A little under two months ago, on Monday, May 20th, an emergency meeting was called to order by Mayor Joseph Accardi around 6:45 p.m. in the upstairs conference room of Borough Hall along with Borough Attorney Richard Huxford, Deputy Borough Clerk Donna Corrigan, and 4th Ward Councilman Modesto Miranda. Council representatives Charlene Storey, Tanya Torres, and Michael Yakubov all were on the phone, creating a quorum. Council-At-Large Carl Hokanson was at a retirement dinner and Andrew Casais was at his college graduation. The purpose of the meeting was to terminate the inter-local agreement between Roselle Park and Cranford for the services of providing a Code Construction Official; that person being Rich Belluscio.
Mayor Accardi began the meeting by stating, “Adequate notice of this emergency meeting was not provided because of an exception to have an emergency meeting. The exception is that the meeting is required in order to deal with matters of such urgency and importance that the delay for the purpose of providing adequate notice would be likely to result in the substantial harm to public interest.”
It is what followed that calls into question if having four (4) businesses wait for their Certificate of Occupancy (C.O.) constitutes ‘substantial harm to the public interest’ and could not have been handled – at the latest – two days later, on Wednesday.
New Jersey law NJSA 10:4-6 – commonly referred to as the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) – provides certain rights to citizens; one of them being the right to have adequate advance notice of public meetings. Adequate notice is defined as providing a “48-Hour Notice” when a public body wishes to convene a special meeting – one which has not been listed on the annual notice or regularly scheduled meetings. The Law mandates the public body to provide a written notice at least 48 hours prior to the convening of the meeting.
According to OPMA, the governing body is required to comply with very strict procedural requirements if an emergency meeting is convened without adequate notice, one of them being the inclusion in the minutes of a detailed statement explaining that the need for such a meeting could not have been reasonably foreseen at a time when adequate notice could have been provided, or such need could have been foreseen, the reason(s) why adequate notice was not provided. According to the minutes provided to Roselle Park News, this is non-existent in the minutes.
“At this time, I’d like to declare an emergency so that we can discuss the situation with our Construction Official,” Mayor Accardi stated once the meeting was called to order, “The emergency, I’ve been advised [by] our legal council is appropriate at this time and again, it is in the public interest that we must conduct this meeting at this time. Is anybody opposed to the declaration of an emergency?”
Borough Attorney Richard Huxford interrupted the mayor and asked for a roll call of all members to comply with another ’emergency meeting’ requirement, that being an affirmative vote of ¾ of the members present; all council members voted in the affirmative.
During the meeting, Mayor Accardi stated that he spoke to Cranford’s Mayor Thomas H. Hannen, and that Mayor Hannen indicated that Roselle Park was not going to get any of the borough’s C.O.’s signed by Richard Belluscio. Mayor Accardi continued by remarking that Mr. Belluscio believed there was an issue with regard to one of Roselle Park’s ordinance not requiring permits to do inside repairs and therefore he was refusing to sign any permits for any businesses opening up in the borough. Mayor Accardi added that he was notified by councilman Miranda that there were, at least, four (4) business that have been waiting for over a month to receive permits to open their business.
“It’s as a result of this that we are now deciding to terminate the agreement with Cranford and, on a temporary 30 day basis, hire someone else,” Mayor Accardi said. The termination would be effective immediately. The only reason that the governing body needed to terminate the agreement before moving on to the appointment of a new construction code official, according to the mayor, was because a municipality cannot have two construction code officials at the same time by law. The mayor ended his comments by stating, “We need to hire somebody else to sign off.”
The floor was opened for discussion and councilwoman Storey began, “Before we do that I want to be sure that I understand the whole background on this because the impression I got from our last closed session meeting was that this developed or come to the floor very quickly. Now I’ve also heard that there were two previous meetings.”
Councilwoman Storey wanted to know if that was the case. She was told by Councilman Miranda and Mayor Accardi that there were no meetings. The councilwoman remarked that she heard rumors that there were previous meetings, at which point Mayor Accardi directly asked, “Who gave you those rumors?”
“From a high official in Cranford,” was the response from the councilwoman. Mayor Accardi remarked that the terms of the urgency that councilwoman Storey was asking about, it was something that has been developing and that councilman Miranda last week started making phone calls to find out what was going on.
Councilman Miranda continued, addressing the councilwoman’s concerns, “My last conversation with Rich [Belluscio] was that any issues that he had I was going to bring it to the committee and I was going to have the two attorneys, which is Mike Tripadi and [Rich] Huxford at the meeting to find out what is wrong with whatever he was saying was wrong with our ordinance. In the meantime, when I asked him just proceed and sign the C.O.’s he outright refused.”
The 4th Ward Councilman further explained that on Friday he received a phone call from business on Westfield Avenue where the owner stated he had been calling for three weeks with no one from the Construction office getting back to him. Additionally, the councilman stated he got a phone call from Stephanie’s Bakery that they were still waiting for their C.O. and had gotten no response.
“To me, it’s an emergency because if I have people with C.O.’s, how long are we going to wait?” asked Councilman Miranda.
Mayor Accardi, responding to a question from Councilman Yakubov about what did Cranford’s mayor specifically state about the matter, stated, “He said that Rich Belluscio is not signing any C.O.s because he’s afraid he’s going to lose his license because DCA is saying that what he is doing is wrong. [Mayor Hannen] couldn’t cite for me what the exact ordinances he was referring to. We’re trying to find out what that is to make sure that we don’t have something on the books that’s problematic.”
Without investigating the issue brought up by Mr. Belluscio before the meeting, Mayor Accardi claimed that it did not make sense that Mr. Belluscio previously was signing off on C.O.’s but that now, all of a sudden, there was an ordinance on the books that is problematic.
Once the voted was taken and there was unanimous consent from council, the contract was terminated. Immediately following, a motion was brought to the floor, voted on, and approved to temporarily hire Jesse Atwell, a construction official in Jersey City, to sign off on the outstanding C.O.’s and to come in to Borough Hall from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday.
Previously, an emergency meetings had been called during Superstorm Sandy where action needed to be taken immediately to safeguard the residents from weather, trees, and flooded roads. It is not clear if having businesses wait an additional two days is equivalent to the security of property, prevention of personal injury, and the and well-being of the safety of residents, but no member of the governing body has provided a reason why an emergency meeting was called instead of a special meeting. If calling such a meeting was indeed a violation, no one at that meeting has addressed whether the calling of the meeting was an intentional oversight or an ignorant misunderstanding of state law.