Bomgaars said the strictures of OPRA and how the council acts are not easy things to comprehend, “especially for an outsider who files an OPRA request and goes through 400 pages.” He said there is nothing wrong with one, two or three council people talking among themselves.
“That’s how you do business,” he said. “We try to operate as best we can in full disclosure. Yes, we do send e-mail among one, two or three of us. We do have coffee together. We have committee meetings. You keep talking about five council members. There is nothing wrong with having five. There’s nothing wrong with having a majority of five. That’s how you do business.”
“With all due respect, that is the biggest non-answer I could have gotten,” Haselmann said. “Mr. (Councilman Tom) Getzendanner, on the Friday before the meeting, was talking (in an e-mail) about how his vote could be swayed. Which means there was a discussion before. To me, the time stamps, the dates speak for themselves. It (the parking issue) was introduced as an ordinance, and given the e-mail, it sounds to me like there was a quorum before the meeting.”
Bomgaars said that although the parking issue was on the June 21 agenda as a discussion item and it was actually introduced as an ordinance instead, that is not unusual.
“There’s a history of doing that,” he said. “If we couldn’t do it, (council attorney) Barry Osmun would say ‘You can’t do that,’” Bomgaars said.
Osmun refused to comment on the discussion until he had the opportunity to review the paperwork Hasselmann had.
Dickson addressed the e-mail Haselmann had brought up between her and Portuondo.
“That was a very heated meeting, it was very difficult,” she said. “I expected the mayor to show leadership on the parking issue. He didn’t. I apologize for the comment, it was a heated meeting. And that was a personal e-mail to Nuris, who is my friend.”
Portuondo, however, said she would not apologize for calling Vernotico a “jerk.”
“I will not apologize,” she said. “Not only is he a jerk, but he lied. He knew we were considering a parking ordinance. He sat in meetings with me and others I will not name. He was at those meetings. He has lied and I will say it until my last breath. I did nothing wrong, he did. He said ‘I will not vote on anything on parking until after the election.’ He’s running in this election, he has a stake in the game. He didn’t want any flack. I said, “You are not going to stop the business of this town because you are running for election.”
Vernotico fired back at Portuondo.
“I don’t really care if you think I’m a jerk,” he said. “That doesn’t mean anything to me because I don’t respect you. But I take great exception when someone calls me a liar. I never said I wanted to defer the parking issue until after election. What I said was it’s time to step back and cool off. At the next committee meeting, I said things weren’t working and we should restructure the committee. We talked about it that night, we talked about it in closed session tonight. To say that I lied is beyond ludicrous.”
Bomgaars called Vernotico out for his “theatrics.” Vernotico said whenever anyone disagrees with Bomgaars, he won’t let them speak.
“I have never objected to paid parking,” Vernotico said, adding that he had once suggested a “hang time” solution to the parking issue in which people would get two free hours of parking and after that there would be an escalating cost. He said he doesn’t know what happened to that discussion.
He also said he thinks the council tries to “skirt around” the sunshine law.
“I am of the firm opinion that it doesn’t have to be the majority of the emails,” he said. “Elected officials cannot discuss city business outside the public venue. That’s fixing the game. That’s against the sunshine law.”
Murphy thanked Haselmann “on behalf of the citizens of Summit.”
“When we have four council members on an e-mail that I have seen myself, that is a clear violation of the sunshine law,” Murphy said. “That’s not distorting the facts. That is a clear violation. When a council member says ‘Don’t worry about it, I have the five votes needed to get this done,’ what does that say to me? Vernotico, Glatt and Murphy remain in the dark. I was not asked for my opinion because they knew in advance what it was. I’m ashamed to be a part of a council that would conduct business via e-mail and not in front of the public.”
Haselmann said the council should not have voted on the ordinance before they heard what the 30 people in attendance at the June 21 meeting had to say.
“We do listen to residents,” Bomgaars said. “The point that’s really missed is that the city administrator and the director of the parking utility want this program. And they briefed us twice. (Township Administrator Chris Cotter gave a presentation. The mayor was silent. Five council persons wanted to support the city administrator and we’re being accused of machinations of the mind. I don’t understand it.”
Councilman Richard Madden said that he presumes most of the information presented at the meeting is related to the upcoming election.
“I’m happy I’m not running for office this time,” Madden said. “The council has been made to look worse than it is. We’ve been reasonably effective. There might be some shortcomings, but we are unpaid employees, with the exception of employees of the city and our solicitor. We are volunteers who put in our time and do our best. Part of it probably includes being abused. I can’t agree with all that I heard tonight.”
Glatt refuted the accusations that he was silent at the June 21 meeting.
“This has never been about paid parking,” he said. “I have no problem with that and I have said this over and over again. I was consistent at that meeting and I will be consistent here - there are two issues: not including your colleagues on an e-mail discussion is a lack of respect. If there was ever a group that needed some counseling, this council needs it. You cannot negotiate via e-mail. You can inform, but you can’t negotiate. But Barry (Osmun) will decide that. To say that I was silent is not true. I was the one who kept saying you can’t do an ordinance this evening because the public has not been informed. I didn’t feel it was the right thing and I was far from silent. I wouldn’t have done anything different than I did, including vetoing it.”
Bomgaars told Glatt that he is the “CEO of the city” and that Cotter is the chief administrative officer of the city.
“You let Chris Cotter make that presentation and you let (City Clerk) David Hughes facilitate,” Bomgaars said to Glatt.
“It (the parking discussion) was for action and referral,” Glatt said. “It was information. If I’m not given an ordinance, I don’t know about it. It’s hard to be against an ordinance or know it’s coming when you’re not given the information. The reason that presentation was ‘allowed’ by me is because it was supposed to be an item for discussion. Moving it to an ordinance is a different deal.” When Bomgaars interrupted, Glatt said “You cut me off in meetings more than you let me speak. You want me to take leadership in these meetings, let me speak.”
Bomgaars then closed the meeting to any further discussion on the issue.