In one of the odder entries in the annals of local governance, the Fair Haven Borough Council met yesterday with the stated purpose of blowing off steam.

And vent its members did, giving voice to everything from disappointment to indignation to oozing sarcasm.

The catalyst? Suggestions by 12th-district Assembly Democratic candidates Mike Panter and Amy Mallet that “cronyism” had tainted the town’s recent cell tower deal.

With Panter and Mallet no-shows at a hastily assembled special session held expressly to refute their allegations, Mayor Mike Halfacre at one point pretended that Panter was there, asking and responding to questions that the Dems had told supporters via email they thought needed answering. Download panter_mallet_email_100807

“Let’s move forward with Mr. Panter’s questions, because I know he’s busy and has to get out of here,” Halfacre said, addressing an empty chair.

Img_7032Mayor Mike Halfacre speaks with residents after the meeting.

Halfacre also told a handful of residents who turned out for the meeting that the absence of Mallet and Panter “speaks volumes” about the true nature of their complaint to state Attorney General Anne Milgram, in which they called for an investigation of the deal.

Asked if the borough had heard from the AG, Halfacre said no, adding that he didn’t expect to. “I don’t see why the Attorney General would be interested in any of this,” he said.

On a table at the front of the council chambers were what borough officials said were all the documents related to the selection of FSD Enterprises, a telecom consultancy owned by Republican assembly contender Declan O’Scanlon.

O’Scanlon is a council member in Little Silver, where Halfacre has served as municipal prosecutor for a decade. His work on the tower deal, O’Scanlon told redbankgreen last night, involved negotiating the the complex land lease and revenue sharing arrangements with the United Methodist Church on Ridge Road, as well as finalizing contracts with the four wireless carriers that successfully bid for antenna space on the tower.

O’Scanlon said completion of his role could take several years. His fees of about $45,000 are fixed, no matter how long it takes, he said.

Halfacre, who became mayor in January and had not previously held office in Fair Haven, said that members of the borough council realized last year that they needed professional help to negotiate with the church and arrange for the construction and occupancy of what would be a borough owned tower.

And Councilman Chris Rinn said it was he, not Halfacre, who suggested that the council consider bringing O’Scanlon in after Rinn had used O’Scanlon as “a resource” to help understand the issues involved.

Moreover, Halface said, the selection was “not a competitive bid,” but rather a request for qualifications for a professional service. The town received four responses, and three of them were from companies or individuals who were “spectacularly unqualified” to do the job, he said.

O’Scanlon says his is the only firm in New Jersey specializing in negotiating income-generating tower sites for municipalities.

As mayor, Halfacre did not vote on any of the matters involving O’Scanlon; the mayor only votes in cases of a tie among council members.

To Halfacre and the four councilmembers who showed up, the Panter and Mallet complaint to the AG was politics, pure and simple.

“I can’t tell you how angry I am that an assemblyman who represents our district is questioning our integrity,” said Council President Tom Gilmour. “It’s very plain that they are trying to discredit their opponent.”

Several residents spoke in favor of the council’s actions, and one woman said that Panter and Mallet, whom she had previously supported, had lost her vote.

Aimee Humphreys of River Road, however, said that the issue Panter and Mallet had raised was misconstrued. “Our political system is corrupt,” with far too many insider deals, she said. “It has nothing to do with the cell tower.”

Afterward, Humphreys told redbankgreen that she did not know about the Dems’ letter to the AG.

In an interview with redbankgreen yesterday afternoon, Mallet, a Fair Haven resident, showed no signs of retreat, continuing to assert that the relationship between O’Scanlon and Halfacre should have precluded the mayor’s participation in O’Scanlon’s selection.

She said she hadn’t attended the meeting because “I didn’t think it was appropriate.

“People would have had trouble differentiating me” as a resident and candidate, she said.

And while she had heard indirectly the answers to some of her and Panter’s questions, she said, “I haven’t heard anything that gets down to the gist of what this is about.” The issue, she said, is the relationship between Halfacre and O’Scanlon, which she says includes Halfacre having both donated to O’Scanlon’s campaigns and representing him in legal matters.

“The essence of it is that they have this close relationship,” Mallet said, adding that “this is the kind of deal that really would have had a big flag” if legislation that she and Panter are pushing is enacted.

Halfacre, she said, “should have recused himself from the negotiations” over O’Scanlon’s contract.

“I don’t have any problem with the council,” she said. “They’re doing a fine job.”

Asked why at least four council members felt insulted by her take on the matter, Mallet said, “We’re not stating that the council acted in any way that was inappropriate, and so I don’t don’t know why they would.”

Panter, who grew up in Fair Haven and now lives in Shrewsbury, sent the following to redbankgreen in an email last night:

I first want to be clear that we are not alleging that the council acted in any inappropriate way.

Instead, our concern is that Mr. O’Scanlon and the Mayor have repeatedly contradicted themselves, and failed to disclose numerous conflicts of interest and critical details of this transaction.

We learned today that this was a no-bid contract, as many suspected, since it was revealed that prices were not obtained from any of the three other competitors.

This is precisely the type of transaction our reforms are meant to address, by calling for an independent body to scrutinize public contracts being awarded to elected officials – be they Democrats or Republicans. In New Jersey, there are more than 700 elected officials who hold other public positions or who have been awarded public contracts. These taxpayer funded deals are fertile ground for potential conflicts of interest and opportunities for cronyism.

The residents of Fair Haven have repeatedly asked for details of Mr. O’Scanlon’s compensation for months, but were not given accurate information. It was their inquiries which drew my attention to this matter. Today the Mayor claimed that the contract was publicly available for inspection since April, but our attempts to obtain a copy of this contract in July of 2007 were denied on the grounds that the contract “ha[d] not yet been finalized.”

Despite these claims, as of September 30, 2007, the Mayor continued to state to Fair Haven residents that Mr. O’Scanlon’s compensation was limited to $5,000. Only after our inquiries, and one from the Asbury Park Press on October 1, 2007, did the Mayor issue a letter to residents that evening stating that he had made a mistake and O’Scanlon was to be paid close to $40,000 – or nearly 50% of Fair Haven’s first year revenues, payable by the Borough.

If we and the public were uninformed, it was in reliance on the Mayor’s “mistaken” statements.

Today the Mayor admitted that he and O’Scanlon have close professional, political and personal connections, but he did not recuse himself or disqualify O’Scanlon as a reult, which we believe would have been appropriate. The Mayor has a paid appointment in Little Silver where Mr. O’Scanlon serves as Council President, has performed work for Mr. O’Scanlon’s company, has make campaign contributions to Mr. O’Scanlon and appears in O’Scanlon’s campaign literature in his official capacity as the Mayor of Fair Haven. Instead, he took charge of negotiating O’Scanlon’s deal.

We hope that the steps taken today have begun to finally shed light on this transaction, and I believe that answers are owed to the people of Fair Haven, not myself.

Here’s O’Scanlon’s take on Mallet:

“Don’t think for one second that this is about Amy Mallet caring for good government,” he said last night. “Where was she six months ago if she cared about good government? The hypocrisy is incredible. It’s disgusting.”

Email this story