Before you get started, I strongly recommend grabbing a cup of coffee or your refreshment of choice. When it comes to Belleville politics, there’s no such thing as a short story.
Being hip-deep in just about every dark corner of Belleville politics nonstop for nearly 4 years with the Watch, I like to think I’ve seen it all.
Then every month or two, a new even more berserk political scheme comes rolling across my desk, which is generally about as welcome as an active hand grenade covered in a colony of red fire ants.
That’s usually when I drop my face into my hands for a good 15 minutes, breathe deeply, and truly wonder at what point I consciously decided to become a masochist. I really don’t remember even weighing that decision for myself.
Let’s jump right in before I finally change my mind and join a Norwegian wingsuit team, which at this point is probably a much more rational hobby for me.
Now then, what would you say if I told you that a sitting Belleville councilman – who played a key role in nearly financially collapsing the school district in 2014 with a $4 million budget deficit – isn’t actually sitting in Belleville any longer, but is more than 1200 miles away in Florida?
<cue dramatic music>
Now, what would you say if I told you that the very same Belleville politicians who have spent the last 4 years trying to convince 400 teachers and thousands of residents that this man is evil, untrustworthy, corrupt, and essentially an outright thief are the very same people knowingly keeping him in power in Belleville municipal government, against clearly-defined state laws?
<cue the stock record-screech sound>
I swear I’m going to have that phrase tattooed on my butt someday.
Thanks to vigilant citizens catching on and applying pressure on the Council, yet another outrageous scam in Belleville politics is starting to come apart at the seams in spectacular fashion. This story has been a long time coming, but it had to “ripen” before we could move on it.
By now you guys know the drill; I’ll present what we’ve collected, and you decide for yourself exactly what’s going on over at Town Hall.
Buckle up, folks – it’s about to get real.
The 2016 Reorg Meeting
The 2016 annual reorganization meeting of the Belleville Council took place on June 30, 2016.
This particular meeting each year is where most of the decisions are made as to the various municipal appointments and designations by the Council for the upcoming year. This “reorg” meeting is open to the public. That is, unless you happen to be a member of the working class. If you need to feed your children by having a career, a meeting at noon on a Thursday doesn’t exactly lend itself to convenient access to public participation in local government.
As we know from experience, this is by design. Anytime the Belleville Council schedules a meeting in the middle of the day as opposed to their traditional 6:30 PM start time for regular business meetings, it’s almost a given that something is going to suddenly appear on their agenda that they don’t want citizens to see, much less the public advocates like us who carefully monitor their actions. Fewer people at a meeting means fewer eyes on what’s about to go down.
June 30, 2016 was one of those days.
Item 24 on the Consent Agenda
The “consent agenda” is the part of the meeting where various completely routine reports and actions are bundled together into one package. Rather than vote on what could be dozens of relatively mundane items individually, the governing body votes on the entire package all in one shot. These are all supposed to be actions that are non-controversial, and should not require any discussion. If an item needs discussion, it is “pulled” from the consent agenda at the request of a councilmember, then voted upon separately.
We public advocates also know from experience that the consent agenda happens to be the prime place for the governing body to plant items that they want to slip through without the public knowing what happened. And why not? The item won’t be discussed or clarified. No one will know what just transpired. Just a simple vote, and it’s approved.
Here is a copy of the pre-meeting agenda that was available on the website just before the 2016 reorg meeting. You don’t actually have to read it, but the last page shows you that there were expected to be a total of 23 items on the consent agenda for that day.
In the meeting itself however, there was actually a total of 26 items on the consent agenda. No surprise, this happens all the time.
Again, these are all supposed to be routine, non-controversial actions taken by the governing body that require no deliberation or public discussion.
Among the items that mysteriously appeared on the agenda at the last minute was item #24, which reads as follows:
24. Resolution Clarifying Chapter 78 of the Laws of 2011 and All Applicable and Related Laws, Policy and Rules of the Township of Belleville.
Please take a moment and read that title out loud to yourself. Can you figure out what it means? What is Chapter 78? What is being clarified? How do you “clarify” a law with a resolution on a consent agenda?
