BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - The 3-2 split on the all-Democrat Township Committee has led to so much bickering, the panel has released no minutes for its public meetings in 2013, leaving the township in potential violation of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act.
That state law requires municipal governing bodies to keep reasonably comprehensive minutes and release them to the public promptly, said Edward Purcell, staff attorney for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
Committeeman Peter Bylone, who is part of the majority faction with Mayor Sue Barber and Committeeman Richard Harlan, said the committee hasn't been able to agree on how detailed the minutes should be, so none has been brought for approval or release to the public since the minutes of the Dec. 10, 2012, committee caucus and regular meetings.
"There's a way we feel minutes should be written, but some people on committee make extended speeches and want them in the minutes verbatim," Bylone said of the faction consisting of committee members Chuck Chiarello and Teresa Kelly.
Bylone said his faction wants minutes kept under Roberts Rules of Order, stating the subject under discussion, who was there and the action taken.
Chiarello said the committee voted 3-2 in the first meeting of 2013 to adopt Roberts Rules of Order for the minutes, so debate over the format can't be used as an excuse for not releasing the minutes.
"They have three votes to do anything they want to do," Chiarello said.
There have been 40 public meetings, on 20 different dates, for which no minutes have been posted online or otherwise released to the public.
The sniping among members was constant at the public hearing Monday night on the fate of publicly owned Richland Village properties, prompting some residents to express disgust.
"I have lived here since age 5, and watched all the mayors go through the township. I have never seen anything run so terribly as (the) last three years because of contention between five people in this room," said Bob Mazzeo, of Milmay. "Two fellows (Bylone and Harlan) ran in the primary and lost because the silent majority is tired of infighting and can't stand to watch what's happening here."
John Williams and Steve Martinelli, the winners of the Democratic primary in June, will run unopposed in November. They are supporters of Chiarello, so when they join the governing body in January, the balance of power will shift in Chiarello's favor, with a likely 4-1 majority.
At the start of Monday's hearing, Chiarello immediately requested that Barber disqualify herself from voting, based on the fact her husband sold the train station to the township in 2005 for $10,000. Chiarello accused Barber of inappropriately voting at the time for the sale, based on a copy of a resolution from the Sept. 12, 2005, meeting showing an affirmative vote of 5-0.
On Tuesday, Barber provided proof - a copy of the minutes from the same meeting - that she had excused herself from the room at the Sept. 12, 2005, meeting and did not vote on the township's purchase of the train station from her husband.
"The resolution I got from the clerk's office said it said affirmative with five votes. That's what I went by," Chiarello said, adding if the resolution was in error he was sorry.
But, he said, he mainly brought the issue up to show that Barber had been in favor of acquiring buildings for the village, and her family had benefited from one of the sales.
The $10,000 figure was the lowest comparable value found in an investigation by then-Township Administrator Ron Trebing, Barber said. Her husband sold the property reluctantly after repeated requests from Chiarello, she said.
Barber's ability to use meeting minutes to show she had not voted on the sale of her husband's property shows how important it is to maintain those records and to make them available.
Bylone acknowledged Richland Village debate has taken up most of the members' time and the committee needs to put more attention toward approving and releasing minutes on a timely basis.
"Unfortunately, we handle so much stuff at our meetings every two weeks, stuff does fall through the cracks," Bylone said. "It's one thing we have to re-address."
The League of Municipality's Purcell said there have been a few court cases about the issue of prompt release of minutes, but no clear consensus has emerged to define prompt. He said in one case a school board was directed to release minutes within two weeks.
The Press of Atlantic City sent an OPRA request to Township Clerk Linda Gonzales on Sept. 9 for copies of resolutions from the Aug. 26 public meeting related to the potential sale of Richland Village properties, but it has gone unanswered.
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