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RED BANK: STURDIVANT TEES UP REDEV, ADMIN

red-bank-council-011222-500x313-9225468Councilwoman Jacqueline Sturdivant, framed in green, at Wednesday’s meeting. (Photo from Zoom. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot-topic_03-220x138-220x138-7378486Newly elected Red Bank Councilwoman Jacqueline Sturdivant this week followed through on a campaign pledge by proposing the borough Redevelopment Agency be disbanded.

She also proposed resetting the power of the borough business administrator, a role she called “authoritarian.”

red-bank-public-works-yard-052521-500x322-8661349A Google Maps satellite view of the public works yard and adjoining property to the east, roughly outlined in red. (Click to enlarge)

The redevelopment agency was created in February, 2019, to assess the borough government’s facilities and future needs, and to work with any private developers who might propose large-scale projects.

While no private projects have come forward, the agency did recommend a $9.3 million upgrade and expansion of the public works yard on Chestnut Street. And in a presentation at the borough library in December, executive director Cherron Rountree said the agency had “identified potential locations” for new borough facilities which have not been disclosed because they and “might result in negotiations with property owners.”

At the council’s workshop session Wednesday night, Sturdivant said the agency “has continued to lack direction and leadership from the council and also the mayor.”

It has also cost taxpayers some $439,000, she said, “and is no further along in the development of the DPW facility or the new borough hall that we’ve been waiting for,” she said.

“The purpose of the agency and its ability to deliver are questionable,” she said. “After three years, we have no viable developments planned.”

Councilman Michael Ballard endorsed the call. Ballard was the lone ‘no’ vote on the ordinance that created the agency, when he argued its work could be handled by the council and the planning board.

“I never thought the RDA served a real purpose,” he said.

He also found it “distasteful,” he said, that Government Strategy Group got the contract to set up the agency, and one of its principals, Ken DeRoberts, became a consultant to the agency, after GSG wrote the 2018 Management Enhancement Report that recommended the agency’s formation.

“It just didn’t pass the smell test for me,” he said.

The rest of the council was initially silent on Sturdivant’s proposal, which would require formal introduction at a regular council session. But after Mayor Pasquale Menna weighed in with support for the agency, Councilman Erik Yngstrom signaled at least some openness to the disbanding.

The “intent” in creating the agency, Menna said, was to spur action on “long-delayed” projects that past councils had not advanced. “I still believe that the intent was a good one,” he said.

The present council may not have the “full and total picture” of the work being done by the agency, comprised of unpaid citizens, he said. Before the council takes action, he suggested that the agency report to the council on its activities.

The presentation should be “in camera,” or behind closed doors, because the work includes non-public negotiations, Menna said.

But in the interim, the agency needs funding for the new year, and if the council fails to authorize it, “then that solves the issue” of its continued existence, Menna said. “But I think we should give it 30 days and not act precipitously in two weeks.”

Yngstrom agreed that the money spent was “alarming,” and noted that the agency had not, as promised by proponents, become self-funded, based on fees charged to private developers.

“So I do think there is some concern here,” Yngstrom said, But he backed Menna’s suggestion of allowing agency to report to the council on its activities.

Council members Kate Triggiano and Kathy Horgan were silent on the issue Wednesday. Last month, Horgan was the only elected official who responded to redbankgreen questions about their views on the agency’s future, when she said the agency “is literally in its infancy. To talk about disbanding it at this point is premature.”

Sturdivant also called for repeal of the 2018 ordinance creating what she termed the “authoritarian” position of business administrator. That change, she said, effectively altered the borough form of government from a weak mayor/strong council form to one in which an unelected official has too much power.

That official “should not be able to make critical decisions about the borough without any checks and balances in oversight by the council,” Sturdivant said.

The ordinance was adopted just weeks into the era of Ziad Shehady as business administrator. Shehady resigned last April, and the job has been held since then on an acting basis by police Chief Darren McConnell.

Menna said he “distinctly” remembered past council members making personnel decisions that the rest of the council, and he as mayor, were not consulted on.

“We had to change the way 90 Monmouth Street was being operated: in a haphazard fashion,” Menna said. “The change that was made was necessary.”

Ballard responded that he had been left in the dark about decisions under the current structure. “So we didn’t improve anything. We just changed who the administrator was beholden to,” he said.

Ballard again backed Sturdivant, and said he “100-percent opposed a strongman administrator” when it the change was adopted in 2018. (Meeting minutes show he abstained on the vote.)

“I don’t understand the argument that we shouldn’t be interfering in day-to-day operations, Ballard said. “Because I know I’ve never done that.”

He said the borough had lost 15 employees who had experienced “humiliating treatment” under a “strongman CEO administrator” he did not name.

Horgan said she objected to Sturdivant’s use of the term “authoritarian.”

The business administrator “is the CEO, and we’re the board of trustees,” she said. “The business administrator does not make decisions without consulting the council. But we should not be interfering with the day-to-day operations of what’s going on, and that’s why this was brought forward, to have a stronger administrator.

“We shouldn’t be running to borough hall and undermining [department] directors, the business administrator,” Horgan said.

Councilman Ed Zipprich noted that the administrator ordinance also grew out of the GSG report, and that he had voted in favor of it. Now, he said, he considers it “an error in judgment on my part.

“We saw that it was in detriment to the way the borough form of government operated,” he said.

Yngstrom and Triggiano were silent on the proposal.

In November, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, voters approved the creation of the Charter Study Commission to examine Red Bank’s borough form of government, in place since 1908, and recommend possible changes.

The commission, which next meets via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 18, has until September to complete its work, followed by a possible voter referendum in November.

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