One of Mayor Brown’s pet projects was to end late fees on dog registrations for 2021. This, she explained, would ease the financial burden on tardy dog owners in these COVID times. Another part of this initiative was to eliminate business registration late fees. At the February 8, 2021 meeting, Ordinance 2021-1, waiving both late fees, was adopted by a 4-0 vote (Joe Barton was absent).
Both of these initiatives were “presented” as things that Mayor Brown wanted to do. But as there was no committee discussion, it’s inaccurate to say that they were actually “presented.”
At first blush, waiving fees always seems like a good idea. What could be better than reduced fees? The duty of our committee members, however, is to consider policy changes more deeply than at first blush.
Policy changes that are made because “I want to do it” usually have little public purpose. Productive policy changes start with an understanding of how the existing policy works, what its shortcomings are and whether the change might cause any negative, unintended effects or problems.
There was so much eagerness to waive the late fees, that even before the committee met to vote on Ordinance 2021-1, township staff was directed to change the online registration form for dog licenses to state that there was no late fee. This form was online days before the hearing on the ordinance.
When this ordinance came up at the meeting, no committee member showed any curiosity or interest in the policy. It seemed they were just changing it because Mayor Brown wanted it done.
No committee member asked about the purposes of Tabernacle’s dog registration program or how it worked. No one asked how much the late fees are, how many people are affected by them or whether they were actually burdensome. No one mentioned that dog registration exists to ensure that all dogs have current rabies shots in order to protect the public from the dangerous effects of this disease.
When the hearing was opened to the public, I raised this issue about rabies and the public health effects of the ordinance and also asked how much money Tabernacle got in late fees.
In response to the question on fees, CFO Rodney Haines said Tabernacle collected about $200 – $250 annually. The late fee is $2 per month. There was no discussion about how many families would be affected by this ordinance. By the math, it might affect fewer than 15 families. Mayor Brown then said she believed that the $2/month late fee was too much for some families. How did she reach that conclusion, I wondered.
There was also no response to the question about how the ordinance affects public health and safety. Rabies is a fatal, but preventable disease. The new ordinance creates a financial incentive for people to delay their dog’s rabies vaccination from April 2021 to December 31, 2021. This might increase the number of unvaccinated dogs and could increase the risk of rabies infection. That would be a very bad result.
The committee could easily have examined and discussed whether the ordinance would affect public health and safety. Since 1966, Tabernacle has contracted with the Burlington County Health Department (BCHD) for public health advice. The BCHD provides “…services or consultation and advice in public health matters….” Rabies policies are exactly the type of subject that the BCHD has expertise in. BCHD also assigns a specific person to handle Tabernacle’s public health issues. The committee knows this person. She regularly attends Tabernacle’s annual health committee meetings and appears before the committee as needed. She certainly would have been available to discuss this issue.
The committee had these resources available, but didn’t bother to use them. It was obvious from committee members silence that they didn’t consider the public health implications and real risks in this policy change. They were only interested in the $200-$250 savings for a few township families. The financial aspects of late fees shouldn’t be minimized, but the committee needed to weigh it against the public health and safety issues. There are over 4.5 million dog bites annually in the US.
Here’s what I have been able to piece together of the state and local programs on rabies control.
Vaccination of pets against rabies helps reduce the human risk of contracting this potentially deadly disease. By State law, dogs and cats must be vaccinated. Vaccinations are good for one year or three years, depending on the vaccine. Upon vaccination, veterinarians must provide owners with a written certification of the vaccination date and which vaccine was used.
Tabernacle requires registration of dogs in April. At registration, dog owners must provide the rabies vaccination certificate. This allows Tabernacle to verify that all dogs have their rabies shots. Late registrants pay a late fee of $2 each month. The late fee is a small incentive for owners to have their dogs vaccinated and registered on time. Maybe it also helps offset the cost of staff time if follow up is required to remind late registrants.
The amount of late fees that is collected (roughly $200 to $250) is very likely less than the township’s costs for drafting and processing Ordinance 2021-1, based on attorney fees and staff time. So, it’s doubtful there’s any real savings here, but the public health risk is real.
Some Tabernacle Fire Company Members Still on Probation.
No new members of the Tabernacle Fire Company were presented to committee for approval at the February 8, 2021 or February 22, 2021 meetings. Applicants from from the old fire company, Tabernacle Fire Company #1, who applied early but haven’t been granted full membership, remain probationary members.
At the February 8, 2021 meeting, the committee was again asked about the approval of these applicants. The committee said nothing.
At the February 22, 2021 meeting, the committee was asked the same question for the third consecutive meeting. This time, Administrator Doug Cramer responded that Chief Zane is working on it.
Hopefully, Chief Zane will finish the remaining applications, submit them for committee approval and assure the newest full members that they are as much a part of the Tabernacle Fire Company family, as the first batch of members.
