RED BANK: COMMENTING POLICY UNDER FIRE

red bank, nj, ziad shehadyBusiness Administrator Ziad Shehady has allowed little deviation from the council’s commenting protocol since his arrival in 2018. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot topic red bank njThe Red Bank council moved to eliminate a citizenship requirement for business licensing and approved a debt refinancing Wednesday night.

And once again, the protocol for comments at council meetings was put to the test. Here’s a recap of  what went down at the semimonthly session.

• With members Kathy Horgan and Hazim Yassin absent, the council introduced an ordinance amendment to strip out citizenship as a requirement for a business license.

The existing law reads, “No licenses shall be issued or renewed unless the applicant shall be a citizen of the United States and a person of good moral character.” The amendment would eliminate both requirements.

Borough Clerk Pam Borghi told redbankgreen that until recently she was unaware of the existing language. But no license had ever been denied on the basis of non-citizenship, she said.

“It’s not part of our process,” she said, adding that license application forms don’t contain any reference to citizenship. “It’s not a question we ask.”

Mayor Pasquale Menna told the council audience the amendment would eliminate “an archaic section that’s never been enforced.”

An adoption vote on the change is expected at the council’s next regular meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, November 26.

• The council approved a resolution to refinance $7.134 million worth of debt from anticipation notes into regular long-term borrowing.

The sum includes $2.712 million in general improvement bonds; $3.7 million in water system spending, to be repaid from water utility cash flows; and $722,000 for the parking utility, to be repaid from metered parking and related revenue.

Councilman Michael Ballard, who heads the finance committee, said bond rating agency Moody’s recently gave the borough’s long-term debt an AA3 rating.

With interest rates low, “it’s a great time to go out and borrow money with our credit rating so high,” he said. “We are in good position, according to Moody’s.”

• The council accepted the retirement of Sergeant Joey Fields after 28 years on the force.

It also hired Taylor W. Doremus as a patrolman. He’s currently an officer with the Little Silver police.

• Another ordinance change would eliminate the borough-residency requirement for the fire department Cadet Corps.

The organization offers volunteers between the ages of 14 and 17 an introduction to the work of firefighters and first-aid responders.

• The council approved a resolution calling for a study commission to look into amending the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, or OPRA.

Since it was signed into law 18 years ago, OPRA “has been a positive light, but it has also been fraught with abuse and misuse, and has become an unanticipated financial cost to the taxpayers of New Jersey,” reads the resolution.

Red Bank in particular “has labored under a well-intended law that has spiraled out of control, due to the volume and nature of requests, the cost to taxpayers in responding to the requests, and the potential liability in having to pay disproportionate prevailing party attorney’s fees should the requests turn into litigated matters, as well as the liability in determining which documents shall be released, with or without redaction, while attempting to maintain individual privacy,” it reads.

Since 2017, when the borough received 185 OPRA requests, the number has soared to 325 in 2018, and as of September 1, had already processed 296 this year, the resolution states.

Borghi told redbankgreen that the increase is largely driven by commercial outfits seeking information on permits issued.

The resolution, supported by the New Jersey League of Municipalities, calls on the state legislature “to review and examine the effects of OPRA on local government and the needs to be fulfilled by the law.”

• After some tense back-and-forths with residents over the limits imposed by the borough commenting protocol, Menna said he agreed the policy needs to be reviewed.

The policy, adopted by the council in 2017 on the recommendation of then-Councilman Mark Taylor and renewed twice since at the annual government reorganization, limits speakers to five minutes at the mic, and requires them to direct comments and questions to the mayor.

Since he was hired in April, 2018, borough Business Administrator Ziad Shehady has kept an iron grip on the proceedings, refusing to respond to comments and questions until he has determined the speaker is finished, and often declining to engage follow-up questions.

The policy came up after former Councilwoman Cindy Burnham said Shehady had “cancelled” a planned visit by officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who she said were coming to test the soil in the now-closed community garden on Marion Street, at no cost, and with immediate results provided.

Shehady, however disputed Burhham’s “sequence of events,” which he said he had already corrected to her via email.

“I have not cancelled the USDA testing,” he said, reading from an email he said he had sent her on November 12. The USDA cancelled the session “after it was clarified that no official representative of the borough authorized the testing or was permitted to grant access to the property.”

For legal reasons, any access to the site “must be approved by this mayor and council by resolution,” Shehady said. When this was made clear to the USDA, “they cancelled that testing,” he said.

When Burnham appeared about to say something more, Shehady told her: “Your comments have concluded, Ms. Burnham. This is not a back-and-forth.”

Menna backed up Shehady when Burnham tried to press on.

“You’re just going to blow me off?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Menna. “Next issue.”

“This stinks,” said Burnham. “This is non-transparent and very fishy.”

Shortly afterward, Menna interrupted Cedar Avenue resident Sue Viscomi when she attempted to ascertain the facts behind a purported settlement of a grievance between the borough and the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents the borough’s rank-and-file workers.

But after Branch Avenue resident Stephen Hecht said he had “concerns” about the protocol and urged the council to re-examine it, Menna said he agreed a review was needed.

“I obviously have concerns about it myself,” he said. “I hear you and I think there should be an opportunity for rebuttal.

“I will certainly lead the charge on that,” he said.