It’s important to note that although this was a public meeting, as you can see from the minutes, the public was not given any opportunity whatsoever to comment or ask for an explanation on this resolution as would normally occur before the Council took action.
This consent agenda item – which is only a title and not even the actual resolution – was worded so vaguely that no reasonable person would have any idea what the action meant, or its implications. I’ve personally been monitoring, researching, and analyzing Belleville politics and history nonstop for almost 4 years. When I saw that, I had no idea what it meant or if it was even important. When it was first brought to my attention, it sounded like some trivial administrative language, and probably of no consequence.
Well, I couldn’t be more wrong. Clearly it was intended to sound unimportant.
Since only a single copy of the resolutions and ordinances being voted on at every meeting is made available to the public (which could number 20-40 people), and the folder promptly disappears each time, the Essex Watch had to follow up with a statutory records request (OPRA) months later when the issue finally found its way to the top of the pile on my desk. It wasn’t until much later that we put the pieces of the puzzle together, and realized what had actually been done.
Not only had the Council done something incredibly underhanded in trying to sneak this vaguely-worded resolution past the public on a consent agenda, it is our firm opinion that this act was illegal. Not just an illegal proceeding; it looks to us like a willful and deliberate theft by deception of public money.
I know that was a pretty big build-up, but for now, just keep the idea that this “sneaky mystery resolution” situation in the back of your mind, and I will explain shortly. It will all come full circle.
The Legacy of Longo
For most Belleville residents, Councilman Longo probably doesn’t need any introduction. Human nature being what it is however, it’s very easy to forget all that has happened, and certainly most people might want to forget.
For those of you unfamiliar with Joe Longo and the various outrageous scandals in the Belleville school district that he was involved in as a sitting trustee, or for people who want a refresher, give the following article a quick glance first so that you understand and appreciate the true oddity of this situation.
Abusing Phone Privileges?
If you read the article above highlighting Longo’s political record, you’ve been brought up to speed on at least some of the major highlights of Longo’s record of political service to Belleville and the opposition he faced from his fellow councilmembers. Now let’s fast forward to roughly the end of 2016.
In January of 2017, the Council enacted a resolution allowing councilmembers to call into meetings when they’re unable to attend in person. Presumably this was to be used in emergency situations only. After all, public officials who can’t be bothered to attend a public meeting twice a month probably shouldn’t be in public office, am I right?
No one questioned the resolution, not that any of us actually saw it anyway. As long as the privilege isn’t abused and there are no audibility issues, it’s perfectly reasonable once in awhile to have to phone into a meeting in a pinch.
Well. Our first mistake was in assuming that something in Belleville would not be abused.
Starting immediately, Councilman Longo began phoning into meetings. By our count at the time of this writing, just in the last 11 Council meetings since the resolution was passed allowing teleconferencing, Councilman Longo has been physically present for only 3 of those meetings. Of the rest, he phoned into 3 of them. He did not show up at all for 5 of those meetings. This means Longo was absent for almost half of all the meetings that have taken place thusfar in 2017, which is absolutely ridiculous.
It is important to note that to our knowledge, prior to January 2017, the governing body had never passed any resolution, ordinance, or formal action whatsoever to permit calling into meetings. The first time that the Council ever memorialized the teleconferencing privilege just happened to occur before Longo began to repeatedly miss meetings. The timing is almost comically suspicious, to say the least.
The frequency of Longo’s absences very quickly raised suspicions. We began receiving inquiries and complaints. Fairly early on, a tip came from one of Longo’s own political associates who told us he was taking a job in Florida, and was getting out of Belleville.
And now we play the waiting game.
Beginning in about mid-May, for whatever reason we began receiving screenshots of Joe Longo’s own social media postings. Most of them were posts from Facebook showing Longo down in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Keep in mind that we are constantly bombarded with relatively useless information all the time.
Hey, it’s May….why do I care if Longo is on vacation in Florida?
Literally my only thought about this was, a guy with legs that white in the Florida sun is going to need sunscreen developed by NASA.
With Longo alternating between calling into Council meetings and being absent altogether, plus his own activity on social media, evidently Belleville residents were starting to get agitated. More messages were coming in.
