Tabernacle Committee Fools Residents Again. Fire Services: Good And Bad

Happy Jestor

For the second straight meeting, Mayor Steven Lee, IV added a new item to the Committee’s agenda at the public meeting, instead of listing it in advance. This time, the new item, Resolution 2017-30, was just put on a front chair a few minutes before the meeting started, while Mayor Lee informally said that it would be a new item.

The agenda was never officially amended to add Resolution 2017-30. And it wasn’t discussed with the other resolutions listed on the agenda. It was held until the end of the meeting and raised by Mayor Lee during his Committee Report. This was the same old sleight-of-hand agenda making that we’ve seen too often.

Agenda items should be listed in advance of the meeting. Especially, a resolution like this one, which was not an emergency and was well anticipated weeks before the meeting (more on that below).

Listing items in the agenda in advance lets people see where items will be heard.  And, because the resolutions and ordinances are actually printed in the agenda, listing them in advance allows people to read them. This gives the public a chance to review each item, think about it and offer reasoned comments to the Committee. Placing Resolution 2017-30 on a chair minutes before the meeting, strangled the meaningful opportunity for public comment.

No one who looked at the January 23, 2017 agenda, which the Clerk posted on the Township website the day of the meeting, had any idea that the Committee would take up and adopt Resolution 2017-30. Nor could they read what Resolution 2017-30 said. Residents were, again, caught by surprise.

The Mayor and other Committee members say that they’re in favor of transparency. They also say that they want to hear from the public. In this case, the Mayor and Committee knew that there was public interest in Resolution 2017-30 because they received public comment on the issue months before. But, by going along with the Mayor’s last minute change, Committee members took action that destroyed transparency and prevented public comment.

This Committee adopted a procedure in September 2016, which would minimize last minute changes. It’s printed on the official website in blue so that it stands out. This is what it says:

Request for items to appear on the Agenda must be given to the Secretary of the Governing Body in writing no later than 4:00 p.m. the Wednesday before the requested meeting.

But the Committee allows the mayor to make any changes he wants for any reason he wants and at any time that he wants. There are no limits or standards. When the Committee adopted this procedure, it was pointed out that the mayor’s unlimited discretion completely undermines the orderly procedure they established.

Mayor Lee always has an excuse for adding an item to the agenda at the last minute. At the January 23 meeting, he said he couldn’t meet with Clerk Barber to set the agenda because he attended the Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017. So he didn’t have a chance include Resolution 2017-30.

This explanation, like most explanations was nonsense. The inauguration date was known months in advance; it could have been planned for. Mayor Lee could have tasked the Deputy Mayor, or another committee member, to fill in during his absence, but that was never mentioned.

This resolution, because of its subject, could also have been listed on any of the last three meeting agendas. It merely expressed the Township’s support for an application that was pending before the Pinelands Commission (more on that below). The Pinelands Commission announced on December 9, 2016, that it would take comment through January 23, 2017. (The deadline was later extended to February 8, 2017.) This left plenty of time for Tabernacle to list the Resolution on its December 12 and December 29, 2016 or January 23, 2017 agendas.

Before he added Resolution 2017-30 to the agenda, Mayor Lee spoke about how moved he was to attend the presidential inauguration and witness America’s peaceful transition of power. He said it inspired his sense of responsibility and “really amplified my charge to be the best public servant I can be.”

If the Mayor and Committee really want to be better public servants, here’s two quick tips for them.

First, post your complete agenda in advance so the public can see it before your township meeting.

Second, don’t change your agenda at the last minute unless there’s a real emergency. Your failure to plan ahead isn’t a real emergency.

The subject of Resolution 2017-30 wasn’t emergent. It was just a general statement of support for South Jersey Gas’s (SJG) application to build a pipeline from Maurice River Township to the B.L. England Generating Station at Beesleys Point in Upper Township, Cape May County.

