RED BANK: SPLIT OVER LEAK PROBE CONTINUES

A screengrab of the council’s session Wednesday night, with councilmembers Erik Yngstrom at center left and Michael Ballard at center right. (Zoom screengrab. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot topicA dispute over leaked emails entered its third month when the Red Bank council met for a workshop session via Zoom Wednesday night.

The issue has pitted two Democrats who are running for re-election against four who aren’t.

Councilmen Ed Zipprich, left, and Michael Ballard in 2017. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

At issue are email exchanges between borough officials that were shared with redbankgreen August 4 by an anonymous sender using an encrypted email service.

In the underlying emails, as reported by redbankgreen August 5, Business Administrator Ziad Shehady raised concerns about what he termed “meddling” by Councilman Ed Zipprich in the then-pending bid process to select a trash hauling firm for a new three-year contract.

Shehady also warned other elected officials that Zipprich might “sabotage” the bidding.

As previously reported, no bids were received on the contract. That forced the council to adopt an emergency measure to have the current hauler, DeLisa Demolition, continue picking up trash and recycling on a month-to-month basis, at $10,000 per month. Meantime, the borough has announced another bid solicitation based on revised specifications, with the a deadline of November 17.

In response to the disclosure, Zipprich said the leak had smeared his reputation. He demanded a probe by cybersecurity investigators to determine who was behind the leak, which he called a “serious” breach of confidentiality “that affects the  way we do our jobs.”

Near the end of an hourlong council workshop session Wednesday, Councilman Michael Ballard renewed his complaint voiced at the council’s September 23 session that nothing is happening on a a proposed resolution authorizing the investigation.

Referring to “the investigation that we keep putting off,” Ballard said he had asked that it be put on the agenda, but wasn’t. He wanted to know from the rest of the council “whether we want to move forward, or are we just going to like, whistle past the graveyard and act like it didn’t happen?”

“We don’t want to move forward because we have an open bid right now,” replied Councilman Erik Yngstrom. “That investigation alone could cloud those bids we’re awaiting, trying to get from outside contractors.

“I think we have to wait at least until we get bids back,” Yngstrom said. “Because what company’s going to want to bid on a garbage contract when they have to come in and give a report to somebody or to an investigator?”

Ballard said the investigation should be into “who anonymously is leaking borough classified” material.

“I totally disagree,” Yngstrom replied. “I think the focus should be whether there was any interference with the bid process, which led to us getting no bids” in the first attempt.

“The leak’s not that big of a deal, in my opinion,” he said. “I think it should be treated as a whistleblower, and there should be no real ramifications for anybody who did that. They’re looking out for the sanctity of our RFP [Request for Proposals] process. Whether anybody really meddled with the process is the biggest thing here.”

“Then let’s investigate all of it,” Ballard said.

Mayor Pasquale Menna called that a “great idea,” but noted the council had received an estimate that the legal fees for the probe could reach $50,000, “and  frankly, we don’t have $50,000 right now.”

Ballard said he found it “just unbelievable that somebody is leaking borough emails and nobody cares. Nobody on the council, the administrator, nobody cares that privileged information is being leaked, and we don’t want to find out who it is. That just blows me away.”

Councilwoman Kathy Horgan called the leaked documents “public information.”

“If it’s public information, who did it?” Ballard pressed.

“Michael’s comments and his objections are once again noted,” Menna said. “It’s not over yet, guys.”

During the discussion, Zipprich replied via email to an inquiry redbankgreen sent him September 23, asking what he thought the investigation should focus on, and if he was open to it including possible interference in the bidding process.

“I called for an investigation as to the ‘leaker’ of the privileged work product between the council members and the Borough attorney,” Zipprich wrote. “The narrative is being changed to cover this ethical issue over to protect the individual who leaked confidential information to your publication.

“I still believe there is an ethical issue for someone to have sent that attorney/client privileged document to you for publication,” he wrote. “Also of concern, is that there may have been a violation of the open public meetings act as disclosed in that correspondence.”

Councilwoman Kate Triggiano did not weigh in on the matter Wednesday night. She has previously said the council should not take on a taxpayer-funded “witch hunt” for the leaker if the underlying material could have been released in response to an Open Public Records Act request.

Councilman Hazim Yassin was absent.

During the public comment session, Adrienne Bilaal of South Pearl Street backed Ballard’s demand for a probe, raising the prospect that the leaker was a council member.

“If you don’t take this serious, we don’t know down the road who else may do something like this,” she said. “I voted for you, and I want to hold you all accountable for doing the right thing. So if you have someone on that council who did this, they  should be held accountable.”

Zipprich is seeking his fifth three-year term in the November 3 election, and Ballard is seeking his second. They are running unopposed.

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