While we’re unable to pinpoint exactly when Longo started being questioned on his whereabouts as it may have begun somewhere on Facebook, it was brought up in Council meetings a number of times by Phyllis Frantantoni and others. At the June 13 Council meeting for example, Mrs. Frantantoni questioned Longo directly as to whether or not he had moved. Longo replied on the record, “I did not move”, and explained that he was simply away on business.
Meanwhile, as early as May 4, citizens had noticed that Longo’s home at 12 Campbell Ave in Belleville was now listed on Coldwell Banker’s website as being up for sale (note the listing was pulled down approximately two weeks ago):
Getting juicier, but not ripe just yet. We continued to wait and collect information.
On May 26th, Longo took to social media to flex his political authority and openly insult citizens who had been questioning him by posting this eloquent piece of literature on his personal Facebook page:
In this post, Longo outright denies that he lives in Florida, accuses citizens of lying, and calls them disparaging names. Quite the charmer.
How dare citizens question an elected official who is being paid thousands of taxpayer dollars as to why he’s been ducking out on Council meetings left and right for the last 6 months? I mean, the nerve of these people!
Longo also invites people to contact his employer to confirm his residency, which seemed a somewhat odd gesture. Now, normally we have a policy about this sort of thing. I won’t cross over into personal, family, or professional matters unless they somehow involve public money, or the public official in question decides for whatever reason to go there first. This is about politics; it’s business, not personal.
However, I do love a challenge and hey, he did offer. Despite his warm invitation though, we decided to hold off just a bit longer before taking Mr. Longo up on it. Never stand in the way of someone coming visibly unglued, I always say.
Not long afterward, residents began to report that Longo’s own LinkedIn profile showed that he was working for Staples in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area.
Not believing Councilman Longo could possibly be so dumb as to advertise that he was actually in Florida after denying it on the record at Council meetings, we took this to be an attempt by Longo to troll people, goading them further into reacting to it, and having a laugh at their expense.
Now it was time to pull the trigger and call him out. Since Longo was kind enough to invite us to contact his employer, we did exactly that.
Thankfully, my favorite personality trait of Mr. Longo is that evidently he thinks everyone is an idiot. He was inviting people to ask his employer where he lives, to which they would no doubt give his Belleville mailing address.
Not so fast, Flash.
Why Longo even thinks any company is going to give out the home address of one of their employees to some stranger who calls their corporate hotline is beyond me. Instead of asking where Longo lives, I simply asked for his office address. There’s nothing wrong with asking how to reach a company salesman during business hours, so it fell within our protocol. Sure enough, I was told by some helpful individuals at Staples Corporate that Longo worked as a full-time Outside Sales Consultant in Broward County, Florida. Deerfield Beach is in Broward County.
The Confessions Begin
By this time, it’s been roughly 2 months of denials from both Longo as well as members of the Council who, when asked about his whereabouts, did their best Sergeant Schultz routine from Hogan’s Heroes. The public pressure being applied now intensified after we reported what we had learned from Longo’s own employer. We began presenting arguments based on NJ state statutes, and calling Longo and the Council out on social media.
By enacting a teleconferencing resolution, it would seem the governing body could certainly decide for itself whether calling into meetings was satisfactory attendance. However, Deputy Mayor Marie Strumolo-Burke went on the record in the Belleville Times to state that she felt the teleconferencing privilege enacted by the Council was being abused by Councilman Longo:
‘Deputy Mayor Marie Strumolo Burke indicated the decision to include a provision for participation by phone is not being used in the manner it was intended.
“The phone-in votes were more or less meant for someone who was sick, who was[n’t] in town, or who more or less couldn’t make it,” Burke told NorthJersey.com and the Belleville Times.’
Things continued to get ugly as the Council now faced even more backlash for what appeared to be an outrageous scheme to keep Longo’s whereabouts hidden from the public.
After weeks of citing New Jersey state statutes on social media that we believe were being violated by the councilman’s conduct, Councilwoman Burke finally came forward and admitted on July 20th that Longo was in Florida. We now had an official admission on the record from a member of the governing body that Longo was indeed living in Florida. Even if you happen to believe that none of the other councilmembers knew that Longo had moved, which is absurd, at the very least they were informed of it by another member of the governing body back in July.
