EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been revised to include comments made by a member of the public who raised issues during the meeting regarding an ordinance being introduced to authorize a licensing agreement for new management at OSPAC.
WEST ORANGE, NJ — In addition to announcing the official grand opening of the public golf course at Rock Spring Golf Club with ceremonies to be held on May 9, the West Orange Township Council also discussed details surrounding the pending 2019 municipal budget during Tuesday’s council meeting.
Business Administrator John Sayers spoke on behalf of the budgetary process, emphasizing the difficulty that this year’s budget is currently presenting.
“There are some major issues we’re trying to put to bed, negotiations being one of them,” said Sayers. “We’re trying to wrangle every penny we can to get the budget down. It’s going to be a very tight budget; tight like we haven’t seen before.”
Sayers added that the administration should have something to present to the council in the coming weeks. He also made the council and public aware the township is currently functioning on a temporary budget put in place at the beginning of the year.
In other news, the council noted that the West Orange Police Department continues to work without a contract. As previously reported, the administration has yet to reach an agreement with the police department despite coming to an agreement with the fire department.
“I hope the administration can work on finishing the police negotiation with a fair contract,” said Council President Jerry Guarino. “I hope we can move on and address that and get on with the business of running a municipality.”
Tuesday’s council meeting also saw controversy surrounding an ordinance passed on first reading to grant a license agreement to nonprofit organization Pleasant Valley Productions to use and operate the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center (OSPAC) in West Orange.
Council members Joe Krakoviak and Cindy Matute-Brown expressed concern over the future of OSPAC, citing claims that the OSPAC was previously run in a negligent and potentially illegal way where embezzlement possibly occurred.
Earlier in the meeting, resident Micaela Bennet rose to speak on this issue during public comment and urged the council to table the ordinance.
“It’s no exaggeration that I have been contacted by five people who have intimate knowledge and awareness of the mismanagement of OSPAC today,” she said. “Driving down here, I was on the phone with somebody who managed it successfully; I’ve heard about the embezzlement of money; I’ve heard about making profit off of OSPAC by a private company that was entrusted to manage OSPAC; and I would implore this council to investigate what has happened historically that leads us to the point where a rushed and bizarre ordinance is put in front of you and you’re asked to act upon it.”
Bennett further explained that she described the ordinance as “rushed and bizarre” because the ordinance “was just written” and because she has “never seen an ordinance like this.”
“If you look at every other ordinance for OSPAC and the licensing of OSPAC, you don’t see all the justifications about why the individual is appropriate for running OSPAC,” said Bennett, adding that she wants to understand why “a contract is allowed to expire,” why “there is no RFP for the services” and why “nobody is taking interest.”
She also noted that she currently possesses information that she is willing to share with the local police as well as the attorney general and Essex County Prosecutor’s Office about “how inappropriately this has been managed by people who have been elected to manage a business that is supposed to be a nonprofit.”
“The fact that a for-profit company managed OSPAC and profited off of OSPAC but the township got no money is unconscionable,” said Bennett. "I ask you to table this until you know what happened."
Although there is no connection between how OSPAC has been run previously and the prospective new operators, Krakoviak and Matute-Brown said they hope to understand what occurred there before moving forward with a new contract.
Matute-Brown urged caution as she seconded the motion to introduce the ordinance on first reading in order to avoid tabling the ordinance.
Krakoviak, who voted against the introduction of this ordinance, said he has asked via Email for “a great deal of documentation” on OSPAC and its prior management, but did not receive a response.
Township Attorney Richard Trenk noted that this is the topic of a pending investigation that is not being handled by the township. He said he does not know any more details on the subject, and that any further discussion would need to take place during executive session.
“It has nothing to do with Pleasant Valley Productions,” said Trenk. “If you want to go into executive session [about the past], you have to pass a detailed resolution and we’ll give you the benefit of what limited information we do have in executive session.”
Krakoviak disagreed that this has nothing to do with the new vendor “because it’s being presented on basically the same licensing agreement that [he] had concerns about five or six years ago.”
“It certainly sounds like some of those issues have back to haunt us, but I don’t know—and that’s why I was asking for the information,” he said.
Trenk was careful to clarify again that no connection—“in any way, shape, or form”—has previously existed between OSPAC and Pleasant Valley Productions.
Krakoviak requested that executive session on this topic be held at the next council meeting in order to gather any information that the council is able about the pending investigation. All council members approved to have a resolution drafted and posted on the agenda for the next meeting.
Matute-Brown also asked the clerk to provide a copy of the previous contract in order to compare it to the one being introduced.
“I am concerned; I do have questions,” said Matute-Brown, who also encouraged the public to contact the governing body with any information or documentation supporting the claim that OSPAC had been previously been subject to embezzlement.
Council President Jerry Guarino recused himself from this vote as a sitting board member for Pleasant Valley Productions. Other council members, including Councilwoman Susan McCartney, supported the ordinance as well as moving forward with the contract.
"I agree with my colleagues that they can investigate," said McCartney. "I believe it's time to move on and put it in the trusted hands of someone that's professional."
According to the ordinance, the license agreement is for a term of three years for a nominal annual fee of $1.
The next township council meeting is scheduled for May 14.