This is a controversial project. But the Resolution looks like a form letter that was circulated to local mayors for them to fill in the blanks, adopt, and send to the Pinelands Commission. It’s not something that directly affects Tabernacle, and it certainly shouldn’t have been hidden from the public.

Mayor Lee has beaten the drum for SJG before. His zeal and urgency to pass this resolution was obvious.

He said that SJG has invested in Tabernacle by extending gas lines and had given Tabernacle residents another fuel choice besides oil and electricity. Mayor Lee also said that when SJG needed Township approval, it alerted Tabernacle to the fact that it needed to update its contracts for the use of its right of way. He also described SJG as “good partner” and recommended that Tabernacle support SJG’s Cape May project.

Those reasons don’t make any sense. SJG’s decision to extend gas lines and obtain the necessary Township permits was a business decision. It extends lines where it sees enough business to support its investment. It doesn’t extend lines where it doesn’t. Altruism, neighborliness or mutual support aren’t considerations.

SJG, like Verizon, is a regulated utility. They’re not our partners. Mayor Lee knows that Verizon, for business reasons, has refused to invest in its fiber optic network, Fios, throughout Tabernacle and has sharply reduced its maintenance of copper telephone lines. He frequently comments that he’ll never see Fios where he lives in Tabernacle. It should be no surprise to him that corporations put their business interests first.

Mayor Lee also knows that SJG hasn’t been a “good partner.” Over the past few years, the Committee has repeatedly tabled SJG’s requests for street opening permits and directed the Township Engineer to prod it to meet their commitments to Tabernacle residents.

SJG has also balked at fixing work which was related to the installation of their gas lines but which they deemed to be technically outside of their responsibility.

The idea that Tabernacle should support SJG’s project in Cape May because SJG does business in Tabernacle is illogical. Should the Committee be passing supportive resolutions for the projects in Pennsylvania, Nevada, or other states where SJG’s parent company, South Jersey Industries, does business? Of course not.

Mayor Lee then turned to the Committee members for their comments.

Committeeman Joe Barton, who has spent his career in electric utilities, gave a cogent and balanced overview of the pipeline. He pointed out that Tabernacle Township has no jurisdiction over it. He said that the Township shouldn’t offer comment. He suggested that any individuals who wanted to could give their comments directly to the Pinelands Commission. He voted against the Resolution.

Committeeman Franzen agreed with Mr. Barton’s comments on the pipeline but felt that, as a public official, he wanted to pass the resolution to put his personal comments on the public record. He voted for the Resolution.

Committeewoman Kim Brown, who frequently criticizes SJG for not meeting its obligations in Tabernacle, commented about a “service cutoff” which has been “leaving residents hanging.” She wanted more time so that these and other SJG issues in Tabernacle could be addressed. But Mayor Lee interrupted her and pressed for a vote.

Ms. Brown instead of exercising the courage of her convictions, abstained.

Deputy Mayor Yates was absent. Mayor Lee voted for the Resolution. It passed 2 to 1.

The pipeline is controversial. Plenty of information about it, pro and con, is available. People can do their own research; make up their own minds and give written comments to the Pinelands Commission by February 8, at 5 PM ( or at P.O. Box 359, New Lisbon, New Jersey 08064).

Making a meeting agenda shouldn’t be difficult. Except for the rare occurrence of a real emergency, the Committee should be able to stick to its existing procedure, which requires that proposed items be submitted to the Clerk by the Wednesday before the meeting. This would allow the Mayor and Clerk to finalize the agenda on Friday. A complete and final agenda could then be posted as early as Friday afternoon, but no later than noon the Monday of the meeting. That’s what the Township’s regular procedure calls for.

Having switched up the agenda for the second week in a row, everyone can see that the Committee isn’t very interested in transparency and doesn’t want to hear from the public. Their statements about transparency, public comment and being good public servants have just been empty words.

Here’s one more tip.

