Three Interesting Items From The February 12, 2018 Tabernacle Township Meeting

Three Items1. Still Waiting For The Perfect Moment?

Although the Public Safety Director position and the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for Emergency Services/Contract were each listed for discussion on the committee’s February 12, 2018 meeting agenda, the Committee didn’t discuss them. Instead, both items were again tabled for discussion at a future meeting.

The committee’s reason for tabling these matters was that the full committee wasn’t there. Deputy Mayor Lee and Committeewoman Brown were absent.

This tabling follows a tabling from the prior meeting because committee members said they didn’t have time to read Mayor Barton’s alternate proposal for the public safety director position. But the committee could have started discussion on the RFQ/contract for emergency services at either meeting.

Delays for lack of full attendance make no sense. Full attendance isn’t needed to start a discussion. The committee only needs three people to convene a quorum. And committee members who are absent routinely review the recordings so that they can participate in the next meeting.

The decision to table important matters when a member is absent has become a regular practice. Yet in the past three years the committee usually has less than the full number of members in attendance at its meetings. The percentage of meetings where there is full attendance has decreased every year.

  • 2015: 22 meetings; 11 meetings with full attendance (50%)
  • 2016: 20 meetings; 9 meetings with full attendance (45%)
  • 2017: 18 meetings; 7 meetings with full attendance (38.8%)
  • 2018: 16 meetings scheduled

In addition, the committee has been reducing the number of township meetings that it holds each year. As a result, the decision to wait for the full committee substantially delays any action.

Of course, committee members won’t say that they want to delay the vote. They’ll say that a matter is so significant that it should be discussed before the full committee. That explanation doesn’t ring true. The dissolution of the fire district was one of the most significant issues facing Tabernacle since 2000.

The committee voted 4-0 to dissolve the district in December 2014. Mr. Barton was absent. But no committee member said the issue should be tabled because Mr. Barton was absent.

They voted because they had already made up their minds to dissolve the district. (The resolution to dissolve the fire district wasn’t even listed as an agenda item when it was raised at the December meeting. It was sprung on the public without notice.)

The tabling of the discussions on the public safety director position and the RFQ/contract for emergency services look like delay. The idea for a public safety director was first raised by Committeeman Yates at the September 28, 2015 meeting, and three members voted to direct Township Attorney Peter Lange to put together an ordinance. It took 2½ years to memorialize a public safety director ordinance.

The idea to solicit a RFQ for emergency services was raised by Mayor Barton on multiple occasions in 2017. No member objected. Both of these ideas are overripe for discussion.

The public safety director position and the ambulance service discussion is now listed on the February 26 meeting agenda along with a presentation about the upcoming 2018 budget. All three topics are extremely important and require careful deliberation.

Based on past budget presentations, Administrator Cramer will spend around 90 minutes reviewing the draft budget and taking questions from the committee. Prior budget discussions visibly left committee members drained.

By tabling discussion on the public safety director position and the RFQ/contract for emergency services, and postponing them to the budget meeting, committee members have shortchanged themselves and the public.

Committeeman Yates, and other committee members, recognize that this is a subject that requires public participation. He said at the February 12 meeting:

We value your opinion, your input, what you give us. It really truly does help us make the decision up here. We don’t want you to just look at us like our minds are made up because they truly aren’t. My mind’s not made up.

The committee needs to start the discussion and allow ample opportunity for public dialogue. Meaningful discussion won’t happen if the committee keeps delaying.

2. Past TRS President Speaks of “Money Grab”?

During public comment at the February 12 meeting, Jim Jones, past president of the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS), spoke against the committee’s idea to request proposals for emergency services. Mr. Jones favors the continuation of Tabernacle’s existing relationship with the TRS. This is an indefinite relationship that dates back to the 1950s and isn’t based on a contract.

Mr. Jones described the township’s motivation for change as a “money grab.” He also criticized the committee for not openly disclosing who directed attorney Peter Lange to prepare a memo on options for providing emergency services.

At the September 25, 2017 township meeting, that memo was the object of outrage by Committeewoman Brown who demanded to know who directed Mr. Lange to prepare it (more on the memo in Item 3).

The charge of “money grab” is a shocker because the reason for the committee’s interest in modernizing Tabernacle’s relationship with its emergency services provider is the TRS’s grab of free rent, free fuel, free insurance and complete control of insurance billings.