As you watch the video below, also take note of Counselor Murphy’s immediate move to excuse Longo for his absences, thereby ensuring that Longo remained in office. Murphy is referencing N.J.S.A. 40A:16-3, which by this point we had been citing for about a month on social media. Faced with going on the record to save Longo’s bacon, you’ll also notice that no one on the Council wanted to touch that vote.
Secretly keeping a man who nearly collapsed the Belleville school district in power by deceiving the public for at least 3 months is obviously not a problem for them. But openly helping Longo stay in power while Belleville residents are watching? Not on your life!
Now, not only do we have overwhelming reason to believe that a sitting Belleville councilman doesn’t even live in Belleville, has been working a full-time sales job 1200 miles away down in Florida, and that the Council has been covering for him and repeatedly denying any knowledge of his whereabouts when directly questioned by citizens, we finally have an actual admission on the record from Councilwoman Burke confirming all of our accusations. She was the only councilperson to even acknowledge that there was an issue with Longo’s residency.
Note that this admission took place on July 20. By this time, residents had been raising questions regarding Longo’s attendance and residency to the Council for at least 3 months.
Longo’s Confidential Council Packet
In early August, an interesting point was raised with us that we had not considered. Each councilmember receives a packet of confidential materials to go over for each Council meeting in order to prepare and know how to vote on various issues. This could include contracts, legal agreements, invoices, bid proposals, pending litigation, and all manner of Township business that is strictly private, and for their eyes only.
As we understood the situation from residents, it would seem Longo was working his full-time sales job in Florida while his wife was still living in the Belleville home, which was on the market for sale.
If he is 1200 miles away, how is he receiving the packet of confidential Township materials in time for each meeting? We’ve been told that councilmembers typically receive the packet via courier on the Saturday before each Tuesday meeting. When you think about it, only two scenarios seem possible.
One scenario is that the packet is delivered to Longo’s home in Belleville, and is received by his wife. If that’s the case, how then is this private material actually getting into Longo’s hands in time for Tuesday’s meeting? Is she opening a confidential packet of Township materials and faxing it to him? Scanning and emailing it to him? If she is opening the packet to get the materials to him in any way, that would seem completely unlawful considering the sensitivity of the documents.
Let’s even assume the unlikely possibility that she immediately turns around and overnights it to him via Fedex. It doesn’t seem possible that he could receive a stack of documents any earlier than Tuesday, much less be able to read through and deliberate over them on a workday, and be truly prepared to render his votes that very same night.
If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true.
The only other possibility is that the Township is mailing the confidential packet to Longo in Florida, which automatically implicates the Township in the entire scheme. They can’t send the packet to him if they don’t know where he lives. If the packet is addressed to Florida, then obviously they know he lives in Florida, and have known for months. This also creates a neat and tidy paper trail to follow as they spend public money on courier services to keep up the ruse.
When asked about this very same issue at the August 8, 2017 Council meeting (approximately 9 minutes into the video) by Phyllis Frantantoni, Town Clerk Kelly Cavanagh responded by saying that the packet “is delivered to his home”. When Mrs. Frantantoni asked for clarification, she was dismissively given the exact same response. The obvious question of “which home” – 12 Campbell Ave in Belleville, or Florida – was plainly dodged by the governing body.
New Jersey State Law
As you probably understand by now, this whole fiasco isn’t just Longo engaged in an almost moronic deception and violation of the public trust; the Council engineered the situation to allow him to do so. Had the Council not suddenly enacted a resolution to allow teleconferencing in January while conveniently not having any problem whatsoever with Longo grossly abusing it from the very start, Longo would not still be in office.
Why? Because New Jersey state law allows the governing body to decide at any time whether or not a fellow councilperson has vacated their office under multiple circumstances.
Firstly, there’s N.J.S.A. 40A:16-3:
Note section C, which states the following:
c. Upon a determination of the other members of the governing body that the mayor or a member of a governing body no longer resides within the corporate limits of a municipality or ward from which he was elected;
At any time since Longo began working full-time in Florida months ago, under this statute, the Council could have stepped up and taken a vote to determine that he was no longer a bona fide resident of Belleville, and booted him out of office. At no time did they take any action to deem his office vacated, but continued to deflect questions and deny any knowledge of his whereabouts.