Committeeman Robert Sunbury Blows Up, Again.
At the February 22, 2021 meeting, Committeeman Robert Sunbury got prickly and contemptuous when the committee was again asked a question that it had ignored for the past eight months.
It was the same type of prickly response he gave to a different question, which the committee had been ignoring for about nine months. That question asked for clarification of Tabernacle’s policy about the fire company providing rescue services if they arrived at an accident scene before the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. The short answer is that the fire company can’t provide rescue services, only TRS can. Mr. Sunbury felt that this was a “gotcha” question. It wasn’t. It just asked for clarification of township policy.
The February 22, question asked about the status of the township’s revisions of its policy for reimbursing education and training costs. The question was straight forward and respectfully asked: “What’s the status of the Township’s policy on the reimbursement of part-time employees for education and training costs that are covered by their full-time employer?”
This question goes back to the committee’s June 15, 2020 reimbursement of its part-time Chief Financial Officer Rodney Haines for attendance at a webinar held by the Tax Collectors and Treasurers Association of New Jersey.
Ordinarily, reimbursement for continuing education is a good policy. The problem here is that Mr. Haines’s full-time employer, Little Egg Harbor Township in Ocean County, is contractually obligated to pay for these costs. So why should Tabernacle reimburse him?
Administrator Doug Cramer previously said that Tabernacle’s personnel policies call for the reimbursement of these costs and that the policies would be scheduled for review and re-adoption.
I looked at the personnel policies and saw that they don’t specifically address the situation where the full-time employer is obligated to reimburse the costs. Tabernacle could’ve interpreted its policy and declined to reimburse CFO Haines. CFO Haines would still have attended the webinar and would’ve been fully reimbursed by Little Egg Harbor Township.
The February 22, 2021 question “what’s the status of the review,” is a natural follow-up. And it’s a softball of a question. It should be easy for the committee to answer. But until Committeeman Sunbury erupted, the committee ignored it.
Here’s Mr. Sunbury’s responses with comments by Stuart Brooks, the person who asked the question.
Committeeman Sunbury: “I would like to take a moment just to address Stuart Brooks’s ongoing, um let’s just say harassment of Rodney Haines, who I think is one of the finest CFO’s the township can have….”
Stuart Brooks: Robert Sunbury, I respectfully asked a follow-up question about the status of a policy review that your Administrator said he would do. That’s not harassment. Besides, I didn’t even mention Mr. Haines by name.
I have nothing against Mr. Haines. I do wonder why he asked Tabernacle for reimbursement instead of asking Little Egg Harbor Township. That question was asked months ago. But it, too, was never answered.
Committeeman Sunbury: “But at the same time for the absolute minor amount of money that we’re talking about in terms of training compared to the vast sums of money the Brooks’s have cost the community, it’s just obscene.”
Stuart Brooks: It’s not that the $200 reimbursement is an “…absolute minor amount of money….” At the February 8 meeting, you were all about waiving $200-250 in late fees for dog registrations in 2021. That’s a smaller amount of money than the reimbursement because your reimbursement policy applies every year, not just 2021.
The “costs to the community” that you’re referring to are the costs that Tabernacle has run up by withholding public records in violation of the Open Public Records Act. Just as it can’t be right to make Tabernacle residents pay for Egg Harbor Township’s expenses, it isn’t right to disparage residents who are holding Tabernacle accountable for hiding public records.
The real obscenity is the way that the Tabernacle committee avoids public comments for months and months and months and the way that this committee hides public records. Here’s one recent example of Tabernacle’s public records’ shenanigans that directly involves Committeeman Sunbury.
Mr. Sunbury, replaced Mayor Brown on the committee’s public safety subcommittee. He worked with fellow sub-committee member Sammy Moore to interview and recommend the new fire chief for Tabernacle’s new municipal fire company.
The sub-committee didn’t make its report available to the public before the meeting. Nor was the subcommittee’s report placed on the agenda. Instead, at the December 14, 2020 meeting, Committeeman Sunbury read the subcommittee’s written report into the record after Mayor Brown had closed the public comment.
According to the official recording of this meeting, this is what Mayor Brown and Committeeman Sunbury said:
Mayor Brown: “At this time I’m going to ask the [Public Safety] Subcommittee to give their report.”
Committeeman Sunbury: “Alright Mayor, I’ll read the report of the subcommittee here.” [emphasis added]
Stuart Brooks: I requested that written report through an OPRA request. Clerk Barber wrote back “there are no records made, maintained or kept on file.” I then asked her to get the report from Committeeman Sunbury, which a clerk is obligated to do. Still, she wouldn’t provide the report.
The official minutes of the meeting, which Mr. Sunbury approved, say that he “read from your [his] notes.” But that’s false. Committeeman Sunbury called it a report, we all heard him read the report and Clerk Barber must have received his written report because she put his words verbatim into the official minutes. It looks like Clerk Barber cut-and-pasted his report into the minutes. The idea that he was reading from notes was a fabrication to hide the public document.
