TTJ has reported extensively on the Committee’s extraordinary reluctance to ask questions or exercise oversight over the Tabernacle Rescue Squad’s insurance billing program. The Committee’s position is unusual for a number of reasons. First, the Committee supported the billing program so that the Township could reduce its public contribution to emergency services. Second, in order to promote the program, the Committee gave TRS the exclusive franchise to provide emergency services in Tabernacle. Third, in order to make sure the program operates correctly, the Committee has to annually examine the revenues and make certain findings.
The insurance billing program appears to be very successful financially. From what I can tell, it appears to generate at least $150,000 annually. In addition, the TRS has made a side agreement with Shamong Township to provide back-up services. This, presumably, also generates revenue; though it’s at the expense of Tabernacle residents.
Residents haven’t seen their share of the benefits of that financial success. The Committee hasn’t reduced the Township’s contribution of $70,000 per year (which is the highest amount permitted by law). In addition, Tabernacle still pays for a lot of the Squad’s other costs including insurance, rent (through the township’s bond payments for the new building), fuel, repairs and equipment.
These are substantial revenues and significant public expenditures. You’d think that the Committee would want to be sure that its plan for the provision of emergency services was working in the best interests of Tabernacle residents. Yet the Committee goes out of its way to say that they have little information about the program.
I’ve tried to find out how much money the insurance billing program brings in by asking the Committee at public meetings. They won’t answer. When Mayor Brown invited citizens to submit questions in writing so that they could get the answers, I did that too. Then the Committee said they forgot how much money the insurance billing program generated and said they didn’t know about any agreement with Shamong Township.
Later, apparently realizing that financial information is usually written on paper or stored electronically, Mr. Franzen explained how it was that the Committee could forget the numbers. He said that the TRS discussed the billing revenues way back when the Township prepared its budget (January-February 2015?) and there was no need to ask TRS for them again. He also explained that the TRS showed its revenues in a chalkboard presentation. A CHALKBOARD PRESENTATION! As I said in the June 30, 2015 Post, “that’s what people use when they don’t want to leave a public record.” At the August 10 meeting, Mr. Franzen said that TTJ took his comment out of context and blew it out of proportion. But, as Mayor Brown’s discussion shows, I got it right.
Mayor Brown admitted that the Committee doesn’t take the numbers because they don’t want the public to see them.
We know if we take a document from them [TRS], and again, they’re a private non-profit 501-C3, I believe they are, organization, so they’re not subject to OPRA, so once we take that document it becomes an OPRA-able document and it’s not fair to the non-profit that isn’t OPRA-able for us to make them OPRA-able. So I see no problem as long as we are given and shown the facts that these are the numbers and continue to handle it this way [emphasis added] (Recording, August 10, 2015 Meeting).
The problem is that the Committee is intentionally hiding information by turning a blind eye to it. As Mayor Brown said, they specifically don’t take a written report because they don’t want to make it public. The Committee also doesn’t discuss the insurance billing revenues in public, as they discuss other normal township business. Instead, Committee members trickle into the Emergency Services building for the TRS’s private chalkboard presentation. The Committee comes in one or two at a time. They do this specifically to avoid creating a quorum, which would require public notice and a public meeting. And they continue to deny the existence of the TRS’s agreement with Shamong, even though it’s mentioned in an official TRS financial statement, which the Township has.
The problem is also that this Committee thinks it’s okay for it alone to see the financials. Citizens have a basic and fundamental interest in being able to decide for themselves if the Committee’s decisions about the budget and the provision of emergency services are sound. After all, the Committee pledged to the citizens that the revenues from the insurance billing program would be used to reduce the Township’s contribution to the Squad.
The Committee’s policy to avoid documentation about the insurance billing program in order to keep it from citizens is perverse. Citizens can only evaluate the decisions that their elected officials make if they know the facts. The insurance billing revenues – and the revenues and expenses from Shamong – are essential facts about the Township’s budget and its plan for emergency services. They should be made public.
Another problem is that the Committee, because it intentionally avoids documentation of the facts, is making decisions without having all of the facts. This Committee’s decisions are based on what they remember from the chalkboard presentations. It seems that they don’t take notes because they think that the notes might be OPRA-able. The Committee as a whole doesn’t discuss the program with the TRS because it doesn’t want to create a quorum, which would require a public meeting. Instead, individual Committee members get separate briefings. These surely vary due to human nature and the likelihood of different questions being asked at each briefing. So the Committee members who attend the chalkboard presentation have a slightly different version. Committee members who don’t attend a chalkboard presentation presumably get a private oral report from a committee member who got a private oral report from the TRS. This is not a model for good government; it’s the kids game of “Whisper-Down the-Lane.”