Also note Section G, which also states that if he fails to attend AND participate in any meetings of the governing body for a period of 8 consecutive weeks, he is also deemed to have vacated his office. He has repeatedly hit this 8-week duration by calling in and saying virtually nothing, or being absent altogether.
Does this constitute attendance and participation on the part of an individual who was elected to serve the township? Would the true spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act consider that to be so?
There has also been a very evident audibility issue in the public being able to hear Longo, and Longo being able to hear the public, or even the Clerk who is only inches away from the speakerphone. We’ve been advised that the Attorney General has issued guidelines on maintaining a minimum level of audibility as a requirement of public meetings.
This being a “deemer” statute, it would seem that Councilman Longo vacated his office in mid-May, which is when we believe he actually relocated full-time to Florida. Again, in the months since, the Council has taken no action whatsoever to remove Longo from office despite a mountain of compelling evidence, has dodged questions from the public, has allowed him to abuse their own teleconferencing resolution without question, and has continued to cover for Longo for months.
In fact, earlier you saw video of Counselor Murphy advising the governing body to continue excusing Longo’s absences so that the deemer statute did not kick in, which would kick Longo out of office.
What would inspire such charity and understanding for someone who has historically been the arch-enemy of the Council majority? Someone who had a key role in the near financial collapse of the school district?
The New Jersey First Act
A much more decisive piece of legislature that we believe more substantially applies to Longo’s situation is the “New Jersey First Act”, signed into law by Governor Christie in 2011.
Here is information we’ve compiled on the legislation and highlighted to illustrate the relevant language:
Under the New Jersey First Act, the law requires that “every person holding an office, employment, or position” in the State of New Jersey shall have their “principal residence” in the State of New Jersey.
This law defines “principal residence” to mean:
(1) where the person spends the majority of his or her non-working time, and
(2) which is most clearly the center of his or her domestic life, and
(3) which is designated as his or her legal address and residence for voting.
Even better, the Act goes even further to specifically state outright that simply owning a home in New Jersey does not meet the residency requirement; all the above requirements must be met.
Game, set, and match.
However, let’s play devil’s advocate and agree that Longo is in compliance with number 3, and has his legal address and residence for voting still listed as Belleville. Fine, easily met.
Working a full-time job 1200 miles away from Belleville however would make being in compliance with requirements 1 and 2 virtually impossible. If he works full-time 1200 miles away, how can Longo possibly spend the majority of his non-working time in Belleville? If he works 1200 miles away, how can Belleville clearly be the center of his domestic life? Not in the physical universe in which we exist could this be possible.
Another question to raise and answer – is a public official considered a public employee?
I was already advised that the term “public employee” includes elected officials, and therefore the New Jersey First Act does indeed apply to Councilman Longo. To be absolutely certain and cover my bases, I located a specific NJ statute that defines public employees (N.J.S.A. 2A:81-17.2a).
Sure enough, the definition includes “elected and appointed persons”.
Unless Councilman Joe Longo has come into possession of a time-turning necklace from Hogwart’s School of Magic, or is presently field-testing personal teleportation prototypes for Staples, Longo’s ability to meet all of the requirements for residency under the New Jersey First Act is quite simply not possible. It is a patently absurd notion for Longo and the Council to argue.
To make matters worse for the Council, the New Jersey First Act further states that any person holding or attempting to hold office in violation of this law is committing an illegal act. If the Belleville Council is helping Longo hold office in violation of New Jersey First, then logically they are all accomplices in knowingly committing an illegal act.
Why The Elaborate Deception?
I’m not even going to attempt to explain how 7 seemingly intelligent public officials and a municipal attorney could ever think Belleville residents wouldn’t catch on that one of them was living 1200 miles away, or why on earth the Council thought it was a good idea to continue to hide it from everyone. Had citizens not questioned Longo’s continued absences, would anyone on the Council have actually told them he was in Florida? They certainly had plenty of opportunities while this was unfolding, and they neglected to do so.