The unfairness of the existing relationship became an issue when huge amounts of insurance billings started rolling into the TRS. The TRS never offered to significantly re-structure its public subsidies or repay overpayments that it received in the first years of the program. I can understand why the TRS doesn’t want to give up any money. It has a super sweet deal.

A change in Tabernacle’s relationship with any emergency services provider, to make it similar to what every other township has, isn’t a “moneygrab.” It’s a common sense change that’s fair to taxpayers.

It’s also a shocker to hear Mr. Jones describe this as a “money grab” because he (and his daughter Megan Jones and son-in-law Jason Litowitz) signed the petition to dissolve the fire district.

The dissolution was truly a “money grab” because the committee needed the fire district money to plug a hole in its own budget. Mr. Jones never spoke up about this “money grab.”

I agree with Mr. Jones that the committee doesn’t practice open government. The TRS has been a primary beneficiary of what Mr. Jones calls “stealth methodology.” Here are a few examples.

  • The committee’s discussion and approval of the billing program was hidden after an executive session and not listed on the agenda.
  • The committee’s review of TRS billing income was conducted at rolling “chalkboard presentations,” which were purposely designed to avoid public meetings and not leave a paper trail.
  • The committee’s agreement not to charge TRS rent at the Emergency Services Building was a backroom deal, according to Committeewoman Brown.
  • The committee failed to require a current TRS roster, even though one is required for insurance and emergency planning purposes.
  • The committee failed to direct Administrator Cramer to get to the bottom of the TRS’s contract with Shamong Township to provide free services using Tabernacle resources.

These examples are far more egregious than the committee’s refusal to divulge who directed Mr. Lange to prepare his memo. But neither Mr. Jones nor Committeewoman Brown expressed any concern about these shady practices.

3. Doing The Open Public Records Act (OPRA) The Right Way?

An interesting discussion about two identical OPRA requests occurred at the February 12 meeting. Both requests asked for the memo that Township Attorney Peter Lange prepared on outsourcing emergency services. This report was distributed to committee members for discussion at the September 25 township meeting.

The memo wasn’t discussed. In part, this was because Committeewoman Brown said she received it too late to review. In addition, she was “appalled” that the report had been prepared without her knowledge and wanted to know who directed Mr. Lange to prepare it.

Ms. Brown’s concern that committee members might be acting outside of a public meeting was outrageous because she does it frequently. Remember those chalkboard presentations by the TRS and the backroom deal to give the TRS free rent?

Committeewoman Brown insistently asked who gave the direction to Mr. Lange. Mr. Lange dodged the question and said, in essence, that the memo wasn’t new, but just pulled together information that was discussed at previous public meetings. (See October 20, 2017, TTJ POST, for September 25, 2018 meeting video.)

On September 29, 2017, I submitted an OPRA request for the Lange memo. Township Clerk Barber denied my request saying that it was protected by “attorney client privilege-work product.” I didn’t pursue it any further.

On November 14, 2017, Ralph Shrom requested the same document. Mr. Shrom is a Tabernacle resident and long-time Burlington County political operative. He is well known to the committee members having run election campaigns for all of the sitting committee members. He also ran the unsuccessful 2016 campaign for Jason Litowitz and Tina Marie Coolidge.

Township Clerk Barber denied Mr. Shrom’s request for the same reason she denied mine: “attorney client privilege-work product.” Mr. Shrom, however, contested the denial by filing a complaint to the Government Records Council (GRC). His complaint asked for mediation.

On January 22, 2018, the committee went into executive session to consider Mr. Shrom’s complaint. The committee decided to give the report to Mr. Shrom. A few days later, Township Clerk Barber sent me a copy of the report.

During public comment at the February 12 meeting, I asked the committee, what changed? What caused them to release a document that they had twice before said was protected by attorney-client privilege?

Mr. Shrom stood up in the audience and said, “ I can explain it.”

I doubted that Mr. Shrom knew why the committee changed its mind. He wouldn’t know what committee members discussed in executive session unless someone ‘leaked’ it to him. Nonetheless, Mayor Barton called on Mr. Shrom to answer my question about what changed.

