A resident is suing the city of Bayonne, alleging that its City Council violated New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law.
Robert Archibald, of Avenue E, filed the suit in Hudson County Superior Court on Dec. 24. The suit is focused around the public hearing, or lack thereof, regarding the Caschem redevelopment plan before the Bayonne City Council.
An ordinance regarding the plan for the property at 35 Avenue A was introduced at the council’s November meeting and was slated for a public hearing and vote at the December meeting. Prior to that, it had been tabled as the redeveloper had voiced objections and was seeking the council’s approval of an alternate plan.
At the December meeting, a motion to open a public hearing on the ordinance was offered by City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski but failed to get a second. An ordinance that would have granted a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement (PILOT) for the second phase of the Woodmont Bay Club project also failed to get a second in identical fashion.
No hearing and no reason why
The council did not discuss why there was no second. However, Ashe-Nadrowski noted her objection to not allowing a public hearing because people at the meeting were there to speak on it, and directed them to make any comments during the public comment portion.
In the suit, Archibald alleges he was one of the multiple members of the public that were present and prepared to speak but were not given an opportunity to comment or be heard regarding the ordinance for the Caschem redevelopment plan. One member of the public who wanted to speak during the public hearing instead spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Meanwhile, the council approved the introduction of a second ordinance containing a different redevelopment plan for the Caschem property, labeled the Gamal Group East redevelopment plan.
Ashe-Nadrowski abstained, having tried to adjourn the meeting prior to the introduction of the ordinance because it was an add-on item to the agenda without the public given prior notice.
At one point, Ashe-Nadrowski actually warned: “I believe we are in violation of the Open Public Meeting Act.” However, Law Director Jay Coffey assured the council they were not in violation: “The Open Public Meetings Act doesn’t require an agenda to be published… The council has the ability to add things on at meetings.”
New redevelopment plan?
With the introduction of the second ordinance, Special Redevelopment Counsel John Wyciskala said the new plan encompassed part of the original redevelopment area, only dealing with two lots on the east side.
According to Wyciskala, the new redevelopment plan was prepared on Dec. 8 and provides for a mix of residential and commercial uses and has a maximum height of six stories or 75 feet. This marks an increase from the three and four stories that were allowed on the lots under the initial redevelopment plan and the original ordinance.
Wyciskala said the second ordinance will be referred to the planning board for review and comments before heading back to the council for a public hearing and vote in January.
The changes in the plan are in line with suggestions from the redeveloper when the plan was back before the planning board the first time. The Gamal Group had previously sought to increase the permitted height for buildings on the two lots on the east side of Avenue A, abutting the Bayonne Bridge.
The suit alleges that the second ordinance introduced by the council was not published on the agenda nor announced to the public. Because of that, coupled with the lack of a public hearing or vote on the original ordinance, the suit contends the “level of information provided to the public about the vote was the same as if it had been conducted in private.”
According to Archibald’s suit: “The city council has effectively created a bait-and-switch, an end-around method of rejecting an ordinance without actually having to go through public comment and putting votes on the record for the public to see.”
The lawsuit contends that the city violated the Open Public Meetings Act by failing to open the meeting for public comment and hold any vote on the ordinance while simultaneously introducing a “conflicting” second ordinance. The suit states that the city council has allegedly violated the Open Public Meetings Act’s mandate against “secrecy in public affairs” and asks for the original ordinance to be given a full public hearing and vote before any action on the second ordinance is heard.
Additionally, the suit states the city is in violation of state law N.J.S.A. 40:49-2, alleging that: “All ordinances introduced and passed on first reading must be presented to the public, who are entitled to be given an opportunity to be heard. Once that is complete, the ordinance must be presented to the governing body for a vote, where it may either be passed or rejected. There is no third option; a vote must take place, and the only options are passage or defeat.”
Following the revelation of the lawsuit, Ashe-Nadrowski told the Bayonne Community News: “As I stated at the time of the meeting, the public needs to have an opportunity to be heard. I was disappointed that the rest of the council did not grant residents that opportunity. It’s unfortunate that a lawsuit had to be filed to allow for public participation.”
Ashe-Nadrowski, who has recently declared her mayoral candidacy in the city but has yet to roll out an official platform, has already seemingly made increasing transparency in government a part of it.
According to Coffey, it is city policy that officials do not comment on active litigation.
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