Last night’s Montclair Township Council meeting devolved into confusion and disorder, as well as ferocity directed at the mayor by Councilor Baskerville, who tired of Fried’s continual interruptions. After the mayor cut off discussions and concerns by council members Murnick and Africk, Baskerville met Fried’s attempt to quiet her input as well with fierce resistance.
“I have a right to finish!” she told him. “You can bang the gavel all you want, I have a right to finish my sentence! You did it to Rich, you did it to Cary, but you’re not going to do it to me. If we keep this up, we’re never going to get anywhere!” At that, the residents in the gallery applauded.
In the end, the council adjourned once again without passing a municipal budget.
Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville kicked off the May 24th meeting with a proclamation recognizing May 31 as World No Tobacco Day to call attention to the dangers of smoking. As she presented the proclamation to a representative of the 4th Ward Collaborative group, Councilor Baskerville alternatively referred to the day as World Tobacco Today, World Number (as in No.) Tobacco Day, and National Tobacco Day.
This was an appropriate start to a meeting that became progressively unruly and hard to follow, and ultimately didn’t achieve its primary goal. This would have needed a majority of four of the seven council members to pass, a prospect hurt by the absences of Councilor Roger Terry and Deputy Mayor Kathryn Weller-Demming. The council ultimately passed a temporary funding resolution by a unanimous vote of those present. Township Manager Marc Dashield indicated that there’s still time for debate on the budget before the state issues Montclair a warning to pass one.
The meeting proceeded to the council skipping ahead to three of the thirteen resolutions, scheduled for the end of the agenda — R-11-092, which would indicate the council’s intent to change auditors within a specified time, R-11-094, to resolve the status accounting for the outstanding Montclair Pre-K debt, and R-11-096, to subdivide the Wildwood Avenue property and facilitate its evaluation – in an attempt at settling these issues to facilitate a final budget passage. All three resolutions had been sponsored by First Ward Councilor Rich Murnick and Second Ward Councilor Cary Africk.
The debate slid into a random discussion about the need to examine various sources of revenue to ensure a sound budget. Africk went through a list of resolutions he proposed that did not make the evening’s agenda, such as a long-term capital spending program, which he thought could help the budget process. He also called for a review of tax-exempt properties and more accountability for the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) deal with the Siena complex to ensure that Montclair receives the money it is owed under the deal.
Mayor Jerry Fried suggested that these proposals had less to do with governance than with politics, but Africk disagreed. “Before going ahead with the budget,” Africk said, “let’s make sure everything’s okay. If I’m asking to see what a 2012 budget would look like and how it would affect 2011, it’s not politics. It’s just good business sense.”
Murnick worried about the possible effect a hastily produced budget would have on the surplus. “The 2011 budget is so critical,” he said, “that if it’s not in place, surpluses could be a factor. if we don’t have a plan in place for 2012, going forward with a surplus that’s shrinking, it scares me to go forward when there’s no rush.” He once again suggested that selling or utilizing the Wildwood Avenue properties could bring in more money to help the township’s surplus.
Dashield tried to move things along. He explained that the Montclair Early Childhoods Commission, which operates the Pre-K, had not made any loan payments since 2008, and a that the loan needed to be reviewed further to make a decision on how to resolve it. He also informed Murnick that there is too little time to subdivide and auction the Wildwood Avenue properties to put money in the 2011 budget surplus.
While Third Ward Councilor Nick Lewis found Murnick’s and Africk’s concerns important, but irrelevant to the budget process, Councilor Baskerville defended her First and Second Ward colleagues for seeking more information to base a budget vote on. Fried would have none of it, suggesting that Murnick and Africk propose resolutions to run by Township Attorney Ira Karasick for legal review and cutting them off as they sought to expand on their concerns. “If we don’t actually have a resolution,” Fried said, “I don’t think we ought to be philosophizing as to what we’re doing wrong.”
But Baskerville met Fried’s attempt to cut off her input with fierce resistance and critical words (detailed above), which brought expressions of approval from the residents.
Only the Wildwood Avenue resolution passed. The auditor change resolution was ultimately withdrawn, and the Pre-K debt resolution was discussed without a final vote. Fried demanded a second roll call to start the meeting over to follow “the script,” as if he were directing a show. The budget was then postponed unanimously, with Lewis voicing his vote with an “I guess.” Lewis left the meeting early soon thereafter for family reasons.
The postponement did little to mollify subsequent public comment on the budget. Karen Turner of the Operating Budget Advisory Committee questioned the effectiveness of the collection of PILOT payments, insisting that three out of eleven PILOT programs have yet to be accounted for. She spoke out against the proposed pre-K increase – which would necessitate a tax hike – in light of a constantly shifting budget strategy.
Ordinances dealing with sewer upgrades and resolutions addressing infrastructural improvements passed unanimously, but an ordinance setting pool fees drew fire from Virginia Avenue resident Pluchet Alexander, who feared that most South End residents couldn’t afford them. It passed with amended wording to provide a 25 to 50 percent reduction for low-income residents based on Housing and Urban Development Department guidelines and fees at 2010 levels for moderate-income residents based on Coalition On Affordable Housing guidelines. Alexander appeared doubtful that the council would be able to follow the guidelines faithfully.
On a more positive note, Ilmar Vanderer of Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library thanked the council for their support for his group’s successful efforts to re-open and operate the Bellevue Avenue library branch through a non-profit organization. The re-opening, also celebrated with an opening proclamation from Baskerville, is scheduled for June 6.