First, the Committee worked out the TAA deal behind closed doors and then brought the finished contract back for formal passage in a public meeting without any substantive discussion.
Second, the Committee treated the TAA as being so special that it’s beyond ordinary management or oversight. That’s also how they’ve treated Tabernacle’s other volunteer organizations. Except, in the TAA’s case, it was regarded as so extra special it doesn’t even need to provide an annual financial report as these other two volunteer organizations do.
While volunteers deserve appreciation for their talents and service, they should be just as accountable for the public resources they receive as any other recipient of our tax revenues. The Committee’s refusal to hold volunteer organizations to reasonable management standards is unjustified and imprudent.
It should go without saying that when the Committee works out its contracts in the back room, and then ratifies them without meaningful public discussion, there’s no transparency or accountability. This is how the Committee handled the TAA contract and the Tabernacle Fire Company #1.
I know the Committee is capable of conducting meaningful and largely transparent discussions. It demonstrated this when it adopted the chicken ordinance, which was done at the same meeting when they sneakily adopted the TAA contract.
The process for the TAA contract got ugly quickly. At the November 28, 2016 meeting, it was revealed that the Committee was discussing a contract that differed substantially from the one that it released to the public months earlier. The new contract had been rewritten privately by Committee members, TAA president Lynne Hedden and Township Attorney Peter Lange. Because the Committee was caught conducting public business in a non-transparent way, it postponed the vote. This is reported in greater detail in my December 10, 2016 TTJ Post, “Tabernacle Committee Postpones TAA Agreement after Transparency Problems Surface.”
The revised TAA Agreement was then listed as “old business” on the December 12, 2016 meeting agenda, which the Township posted on its website the Friday before the meeting. The agenda was still posted at 7:30 PM when the meeting started; it remains posted as of the date of this post. Because the TAA Agreement was listed as “old business,” the public was led to believe that it would be discussed, but not voted on.
Around 7:31 PM, (see clock in video recording, December 26 Post), Attorney Peter Lange reminded Mayor Lee that he needed to amend the agenda to handle “that resolution.” All Committee members seemed to know what “that resolution” was and were not surprised.
Mayor Lee explained that the amendment was needed because he forgot to include the TAA Agreement as a resolution when he made up the agenda on Friday. This explanation doesn’t square.
The Mayor isn’t the only person involved in the agenda. By law, the township clerk is responsible to put the agenda together. She, or someone on the Township’s administrative team, physically produces and posts it on the Township website. The clerk also receives the proposed resolutions from the township attorney. The clerk also tracks the agenda items that carry over from previous meetings, as the TAA Agreement did. Surely, the clerk, or someone else on the administrative team, should’ve noticed that the TAA Agreement was listed as “old business” and the resolution, which they had received from Mr. Lange, wasn’t listed at all.
Because the agenda is distributed to so many people before the meeting, it’s surprising that nobody else noticed the omission of the TAA resolution. All Committee members get a packet of information, including an agenda, no later than the Friday before the meeting. Township Attorney Peter Lange also gets an agenda before the meeting. As author of the TAA resolution, he knew that the TAA Agreement belonged in the resolution section of the agenda and was not “old business.”
TAA President Lynne Hedden, who was instrumental in writing the Agreement and shepherding it through the Committee, may have received an agenda and an advance copy of the resolution. Surely, she checked the website when the agenda was posted to be sure that the TAA resolution was listed. She, too, should’ve noticed that the TAA resolution wasn’t listed on the agenda.
O.K., mistakes do happen. Maybe the TAA resolution fell through the cracks. But the Committee’s decision to amend the agenda in the first minute of the meeting was the wrong solution. Nothing about the TAA snack stand, or anything else in the Agreement, had to be decided on December 12. The Committee should have have waited to the next meeting, which was just two weeks later (December 29). If the Committee carried the Agreement to the December 29 meeting, it could’ve given fair notice of its agenda to the public. But it didn’t want to.
As I’ve said before about the dissolution of the Fire District and the hiding of an independent report about fire company personnel (the Garty report), last minute changes to the official agenda are an opportunity for abuse. The same is true here for the TAA.
After the agenda was amended, and the floor was opened for public comment on agenda items, Mayor Lee was asked if the Committee would hold public comment specifically on the TAA Agreement. He said no. So the only opportunity residents had was to comment before the Committee reached the newly added resolution.
Stuart Brooks made the following comments about the TAA Agreement.