Longo nearly collapsed the Belleville school district, and despite knowingly and blatantly being in violation of state law, the Council is working very hard to keep Longo in power? Going to extraordinary lengths to continue to let him decide the fate and future of Belleville, when it’s abundantly clear from his political record that Longo didn’t care about Belleville when he actually still lived here?
Why should Longo care if he continues to rubber-stamp these enormous tax abatements for high-density residential developments that the Council has been trying to speed through over the last two years, in a town that by their own expert’s report is nearly 7% vacant?
One consideration is the timing of Longo leaving office. Longo’s term expires in July of 2018. Under state law, if Longo were to step down from the Council and vacate his seat before September 1, 2017, then a special election would need to be held in order to fill his unexpired term. Belleville voters would have the opportunity to vote upon and decide who would sit in his seat and serve on the Council.
If the Council manages to keep Longo in office past September 1st (as they already have), then they would be able to appoint someone of their own choosing, without the public having any say in who would now become the new at-large councilman. Belleville voters would be deprived of being able to make that decision at the polls. That’s certainly a substantial motive to keep up this ridiculous subterfuge all these months; their habitual inclination to circumvent the public in order to maintain control.
Again, everything with this Council is about control; controlling money, and controlling who sits in key positions of power in the township. When you control everything, jobs with ludicrous salaries go to unqualified friends, millions of dollars disappear unaccounted for, absurdly bloated contracts go to political allies, and then you end up with a scenario like the 2014 Belleville school district $4 million deficit scandal all over again. That’s the game you need to watch for.
We’ve also noticed that Longo has suddenly become much more docile and agreeable in the last year. Unlike the open hostility he displayed toward Kimble, Kennedy, and Rovell for so long (and vice versa) just a short time ago, he doesn’t seem to oppose the rest of the Council on anything anymore. That seems to us like odd behavior for politicians who act like they’ve been political arch-enemies for the last 3 years.
We think we know why Longo is suddenly such a cooperative team-player on these questionable development deals, and it has nothing to do with him getting some extra Florida sunshine or more oranges in his diet.
Resolution 16-175 – The Smoking Shotgun
Yes, there’s actually more. Here is where we discovered something that could be seriously problematic, to say the least.
Remember that “sneaky mystery resolution” that by now you read about 2 hours ago? The vaguely-worded one that crept onto the June 2016 reorg meeting consent agenda where no one could ask questions about it?
Here’s the title of that resolution again:
24. Resolution Clarifying Chapter 78 of the Laws of 2011 and All Applicable and Related Laws, Policy and Rules of the Township of Belleville.
As usual, since the public is only provided a single sparse folder of resolutions and ordinances at meetings which promptly disappears the moment the meeting begins, we eventually had to track down this resolution after the governing body had already passed it to find out what it was all about.
This is a signed copy of the resolution the Council unanimously passed that day:
If you take a moment to read the page, you’ll realize that even having the full text of the governing body’s resolution still doesn’t tell you what on earth they approved. It’s abundantly clear that the language of this resolution is deliberately crafted to confuse and obfuscate the underlying act. And, you’re about to understand why.
In documents obtained directly from the Township via an Open Public Records Act request (OPRA), we discovered perhaps the most disturbing action we’ve ever seen the Belleville Council undertake in the last 4 years.
In February of 2003, the councilmembers in office at the time put into effect Ordinance 2964, which basically set forth how medical benefits would be provided for Township employees.
In April of 2010, the Council amended the 2003 ordinance and made a few important changes. Ordinance 3232 is an ordinance to amend an ordinance (remember that, it’s important).
In an apparent cost-saving measure, Ordinance 3232 was adopted to include the following provision in the original law:
IV. No Elected Official sworn into office after June 30, 2010 shall be eligible to receive health benefits paid by the Township of Belleville. Current Elected Officials shall remain eligible for and receive health benefits from the Township of Belleville pursuant to Sections I, II, and III above.
Here are signed copies of both ordinances:
Under this law which has been in place since 2010, no councilperson elected after June 30, 2010 would be eligible for healthcare benefits paid by the Township of Belleville.
