SUIT CALLS 51 MONMOUTH DEAL ‘ILLEGAL’

51-monmouthTwo property owners want the former borough hall returned to Red Bank as a public asset. (Click to enlarge)

As anticipated by Mayor Pasquale Menna, a lawsuit has been filed challenging Red Bank’s settlement of litigation earlier this year over the former borough hall and police station at 51 Monmouth Street.

The suit, filed by Maple Cove activist Cindy Burnham of Fair Haven and lawyer Bill Meyer of Tinton Falls, claims that both the original sale of the building to a nonprofit children’s organization in 2000 and the settlement of litigation over that deal earlier this year were “illegal and improper.”

Burnham owns residential rental property in Red Bank and Meyer owns the building in which his law office is housed, at 12 Monmouth Street.

Their suit, filed in state Superior Court in Freehold last week, centers on the absence from deeds and other documents of a so-called “reverter clause,” which would have enabled the borough to recapture the property if any terms of the transfer were violated. But even without the reverter clause, they say, prevailing state law required the borough to keep the property from being transferred to a religious organization.

Those terms, and the law, were, in fact, violated, and borough officials failed to do what they were supposed to do, the plaintiffs allege, when the Community YMCA , which now owns the structure, sought to sell the building to St. James RC Church/Red Bank Catholic High School.

The lawsuit, which names the YMCA as a defendant, along with the mayor, council, and borough, gives five arguments why the deal should be voided:

• The council’s 1999 deliberations  about the transfer of the property to Kids Bridge Inc., a charitable organization, occurred without then-Mayor Ed McKenna disclosing that he was a founder and trustee at Kids Bridge. McKenna’s participation represented a conflict of interest, Burnham and Meyer contend. In 2008, McKenna told redbankgreen that he had recused himself from all discussions about the sale and that “there was never any secret” about his involvement in the charity, an assertion refuted by the lawsuit.

• The sale violated both the state constitution and  ban on and law in failing to contain a reverter clause that would have made a return of the deed to the borough “automatic” if Kids Bridge or any subsequent owner violated the terms of the transfer.

• The settlement violated a state law barring the transfer of public assets for use by religious organizations.

• Public notices about the January 2011 meeting at which the settlement was to be discussed were “insufficient and inaccurate.”

• Unnamed borough officials violated their fiduciary to the town in approving the settlement, thus causing taxpayers to lose a “valuable property” and lay out money “to address and rectify these failures.”

“The net effect of this series of illegal and improper actions by the defendant Mayor and Borough Council and the defendant Borough is that a valuable and historic property and building, owned by the Borough for almost 100 years, has now been lost and conveyed away by the Borough without  any consideration” while obligating the town to pony up $125,000 for renovations to an adjoining firehouse, the lawsuit claims.

“This is a Red Bank treasure, and it’s being taken from the residents,” Burnham tells redbankgreen. “I think once people hear what’s happening, they’ll get behind this.”

Here’s a statement issued Monday by Menna:

A copy of the suit was forwarded to our insurance provider to determine coverage.  If necessary, Special Counsel John Bonello, will review and make a recommendation to the Council.  The matter would be referred to Bonnello because the partner of our current Borough Attorney O’Hern would have a conflict on the matter.  Seam Byrnes served on the YMCA Board during the time in question.  Any action taken on answering the suit will be done by resolution.

Burnham also contends that borough workers, at the direction of “vindictive” unnamed officials, last week removed two makeshift benches and concrete rubble used to line a path to the water’s edge at Maple Cove, the public beachfront on the Navesink River that she helped safeguard from development.

Here’s the lawsuit: burnham-meyer-v-rb003