Solicitor Rules Getzendanner Email Committed Unintentional Violation of Open Meetings Law; Summit City Attorney at Final Public Meeting

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SUMMIT, NJ - Summit City Solicitor Barry Osmun capped off 22 years as the Hilltop City’s attorney on Monday one month earlier than expected; and in the midst of continuing controversy over Common Council’s handling of correspondence over shopper parking proposals.

Osmun, who earlier this year announced his retirement from the city position effective Dec. 31, said at Monday’s council meeting that the session would be his last public meeting due to the fact that he is scheduled to undergo back surgery next month and the operation and recovery period would prevent him from attending the two public governing body sessions in December.

However, at Monday’s meeting, the solicitor said that a June 17 email by Councilman Thomas Getzendanner relating to proposals for paid parking in the city’s downtown lots violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Law because it involved a majority of the governing body.

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In the email, brought to the public spotlight by resident Guy Haselmann, Getzendanner reportedly offered his support for shopper parking lot improvements that would lead to paid parking in exchange for support for elimination of all parking discounts and other measures Getzendanner wants.

Osmun noted in his remarks on Monday that since the email was sent to Council President Dave Bomgaars and Council Members Richard Madden and Ellen Dickson, it involved a majority of the governing body and, therefore, was in violation of the open meetings law.

The solicitor added, however, that, since the email’s intention was not to violate the law, the violation was “inadvertent.”

Haselmann, however, said Monday that additional email he found in materials produced as a result of his Open Public Records request proved there may have, in fact, been more serious violations of the open meetings law.

He noted Madden had called for further action on the parking options brought up in the email and that Council Member Nuris Portuondo had called for meetings with Parking Director Rita McNany without including Council Member Michael Vernotico, chair of the General Services Committee, under whose purview the parking lots fall.

Vernotico added the fact that Getzendanner’s email laid out conditions for his vote proved there had been “deliberation,” a factor in determining whether an opening meetings law violation was committed on purpose.

“It is my belief that throughout the discussions on shopper parking violations (of the opening public meetings law) occurred,” added Councilman-at-Large Stephen Murphy.

Bomgaars said he would ask the person who replaces Osmun as solicitor to develop a specific council policy regarding use of email, text messaging and instant messaging.

He also asked Haselmann to give any other information he had to Osmun so the outgoing city attorney could turn it over to his successor for followup.

Portuondo noted Osmun had turned over to the council Law Committee legal materials from court cases in Gloucester and Burlington Counties involving alleged violations of the open meetings law.

From those materials, she said, the council should develop guidelines:

  • That future email should not include the majority of the governing body;
  • Any email directed at the majority of the council should not seek a response;
  • The authors of council email should not use the “reply to all” function; and
  • Email should not be “rolling email,” requesting that one council member pass it on to another council member.

Murphy replied that, on his two years on the council, “I have been fully aware from day one what and what could not be done by email.”

Haselmann also said to have the Law Committee, chaired by Portuondo, with Bomgaars as a member, reviewing the Getzendanner email was like having them sitting “as their own judge and jury.”

He did say, however, that it was apparent city voters had made a fair decision in the Nov. 8 election, but had they been given more information on the email before the election there may have been a write-in campaign to replace Getzendanner.

On another matter, concerning a recent insurance-related resolution during which Getzendanner made comments, Osmun said it would have been more proper to Getzendanner to leave the council chambers after recusing himself from the vote on the matter.

The city’s insurance carriers have threatened to upwardly adjust premiums on city insurance if Gerzendanner participates in insurance-related votes. This stems from allegations that the council member attempted to have the solicitor improperly adjust his legal billing in a city lawsuit against an auditor in connection with the Ameripay payroll scandal.

On another matter, Summit Taxpayer Association president, Thomas Garvey, again called for the council to set as one of its goals the reduction of city property increases to zero by 2014.

Garvey noted, “Reducing property taxes is a meaningful stimulus during a period of growing financial distress throughout the country. Lower property taxes equal higher property values and corresponding net worth.”

On behalf of his organization, he also called for:

  • Provision of a non-binding “pro-forma” city, school and county budget submission before year end.
  • A five-year forecast of critical budget costs like pension expense which, according to Garvey, “has grown 400 percent in the past five years.”
  • Every effort to establish shared services agreements with other municipalities, such as the proposed shared emergency dispatch system, and “some back office functions.”
  • Employee productivity measures including the consolidation or elimination of high cost and low benefit activities and “part-time versus full-time workforce options” across the board.
  • Urge the school system to aim for teacher benefits at levels closer to those available to taxpayers in the private sector.
  • Use of $600,000 in unspent state aid last year to keep the 2012 school budget flat year over year.
  • Have Summit Common Council members attend county freeholder meetings on a rotating basis to watch county spending.
  • Have the Summit council propose a cap on the county tax levy not to exceed the city tax levy for each respective Union County municipality.
  • Have the Common Council direct an “Equalization Analysis Task Force Team” to manage the equation used to calculate the county tax levy.

In other actions, members of the Summit Arts Committee announced that a stainless steel sculpture of a 16-foot tree would be erected at the edge of Broad Street near the entrance of Route 78.

The group, which is not funded by the city, has raised $25,000 for creation of the artwork and is seeking to raise approximately $15,000 to pay for placement of the piece and electrification of a light pole to illuminate it.

Council members also introduced an ordinance to streamline the police department Table of Organization, eliminating the position of deputy chief, and calling for two captains with specific responsibilities, three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 32 police officers.

The measure also would set specific guidelines for officers to move up in rank.

Governing body members also accepted a county grant for planting of 50 trees in the city and a county Kids Recreations Trust Grant for $25,000.

Also authorized were the issuance of bond anticipation notes for various road and storm drainage projects and temporary notes for school construction projects. The total of the notes is about $6.3 million.

Madden said the city would receive about $1.4 million from the Summit school district to pay off the notes once the district receives its RODs grant funding from the state.

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