1. The new version of the Agreement deletes the requirement for TAA to submit any financial reports and records. Yet the TFC#1 and the TRS are required to submit and annual financial report, though the reports are lean on specific. The TAA should want the opportunity to annually and publicly demonstrate its financial integrity; and the Township should want to assure financial accountability of the TAA.
2. Out of fairness to Tabernacle taxpayers, the Committee should publicly review the costs and revenues of the TAA. Taxpayers should be assured that they are getting a fair shake and participants are paying their fair share.
3. The provision in the Agreement that says that TAA “will endeavor” not to have operations that are a nuisance conflicts with Township ordinances that “prohibit” nuisances.
4. The Agreement is unclear about the scope of alcoholic beverage use allowed. It says that alcohol can’t be kept or sold by TAA, its employees and volunteers. But it’s silent about alcohol use by others such as men’s leagues and parents of TAA competitors.
5. Because the snack stand restrooms are entirely under TAA’s control, and TAA has complete discretion to open them or not, TAA, not the Township, should pay for restroom supplies.
6. Does the Committee intend that the five-year review of the Agreement be a public review? Or will that be done privately?
7. The Agreement allows TAA to assign the Agreement to any third party with the approval of the Township Administrator. Because the fields and the snack stand are valuable Township-owned properties, the Committee should publicly vet any third party in order to determine if the assignment is in the Township’s best interest. That responsibility shouldn’t be delegated to township staff.
As usual, the Committee didn’t respond to these comments. The only issue that the Committee ever responded to was the contradiction between making the TAA Agreement perpetual and its recognition that long-term agreements cause problems. This was pointed out at the previous meeting when the Committee was considering the version of the Agreement that it hadn’t made public. Committeeman Franzen said he was comfortable leaving the TAA contract as it was. But the majority of the Committee members felt otherwise and the contract was changed to require a five-year review.
In the prior TTJ Post, I included suggestions by the New Jersey Herald that all public entities should adopt. Two of them apply precisely to this situation.
Resolve to be transparent. The public’s business should be conducted in public as much as possible and appropriate.
Resolve to be responsive. The citizens appearing before you are voicing opinions and seeking answers. Listen to them and answer their questions.
Once the Committee reached the newly added TAA resolution, Committee members didn’t even discuss it. There was a role call vote; they unanimously adopted the contract. When they don’t respond to public comments and don’t discuss the matter, they confirm that the fix is in.
These sneaky governmental practices, (the last minute addition of items to the agenda, ignoring public comment, the lack of discussion and the deletion of basic safeguards like annual financial reports), show the TAA and the Committee in the worst light. This is not transparency, even though Mayor Lee has lately been talking the transparency game.
Greasing the approval process for the quick and silent passage of the TAA Agreement makes things worse for everyone. It corrodes the integrity of the Committee because it places the concerns of one small segment of Tabernacle above the fairness that’s owed to the larger community. As we all know, Committee members have long personal ties to the TAA.
The lack of transparency also reflects badly on TAA. It begs the public to question why TAA wants to exempt itself from basic financial reporting requirements. It also calls into question why TAA President Lynne Hedden wouldn’t want to conduct discussions in public. But, instead, worked with the Committee and Township Attorney Peter Lange behind the scenes.
Backroom deals don’t advance good policy either. They just ratify what the volunteer organizations want. Other ideas, even if they are sensible, simply aren’t considered. The public offered numerous comments about the way the TAA Agreement handled keys, insurance, bathroom supplies, nuisances, alcohol use, telephones and other nuts-and-bolts items. The Committee didn’t address any of them. Having already worked out their deal with TAA, the Committee had no reason to consider anything more.
If “what’s past is prologue,” residents should expect another backroom deal when the Committee finalizes the pending agreement with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. This Committee is the same one that, as then Mayor Kim Brown said, thought it was okay to review TRS’s financial reports at roving chalkboard presentations so that no meeting quorum occurred and no written record was created. At stake was information about the insurance billing revenues, which the TRS and the Committee wanted to hide.
Although the TRS still hasn’t released the actual records of its insurance billing revenues, and the Township hasn’t publicly asked for them, we now know that insurance billings generate at least $250,000 per year. In addition, Tabernacle annually contributes, at least, $300,000 to the TRS in cash payments, insurance, fuel and rent subsidies.
A full and public discussion of the TRS contract is long overdue. The discussion should be based on a complete public disclosure of TRS’s insurance billing revenues. Other local municipalities use insurance billings for the direct benefit of taxpayers. Tabernacle doesn’t. Not surprisingly, the TRS wants to keep the insurance billings for its own use including paying its members.
The next township meeting will be held January 23, 2017 at 7:30 PM at town hall.