When you are a civic activist, you get used to people disagreeing with you. People have different opinions or beliefs than you, some people are loyal to political leaders you criticize and sometimes people simply question your motives. Differences are normal, but you hope that people share with you a belief in good, ethical and responsible government.
A year ago today, the Belleville Town Council, upon nomination by Mayor Michael Melham, approved the appointment of a Belleville citizen to the Planning Board as a Class IV member. The appointment was legal and legitimate.
However, in February of this year, the person was hired as an Account Clerk for the Office of Mayor and Council. N.J.S.A. 40:55D-23, which governs Planning Board appointments, states “The members of Class IV shall hold no other municipal office, position or employment.” Essentially, when the appointee was hired as an employee, the appointee should have either resigned voluntarily or the mayor should have required the resignation.
Belleville resident Michael Sheldon first bought the employee’s Planning Board appointment to the Planning Board’s attention at a July 11, 2019 Planning Board meeting. In response, Planning Board attorney Rose Tubito stated that there were many exceptions to the law concerning Planning Board appointments. Ms. Tubito assured Mr. Sheldon she would issue a written opinion within a few days. Months passed, and at each Planning Board meeting, Mr. Sheldon dutifully put his comments on the record that a municipal employee could not serve as a Class IV member, and each time Mr. Sheldon was promised a written opinion.
Finally, on November 4, 2019, – almost four months later — Ms. Tubito wrote an opinion to Mayor Melham concerning the appointment, which she claimed was legal.
While Mr. Sheldon awaited the written opinion, Belleville Town Advocates – of which I am a member — solicited the opinion of Michael B. Kates, a pre-eminent municipal and land-use attorney and General Counsel Emeritus for New Jersey Planning Officials. Mr. Kates wrote an opinion, stating that the appointment is indeed barred by state law.
On November 6th, 2019, BTA member Vincent Frantantoni wrote a letter to Township Attorney Stephen Martino concerning the appointment. Mr. Martino sent a response the following day affirming Ms. Tubito’s opinion.
This is not the first time a board appointment has been questioned. A township employee served on the Planning Board during the Kimble administration and BTA member Joan Schmitt objected, quoting the law. The employee was removed from the Planning Board.
I asked Mayor Melham during a recent Town Council meeting about Mr. Martino’s letter, in which he stated the mayor had consulted with Ms. Tubito about the appointment. Mayor Melham confirmed he had indeed consulted with Ms. Tubito about the appointment and stated he consults often with Mr. Martino and Ms. Tubito on various matters.
Mayor Melham’s response, however, begs a question: If the appointment in question is as unremarkable and legitimate as he, Mr. Martino and Ms. Tubito claim, why did the mayor find it necessary to consult with Ms. Tubito about the appointment even before he made the nomination – two months before the appointee was even hired as a township employee?
I have my opinions about Mayor Melham’s agenda, and I know not everyone agrees with me, nor do I expect them to. However, I think we can generally agree that whatever the Mayor wants to accomplish, it needs to be done in a way that is ethical and conforms to the law.
A Planning Board member continuing to serve on the board even after being hired as a township employee does not lend itself to ethics or conformity to the law.
Frank F. Fleischman III
Here is some of the supporting documentation:
Here is Mr. Fleischman’s previous letter on this issue:
Fleischman: Is the Planning Board Operating Illegally? Citizens Deserve an Answer