If you’re truly concerned about transparency, public comment and being good public servants, follow the agenda procedure that you’ve posted on your official website. By allowing items to be slipped into the agenda at the last minute and for any reason, you’ve transformed an orderly process to an arbitrary one.

Fire Services: Good and Bad News

There’s good news and bad news to report about Fire Services.

The Good

The new fire engine has been delivered and is now proudly housed at the fire station on Hawkin Road. It’s fully equipped and state of the art.

The Township has waited a long time for the truck. Discussions began in 2009, and included the idea of housing a fire engine in the proposed Emergency Services Building (ESB). This would improve fire response times to the east side of Tabernacle and bring more residents within five miles of a fire engine. That would reduce private home insurance costs for most residents.

In 2010, voters approved the referendum for the construction of the $4 million ESB at New Road. The design included a bay for a fire engine. Until now, there hasn’t been a fire engine to deploy at the ESB. But with the arrival of the new truck, that’s no longer a problem.

The next step is for the Township Committee to put a fire engine in the ESB and assure that sufficient firefighters will deploy there.

The Bad

Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1) spent $31,615 on an unnecessary OPRA lawsuit, which it lost. It’s decision to litigate a simple case with a costly and controversial defense was unwise. That decision and the associated expenses should have been reviewed by the Township Committee as part of routine oversight. Unfortunately, the Committee doesn’t exercise any oversight.

There was little doubt that TFC#1 is subject to OPRA. It’s contract with the Township says that firefighters perform a governmental function. That’s consistent with state law. Because if performs a governmental function, the TFC#1 is subject to OPRA, just like the Township is and just like the Fire District was.

When I filed conventional OPRA requests with the TFC#1, just as I had with the Fire District, I expected that its response would be simple and easy, just as it had been with the Fire District.

Instead, TFC#1 denied my OPRA requests and hired an attorney who used a pre-emptive defense that had already been thrown out by two different New Jersey county courts. Eighteen months after I submitted my OPRA requests, the Judge ordered that almost all of the records be provided. Even after my attorney reduced his fees, which the TFC#1 was required to pay, the fire company’s total costs had reached $31,615.

When the Committee dissolved the Fire District, assumed management of fire services and budgeted $90,000 to the TFC#1, it was asked how it would exercise oversight of the TFC#1’s expenditures. Committeeman Rick Franzen infamously answered: “It’s their show to run.” In other words, the Committee wouldn’t exercise any oversight.

Oversight and accountability are hallmarks of effective management. The Committee’s lack of management enabled TFC#1 to blow through almost a third of its annual budget on litigation, which it had little likelihood of winning. It’s no surprise that the Township has supplemented the fire company’s funding.

The Committee’s ‘what me worry’ attitude towards fire services was predicted. Numerous public comments at the hearing to dissolve the Fire District cautioned that the Committee wouldn’t have the time or expertise to manage fire services.

This lack of management is demonstrated by the TFC#1’s unquestioned decision to litigate. It continues with the Committee’s allowance of the TFC#1 to pay its attorney $180 per hour to redact dates, names and account numbers from public documents. This work could be done much less expensively by clerical staff at the Township or at the fire company. If necessary, which seems unlikely, the attorney could be consulted on a limited basis.

One of the Committee’s few management techniques is to require quarterly reports from the Fire Chief. The Chief only appeared twice in 2016 to report. One of those was to get direction from the Committee for painting the new fire truck. There was a lot of discussion on the paint job. There’s been no discussion about OPRA, litigation or substantive fire issues.

Since the dissolution of the Fire District, taxes have increased and fire services seem to be struggling. In contrast, the Tabernacle Rescue Squad, through its billing program, Township payments and subsidies, receives so much revenue that it’s drawing membership away from other fire and rescue companies with its new compensation program.

Tabernacle’s emergency services are out of balance. Proper management by the Township is dearly needed.

The next Township meeting is February 13, 2017, at 7:30 PM, at town hall.