Mr. Shrom didn’t try to explain why the committee had changed its mind. He told his story about his own OPRA request and his GRC filing. He said that after the clerk denied his request he filed an appeal with the GRC, which included his reasoning that the report was a public document. Mr. Shrom emphasized that he had no interest in suing the township or going to court.

After Mr. Shrom finished, the committee also never explained why it changed its mind about releasing the Lange memo. But it profusely thanked Mr. Shrom for taking the GRC option. Mayor Barton said:

I would encourage everyone to follow the Government Records Council route, as Mr. Shrom proved that this way does work.

Committeeman Franzen purred in kind.

As Joe [Barton] said, my hat’s off to Mr. Shrom in handling this in a responsible way that didn’t cost taxpayers money.

Mr. Franzen used the moment to repeat his long-held belief that the OPRA should require people to go to the GRC first, as Mr. Shrom did.

It’s just always been troublesome to me that the law doesn’t mandate that you go to the Government Records Council first. And I know that at one point in time there was some changes recommended to the State law that would’ve done that. But it never went through. As it stands now, people can cost this township tens of thousands of dollars if they decide that they’re going to go right to court and sue us over something, rather than going to the GRC first.

The committee praised Mr. Shrom and the GRC option so much that it overlooked the reason why the Shrom case reached such a happy ending. The resolution occurred only because the committee changed its mind about the attorney-client privilege.

The Shrom case is the only time that I know of where the township changed its mind about releasing documents that it previously refused to release, apart from a court order.

I’ve asked Clerk Barber many times to reconsider her denials of my records requests. Just as Mr. Shrom did here, I explained why I thought the documents should be released. I’ve also given Clerk Barber the relevant cases, which is more than Mr. Shrom did. But, unlike Mr. Shrom, I was never able to convince the township to change its mind.

Because the township didn’t change it’s mind, I filed five cases in superior court. I won them all.

One of the ‘takeaways’ from the Shrom case is that the township needs to be open minded and objective about its decisions to withhold documents. In the Shrom case, the committee actually reconsidered and changed its mind, albeit at the request of its long-time political advisor.

In my experience, Tabernacle is secretive and political in its OPRA decisions. It was striking how the committee resolved the Shrom matter in just one executive session. It’s not uncommon for the committee to have three, four or five executive sessions to resolve a “Brooks v. Tabernacle Township” case.

Another ‘takeaway’ is that it doesn’t matter whether a complaint is filed at the GRC or in superior court. The township’s response should be the same regardless. If the committee hadn’t changed its mind about the Lange memo, litigation would have been the next step at either venue. And, if Mr. Shrom won, his legal fees would have shifted to Tabernacle taxpayers.

A third ‘takeaway’ is that committee members need to take responsibility for their decisions in OPRA cases. Mr. Franzen is dodging his responsibilities and raising a false alarm when he exclaims:

People can cost this township tens of thousands of dollars if they decide that they’re going to go right to court.

As I said to Mr. Shrom when he explained his choice of the GRC option to the committee, I too have no interest in going to court. I’m more interested in getting the records than suing the township.

Mr. Franzen’s idea that people file OPRA cases immediately just to go to court is unfamiliar to me. In my experience, people file OPRA cases to get public records, which government agencies refuse to release.

His idea that the court costs reach “tens of thousands of dollars” when someone goes “right to court” is uninformed. When a case is initially filed in superior court, costs are low. There are opportunities to resolve the cases before the costs rise. Costs rise when positions harden, such as when townships refuse to change their minds about releasing public records.

A township’s decision to change its mind, as was done in the Shrom case, or to not change its mind, as was done in my cases, is made by its elected officials.  The committee, including Mr. Franzen, should take responsibility for its decisions.

As Committeeman Franzen suggests, the consequences of a committee’s decisions can be costly. But he is wrong in stating that these costs are caused by the OPRA requestor.

In one of my cases, my attorney offered to settle for the documents plus the filing fees, which were $300. Mr. Franzen and the other committee members refused to settle and chose to litigate. Their decision ran up the bill, which cost taxpayers over $50,000. Even if this case was filed with the GRC, the township’s rejection of the settlement and the resulting, costly litigation would have been the same.

It’s good that the committee changed its mind about Mr. Shrom’s OPRA request. I just wish they would be as thoughtful for other OPRA requests.

The next township meeting will be held February 26, 2018, 7:30 PM at town hall.