Tonight, I saw an unsettling change when I picked up my copy of the agenda at the entrance to the meeting room—two thin stapled pages and not the comfortingly bulky packet I was used to. Copies of draft ordinances and resolutions are no longer being provided as a service to the townsfolk.
Once the meeting proper began one reason for this became abundantly clear. The first ordinance of interest, 2017-1, was described as “An Ordinance Amending the Code of the Township of Hainesport, Eliminating Healthcare Benefits for Members of the Governing Body.” Despite the significance of this ordinance, the only other thing I can tell you about it is that its introduction was proposed by Leila Gilmore, seconded by Frank Masciocchi, and that Mike Fitzpatrick voted against it. So, although it definitely sounds like a step in the right direction (and a victory for Hainesport residents), I can’t tell you when or how it is proposed these benefits will be eliminated. UPDATE: In response to the pressure of this blog and my OPRA request, the township have released the ordinance, and you can find it on the website here. The incumbents will lose their health benefits at the ends of their current terms.
I also can’t tell you much about the two resolutions of interest. (Refer to here for an explanation of the differences between ordinances and resolutions.) Resolution 2017-64-2 (“Resolution Amending Resolution 2016-175-12 Relating to the Appointment of the Municipal Clerk”) and Resolution 2017-67-2 (“Resolution Amending Resolution 2016-172-12, Appointing CFO and Affordable Housing FO.”) have been adopted, and are now a matter of public record. If the Committee has nothing to hide, I should be able to pick copies up tomorrow. If they have, I should be able to OPRA them.
The point is, if the committee don’t discuss these ordinances or resolutions in public, there is now no mechanism for the public to learn, then and there, what is being introduced/adopted. Interestingly, the only Resolution which was discussed was Resolution 2017-63-2 (“Resolution Authorizing Change Order No. 1 for Pickleball Courts Contract.”) Committeeman Fitzpatrick took great pains to point out that this was about an increase to the Pickleball Court construction budget that Leo Selb (former administrator) had allegedly authorized without consulting the township body. The purpose of this public discussion would seem to be to support the Committee’s continued assertions that Leo was a poor administrator: “A lot has gone wrong,” said Fitzpatrick snidely.
Here’s the second unsettling change: before public comment started, Mayor Porto informed the public that the Committee would no longer respond to individuals engaging in comment, in order to prevent unpleasant back and forth, and that questions would be responded to if appropriate at the end of Public Comment. (In practice, this rule was only applied when commenters were known critics of the Committee.)
- I began this portion of the meeting and my questions were taken down. No comments were made by the committee. My items were:
- To protest that we were no longer seeing the draft ordinances/resolutions and mention the numbers (given above) of the ones I feel it would have been useful to see
- To ask if it would be possible to OPRA the ordinances/resolutions ahead of the meeting
- To enquire about the progress of the search for the new Municipal Administrator/Clerk
- Jennings Black wants to build a garage, is concerned about pollution on the creek, and wants a tree removed from by the boat ramp. He spoke for at least 7 minutes and both Porto and Dickinson engaged with him and asked questions.
- Kitty McNelis continued and her points were taken down. No comments were made by the committee. Her items were:
- She complained that her January 18 OPRA about the current Committee’s health benefits had been deliberately misinterpreted and thus not been answered fully
- She asked why a second OPRA listed former CFO Dawn Emmons as a part time (<35 hours a week) employee receiving benefits even though she had supposedly retired.
- Scott Cooper wanted to know why he and several other residents had been removed and blocked from the Hainesport Community Page on which he had never posted or commented. One of the Committeemen observed that it was not an official page.
- A Boy Scout asked what the proper channels were for requesting lighting for the tennis courts. Porto and Dickinson both responded to him with advice and suggestions.
Comments from the Solicitor
The new solicitor, John Gillespie, revealed that it was his advice to no longer supply the draft ordinances/resolutions, as he felt it was unfair for the public to see them when the committee hadn’t yet and when they also might be changed during discussion. He said you can’t OPRA Ordinances until they are adopted as they are not a matter of public record. He added that Ordinances upcoming for public hearing and adoption would be published in the BCT along with the meeting date. I raised my hand to clarify something, and he said he would not answer questions. On Kitty’s point he said he would revisit the OPRA she was unhappy about.
After the meeting I spoke to Mr. Gillespie, observing that the new Public Comment format stifles essential discussion because answers generate further questions, which is why I had raised my hand. I wanted to request that Ordinances should be available to the public at their Public Hearing, both in the printed agenda for that night and on the one uploaded to the website. He made a note of my points.
Comments from the Committee
- Leila Gilmore thanked Public Works for various good things and said it was nice to see the Scouts
- Frank Masciocchi mentioned Natalie Schneider’s work in helping to get the health benefits eliminated and said it showed great things about Hainesport’s young people
- Mick Dickinson agreed that Public Works do a great job
- Mike Fitzpatrick had nothing to add
- Mayor Porto confirmed that the shoes from Project Shoebox do indeed go to the correct charity, and then stated that as of this evening, thanks to Resolution 2017-67-2 (one of the ones it would have been really useful to see), Dawn Emmons would no longer be receiving health benefits. He added that they had received lots of great resumes for the Administrator/Clerk position and that a special meeting would be called soon for interviews.
Disclaimer: this portion of the blog post contains speculation about the township committee’s motives and intents. Speculation is a legitimate part of political discourse (watch Fox News if you don’t believe me) and is not akin to rumor-mongering, which is the sharing of facts with no evidence that they are true.
Firstly, every change that has been made to Public Comment in recent years has been designed to silence dissent and reduce the level of accountability of the Committee to Hainesport residents. Where is our forum now for actual debate with the Committee? When he was Mayor, Dickinson talked about a Town Hall, in which residents would (presumably) be able to interact with the committee in a question and answer format. Let’s put that back on the table. Don’t forget, Hainesport: your elected officials work for you!
Next, let’s consider the way in which former Administrator Leo Selb had his job carved up to the point where he left for alternative employment. I put it to you that Resolution 2017-64-2, which was prefaced by Mayor Porto saying it was “on the advice of counsel,” needed to be passed because something wasn’t quite right about how that was done. Similarly, Dawn Emmons was still being paid benefits because there was something not quite right about how THAT transition was effected, and it took Resolution 2017-67-2 (also “on the advice of counsel”) to correct it. All of this continues to suggest the Committee always planned to remove Leo, as I have frequently suggested. It is easier for the committee to get away with stuff now we no longer see the draft Ordinances/Resolutions.
Finally, WTF Hainesport? Are we a plutocracy now? What happened to democracy, accountability, and transparency? I note that Berkeley Heights, NJ recently introduced their version of a Sunshine Act to try and get their residents a little more transparency.
Do we really need to do something similar in Hainesport, and if so, why?