Councilman Vincent Cozzarelli and Councilman Joe Longo both joined the Council after 2010, having been elected in 2012 and 2014 respectively. The rest of the councilmembers are grandfathered into being able to take benefits. Therefore by Belleville’s own laws, Cozzarelli and Longo are and have been ineligible to take healthcare benefits.
Since Belleville Township self-insures for practically gold-plated healthcare, we believe the taxpayer cost of premiums for a single councilperson are well above $30,000. Alternatively, councilmembers can elect to receive an opt-out payment in lieu of the benefits. We don’t know how much exactly, but this amount is at least several thousand dollars….CASH.
This is in addition to the yearly stipend for councilpersons, which is $6000 each (the Mayor receives $7000).
What does all of this mean?
It means that on June 30, 2016 at the reorganization meeting, the Belleville Council unanimously overturned their own law with a vaguely-worded resolution hidden on a consent agenda, for which there would be no discussion, and the public could not inquire about it. The Council overturned an ordinance with a resolution to give Cozzarelli and Longo conceivably more than $30,000 in healthcare benefits that they are not legally entitled to take under Belleville’s own law.
You cannot amend or overturn an ordinance with a resolution; an ordinance is a law.
In short, they circumvented the required steps of advertising an amendment to the ordinance and holding public hearings, and stealthily changed the law to put benefits or cash right into their own pockets.
As if this wasn’t enough of an outrage, the two councilmen who directly benefited financially from this resolution did not recuse themselves, but were allowed to vote on it. They literally voted to enrich themselves, which is one of the more egregious examples of disregarding a blatant conflict of interest we’ve ever witnessed.
The overwhelming evidence points to the Mayor, Council, Town Attorney, and Town Manager all conspiring to deceive and defraud the public into paying conceivably tens of thousands of dollars to two councilmen who are not legally allowed to have it, one of whom may not even be holding his office legally, with a completely unlawful maneuver.
How would this be any different than Longo and Cozzarelli writing themselves a check out of the municipal budget, while the rest of the governing body looked on and helped them do it?
In our opinion, this is a willful, deliberate, and outrageous deception, and perhaps an outright theft of public money. If either Longo or Cozzarelli took even a dime of those benefits since this action was taken in June of 2016, we feel that a crime may have been committed.
It is our strong opinion based on the evidence we’ve collected and documented over the last year that Councilman Longo, Mayor Kimble, Councilman Rovell, and the rest of the Belleville Council have conspired to knowingly and deliberately violate a number of New Jersey state laws since at least June of 2016 with regard to not only Longo’s residency status, but possibly the unlawful taking of healthcare benefits for two councilpersons.
And we have more. Much more.
It’s time for the State Attorney General and federal government to come swiftly and decisively to Belleville, and give these 36,000 struggling citizens the justice they deserve and are owed for the repeated violations of the public trust and ballooning tax bills from blatant abuses of public money that they have been subjected to from their own elected officials for so many years. Belleville residents were never given the justice or closure they deserve for what happened to the school district in 2014, and an end must finally be put to the continued abuses by their own elected officials.
The Essex Watch and the dedicated public advocates in Belleville will continue to work tirelessly and do whatever it takes to ensure that happens.
The next time you see people like Vinnie and Phyllis Frantantoni, Jeff Mattingly, Michael Sheldon, Joan Schmitt, Arlene Schor, Diane Rothwell, Frank Fleischman, Mary Higgins, and maybe even that intense-looking boyishly charming guy in the corner with the camera, please do them a big favor.
Walk up to them, shake their hand, and just say “thanks”. Or, “keep up the good work”.
This is a street fight for Belleville’s soul. Kind words of support and encouragement mean a great deal. These individuals are sacrificing more than you know to help keep Belleville a decent place to live. And, they ask for nothing in return.
Thank you to all the vigilant citizens who have contributed to and supported our work over the last 4 years. The fight continues.
Hey, I never said this article was going to be a short one.
Update Sept 28, 2017: At the Council meeting following this report, Councilman Joe Longo has been removed from office for violating the New Jersey First Act.
See the follow-up story below for details.