Mayor Brown’s explanations to support the Committee’s lack of documentation don’t hold up. She said: “It’s not like they’re absconding with the money.” But no one has ever suggested that they are absconding with the money. Shame on her for suggesting that.
Mayor Brown is also wrong if she thinks that all TRS documents would be “OPRA-able” if the Township got a report on the insurance billing program. They would not all be OPRA-able. Only the report on the insurance billing program would be OPRA-able. There’s no real obstacle for the TRS to present a thorough public report on the insurance billing program or for the Committee to require it.
Mayor Brown also said that it would be unfair to the TRS to make this information public. It’s not unfair to the TRS at all. They’re getting all of the insurance revenues, the Township’s maximum contribution and the Township’s subsidies.
What’s unfair is that the Committee promised residents that the insurance revenues would be the basis for reducing the Township’s expenditures on emergency services; but they haven’t kept that promise and they won’t allow residents to see how much money the insurance billing program is generating or how it’s spent.
Why are they hiding this information?
The Lack Of Standards For Fee Waivers.
At the August 10, 2015 meeting, a resident again tried to jump-start the Committee’s long overdue discussion about the standards that it uses to evaluate requests from charitable organizations to waive fees for their fundraisers. Over the past few years, whenever a charitable group asked for a fee waiver, the Committee has said it needs to discuss this issue and set a policy. Then they routinely grant that particular waiver without discussing the policy. The issue of standards also comes into play, for example, when a resident asks to buy Township-owned land. But because the Committee hasn’t yet discussed standards or set policy, politics and personal preferences often ooze into its deliberations.
Most recently, Committeeman Lee has been the person who politicizes these discussions. At the June 22, 2015 meeting, when a resident commented generally on what Mr. Lee had said, as an example of the need to set standards, Mr. Lee denied that he made those comments and said he didn’t understand what the resident was saying.
So at the August 10, 2015 meeting, the resident read Mr. Lee’s actual comments that he made during an ordinary waiver request by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) for its Tour de Pines bicycle fundraiser. The Committee routinely granted PPA’s waiver in prior years, just as it has for the fundraisers of every other charitable organization. But on this occasion, Mr. Lee opposed the waiver. Here’s what happened.
First, Mr. Lee asked a rhetorical question: “Why should we give them [PPA], an economic benefit for making more money?” The answer, as Committeeman Franzen and Township Attorney Peter Lange pointed out, is that the Committee has routinely waived fees for every charitable organization that needs a permit for a fundraiser.
Then Mr. Lee introduced politics.
The other thing that kind of bothered me was, that I found on their website is that they are huge huge proponents of defeating the pipeline that goes through the Pinelands. And South Jersey Gas, which spends an awful lot of money in our town with getting gas to us, has really done a lot to try and help improve our infrastructure [emphasis added] (Recording, September 8, 2014 Meeting).
When these statements were raised at the August 10, 2015 meeting, Mr. Lee lost control. He said to the resident “your off your rocker” and repeatedly interrupted him.
Let’s unpack what happened.
First, the Committee should set a policy for fee waivers because Committee members sometimes consider factors that are out of bounds, such as the political opinions of the organization or the type of job that a person has. There isn’t a need for the Committee to re-invent the wheel every time a waiver is requested. In his rant, Mr. Lee defended himself by saying that he was one of the Committee members who has said that the Township needs a policy. That’s true. He said that. The problem is that he and the rest of the committee haven’t done anything about it. A policy is long overdue.
Second, Committee members should be able to control themselves. When a person makes a comment, an elected official should, at the very least, be able to listen politely. Here, the person presented accurate statements in a civil manner. It’s understandable that Mr. Lee was upset because it showed that his handling of the PPA request was petty and political. Mr. Lee later publicly apologized to the resident.
The truth is that PPA’s position on a pipeline has nothing to do with Tabernacle’s fee waiver. The Committee doesn’t inspect the websites of the Boy Scouts, the local churches or any other charitable organizations to gauge if their politics merit a fee waiver. And South Jersey Gas is not necessarily the good citizen that Mr. Lee described when he criticized PPA. SJG has often been a thorn in the Committee’s side because the Committee has been quick to approve street opening permits but SJG has often been slow to finish the work or resolve problems. Even at the August 10 meeting Mr. Lee commented how unacceptable SJG’s behavior was regarding the scheduling of a meeting to resolve a problem on Gate Road.