What’s obscene is that Tabernacle went through these gyrations to prevent the release of a public record that I asked for and should’ve been provided. When Mr. Sunbury ran for office, he told me that he believed that it’s generally better to release public records. And he’s repeated this at multiple public meetings. But his actions don’t match his words. What was the public purpose of all of that obstruction?
Committeeman Sunbury: “I’d like to address the fact that if the situation was turned around by Rodney working for the Township of Tabernacle full-time and was working part-time elsewhere, I’m sure that Stuart would be demanding cost sharing in an equitable fashion for the time that was being worked part-time utilizing that same training in other municipalities.”
Stuart Brooks: Bob, nothing distorts a discussion more than assuming facts that don’t exist and then saying you know what the other person would do.
The fact is that Rodney isn’t working full-time for Tabernacle. He’s working full-time for Little Egg Harbor Township, and Little Egg Harbor Township agreed to pay for his continuing education.
Committeeman Sunbury: “I think the administrator is doing a wonderful job of balancing the cost sharing in a fair and absolute minimal cost to our township. I’m greatly appreciative of the job that Mr. Haines does for us. That’s all I have to say, Mayor Brown. Thank you.”
Stuart Brooks: There’s no cost sharing agreement here. Mr. Haines is simply working a second job in Tabernacle. It’s OK that he’s just a part-time employee of Tabernacle, as long as he has no conflicts of time or conflicts of interest.
Why is it so difficult for Mr. Sunbury to let Mr. Haines have the benefit of his contract with Little Egg Harbor Township? Mr. Haines and Little Egg Harbor agreed that Little Egg Harbor would reimburse him for his continuing education and training. Tabernacle shouldn’t be involved in their happy contractual union.
And why won’t anyone on the Tabernacle committee consider that its reimbursement policy needs updating as least as much as its dog registration late fee waiver policy?
Who’s Preventing New Agenda Items and Why?
At recent meetings, including the one on February 22, Committeewoman McGinnis introduced new business during the Committee Reports section of the agenda. No committee members supported her efforts. On one item, the proposed sale of the old TRS building on Hawkin Road, Committeemen Sunbury and Moore said they were unprepared to talk about it. More on preparedness later.
In a well-run public meeting, each item of new business is listed as a specific agenda item. Some township’s even have an agenda section called “New Business.” The purpose of listing each specific item is to enable preparation. That helps to make productive discussions. If the proposed sale of the old squad building had been listed on the agenda, Committeemen Sunbury and Moore shouldn’t have been unprepared to discuss it.
Tabernacle has a process for listing items on its agenda. It’s written on the official website in blue for emphasis. It says:
Request[s] for agenda discussion items must be given to the Secretary of the Governing Body [township clerk] in writing no later than 4:00 p.m. the Wednesday before the requested meeting.
It was unclear why Committeewoman McGinnis wasn’t going through the township clerk to get her issues on the agenda, especially since she wasn’t getting any support when she raised them in “Committee Reports.” She was asked that question at the meeting. To her credit, Ms. McGinnis answered. She said she’d been trying to go through the township clerk, but wasn’t getting anywhere.
Who’s stonewalling Committeewoman McGinnis and why? Why not just follow the established policy of submitting proposed agenda items to the clerk on the Wednesday before the meeting? That would allow committee members to do some homework before Monday’s meeting and promote a more productive public discussion.
Under Mayor Brown’s leadership, more and more of her preferred public business is being done in the Committee Reports section rather than as specific agenda items. This keeps the topics hidden and away from pubic comment. This is because Mayor Brown puts public comment before committee reports. Recent major public issues such as the firing of the volunteer fire company, the formation of the new municipal fire company and the recommendation to hire Keith Zane as fire chief have all been unlisted items that were pushed through during Committee Reports.
Mayor Brown, in response to Committeewoman McGinnis’s failed effort to get the committee to discuss the sale of the TRS building, said that this should be discussed at a workshop meeting.
Given that Mayor Brown is running so many items through the Committee Reports section at workshop and regular meetings, and township business is transacted at both types of meetings, there’s no practical difference between a workshop meeting and a regular meeting.
To its credit, the March 8, workshop agenda lists specific discussion items, including the proposed sale of the old TRS building. This should be the model for all meeting agendas.
It will be interesting to see if any unlisted items are transacted in the Committee Reports section, which, as always under Mayor Brown, occurs after public comment. I can’t give credit to Mayor Brown’s policy of putting public comment before the Committee Reports section because it prevents the public from commenting on issues raised by committee members and professionals. The placement of public comment before committee reports by Mayor Brown, and the willingness of the committee members to go along with her, is a measure of this committee’s true disregard for transparency and accountability.
The next public meeting will be held March 8, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Check the township website for information on the meeting.