Council President Cindy Burnham, sitting in for the absent mayor for the first time, recused herself from the meter bond vote on advice from borough Attorney Jean Cipriani, right. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Amid criticism by taxpayers, the new Republican-led Red Bank council approved two bonds totaling $3.7 million to pay for a municipal well and water meters for every property in town Wednesday night.
Both bonds won unanimous approval, though Council President Cindy Burnham, who recused herself over what was described as a potential conflict of interest, said she would have voted no on the meter issue.
One measure called for $1.83 million in debt to cover the cost a new water well on Chestnut Street and other upgrades to the borough-owned water system. The other authorized $1.9 million to replace nearly every water meter in town, and install them in places they’ve never been, including borough hall and the town’s five firehouses.
Both issues faced a March 4 deadline for resolution under a pending memorandum of agreement between the borough and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Failure to move ahead could trigger DEP limits on development and water usage, town officials have said.
Echoing comments made by residents at a council meeting last month, Wallace Street resident Paul Balanikas questioned the need to replace every meter in town in order to reduce the amount of unaccounted-for water.
Officials believe that 17 percent of water pumped from the treatment plant goes unbilled, and argue that the meters will help reduce that number to a level the DEP considers acceptable.
“We’re chasing two percent” in improvement, Balanikas said. “There are so many different options to do prior to changing the meters.”
Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, now in her second year on the dais, told the audience she was “enraged” that the meter issue was being “dumped in the laps” of Councilmen Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan, fellow Republicans who took office on January 2, giving the GOP control of the governing body for the first time in a generation.
Though she supported both measures, and said the new meters would enable the town to replace a “medieval” billing system, Schwabenbauer expressed frustration that the agreement with the DEP tied the meters and the well into a single issue, and had not been disclosed to the council until late last year.
Taylor said he was unaware of the memorandum before he took office and contended it had not been made public because “the old council and mayor moved this forward, fully intending to drop this in our laps.”
Councilman Ed Zipprich, one of two Democrats, responded that several committee meetings at which the issue was to have been discussed were canceled on account of snow or other reasons.
Taylor and Whelan both voted yes, “reluctantly,” on the meter bond.
Branch Avenue resident Steve Hecht told Taylor that his criticism bordered on whining.
“You ran for office. Now it’s your problem,” Hecht said. “You’ve banged your head on the difference between campaigning and governing, and welcome to the mess.”
Administrator Stanley Sickels said the bid specifications contain provisions that will allow residents to purchase second meters for their home irrigation systems, and thus avoid the 125-percent fee for sewer usage on water used on lawns.
Burnham, sitting in for Mayor Pasquale Menna, who was absent, recused herself from the meter bond vote on the advice, she said, of borough Attorney Jean Cipriani and other lawyers she consulted. The reason: Burnham’s ex-husband, who sells Neptune meters — the brand identified in bid specs — is paying child support for one of her daughters, who lives with her.
Cipriani told redbankgreen that it doesn’t matter that Burham’s daughter is a 20-year-old adult, and that Burnham is divorced from him. One state law, she said, bars officials from voting on matters that would financially benefit immediate family members — in this case, Burnham’s daughter — and another prohibits any votes that might create the appearance of conflict.
“It’s counterintuitive, I know,” given than Burnham is divorced, but still, by voting, Burham could open herself up to a conflict charge, Cipriani said.
“I’m an ethical kind of girl,” Burnham told the audience, adding afterward to redbankgreen that she was “protecting the town” from possible litigation by recusing herself.