Lee defended his statements, particularly those concerning purchasing township-owned land, by saying that his statements were his opinions and didn’t have any effect on his decision. That’s like former President Clinton saying he smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale. The very purpose of making comments is to try and influence the decision. TTJ readers may remember that President Obama said he inhaled because that was the whole purpose of smoking marijuana! It’s obvious from the recording that Committeeman Lee made his comments to influence the other Committee members.
Who Gets Public Documents Through Back Channels And Attorney Charges.
In my review of Township Attorney Peter Lange’s invoices, I noticed an odd description of a $31 charge dated May 8, 2015. The description read: “Review emails on fire ord/Litowitz respond.” I thought this charge was odd for a lot of reasons. So I filed an OPRA request for all communications in April and May 2015, between the township and Jason Litowitz. All I received were the following three emails, which make the charge even stranger.
From Jason Litowitz to Peter Lange, May 11, 2015:
Hi Peter, You asked me to ping you about briefs. Also, do you happen to know what time on June 3rd the hearing will be? Thanks in advance! —Jason
From Peter Lange to Jason Litowitz, May 13, 2015:
Jason: While I have no objection, on second thought and in order to avoid any claim of special privilege, I am going to ask you to submit an OPRA request for the briefs which are in the possession of the Clerk in .pdf format. Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you for your interest. The hearing is currently scheduled for June 2nd @2pm. Not June 3rd.
From Jason Litowitz to Peter Lange, May 13, 2015:
No worries. Thanks for the info on the date/time [emphasis added].
First, regarding Mr. Litowitz’s request for the brief, Mr. Lange should’ve told him from the start that he should submit an OPRA request, like everybody else. That’s the ordinary process and they both know it. Why Mr. Lange initially thought that he should give public documents to Jason Litowitz and why Jason Litowitz thought Mr. Lange was the proper source for public documents is bizarre.
Second, there shouldn’t be a charge for telling a citizen the proper way to obtain public documents. That’s just a one-minute conversation. And given that Jason Litowitz is an attorney who has filed OPRA requests, a 30-second conversation would have amply covered the subject.
Third, the emails and the charge for the ordinance review show that there’s an ongoing conversation between a private citizen and the township attorney. There was a conversation about the fire ordinance which was billed on May 8, 2015. Before the May 11 email, there was another conversation. Then, there were the three emails.
As Mr. Lange explained (below) there are times when a private citizen asks him a question and he’ll answer it without charging the Township. That’s the right thing to do. Typically, these are simple inquiries, which can be resolved with minimal time and effort.
But it’s different when a private citizen has an ongoing conversation with the township attorney. A private citizen isn’t the township attorney’s client. And if the conversation is about a matter that’s pending before the Committee, such as the fire ordinance, the conversation should be with the Committee, not its attorney. A conversation with the attorney about a pending matter is a conversation through the back channel.
Because of these irregularities, I asked the committee:
Is there is a regular channel through which Mr. Litowitz or others get public documents without going through the clerk’s office [emphasis added]?
Here’s Mr. Lange’s answer.
The question is if Mr. Litowitz obtained documents from me or anyone else other than through Open Public Records Act request and the answer is NO. I don’t agree with Ms. Brooks’s assertion that he’s treated any differently than anybody else. He’s never been provided any documents and he was referred to obtain the documents through the open public records act process just as I would have suggested [to] anybody else. So the idea that there’s any type of other avenue or special relationship is just not correct, not accurate [emphasis added].
As far as the charges go, normally there’d be no charge for some time of inquiry or phone call from a resident. Normally we would just explain or direct their inquiry to the township. If it was simply a request that or the email followup to an attempt to get that document, it would not be something that we would normally charge or talk to them on the phone or some other action we might have charged a small bit of time for that; so that would be my off the cuff reaction to the comments [emphasis added] (Recording, August 10, 2015 meeting).
In the abstract, Mr. Lange’s answer sounds okay. But it doesn’t address how Jason Litowitz was involved with Mr. Lange’s review of the fire ordinance. It also doesn’t explain why these two attorneys didn’t see an OPRA request as the proper course to obtain the legal briefs. It also doesn’t explain why there was an extended conversation. That extended conversation creates the appearance of privileged access, which Mr. Lange was concerned about in his May 13, 2015 email.
The next township meeting will be held August 24, at 8pm at town hall.