Category Archives: guest blogger

Dec 19th Hearing on the Ordinance Adding Two Additional Trustees to the Library Board: M’town Patch & Independent articles contain inaccuracies

By guest blogger Linda Baum

If you are a regular to Mike’s blog, by now you are well informed about the Library’s $500,000 transfer to the Township this year and the Town Committee’s plan to increase the number of Library trustees from 7 to 9 in 2012.

A public hearing on the Ordinance increasing Board membership was held at the Town Committee meeting on Monday, December 19th. Several reporters were present at the hearing. Mike Davis’s article in the Independent and Sue Morgan’s in the Middletown Patch were posted within a day or two. While they get points for timeliness, they lose some for accuracy.

Sue Morgan misstates the amount of the Library’s annual budget as $700K – it is $3.7M – but that is a minor error compared to the second to last sentence of her article. She wrote:

“Under an agreement hammered out by both the board and the committee, the township is now carrying the debt service on the library’s parking lot which recently underwent extensive repairs, the mayor added.”

The statement is inaccurate in two ways. As far as I know, there was no major work done to the lot recently, and the Library did not proceed with its lot expansion. Further, per the agreement this year between the Library and the Township, the Library has only two options for covering the cost of its capital improvements – they can pay cash or they can make the debt service payments on bonds (or notes) issued by the Township.

I don’t recall Mayor Fiore making the statement as it reads in the Patch article, and I think it can be attributed to an intentionally misleading comment he made, as quoted in the Independent, about encompassing “some of [the Library’s] capital projects into [the Township’s] capital program, including their parking lot and solar projects.” That made it sound like the Township is paying, but there is no cost to the Township for either the lot expansion or the solar project, which is a power purchase arrangement that involves no capital outlay.

Both the Independent and Patch articles included comments made by both Melanie Elmiger and myself. Melanie presented her comments very well at the hearing and I think they were captured fairly accurately in the articles. However, I think some of what I said was misrepresented in the Independent.

I would like to set the record straight, so here is a recap of my comments at the hearing along with excerpts from the Independent where I feel Mike Davis missed the mark.

Mayor Fiore has been framing the increase in Library Board membership as just an increase in public participation, with no other motive. So if more participation is a good thing for the Library Board, I questioned why that isn’t also true for the Sewerage Authority (TOMSA) Board and for the Town Committee itself, both with just 5 members each controlling budgets of $9 million and $60 million, respectively. In contrast, the Library Board currently has 7 members, soon to be 9, overseeing a budget of $3.7 million.

My point was that the Town Committee’s stance about the need for more public participation on the Library Board runs counter to their stance about the participation levels on other boards & committees. (Keep in mind the Town Committee has resisted the formation of a finance committee that would increase public participation and oversight of its own activities.)

Mayor Fiore replied that TOMSA has 7 board members, and I was quick to correct him that it is a 5-member board with 2 alternates, where only 5 vote at any time. Fiore again insisted, incorrectly, that there are 7 members.

Besides the inconsistencies in board size, there are also inconsistencies in oversight. I compared the Township’s scrutiny of the Library’s budget and operations to its hands-off approach to TOMSA and said that a consistent policy was needed. Fiore said that they do oversee TOMSA and that the money TOMSA gave to the Township – $730K over the last two years – is proof of that. Ridiculous. As I see it, that handout could just as easily be interpreted as a concession to avoid scrutiny. Regardless, it certainly can’t be construed as proof of oversight.

(An aside: If the Town Committee is really overseeing TOMSA and is so gung ho about public participation, how is it the TOMSA Board was able to avoid the public’s eye recently by ignoring a legal mandate to publish notice of their budget hearing? And shouldn’t oversight of TOMSA’s budget entail elimination of unwarranted expenses, such as medical and pension benefits for Board members? The Township has sanctioned these costs!)

Mike Davis’s article contains some partial quotes, inaccuracies, and re-ordering of comments that, combined, miss the point I was trying to make. He describes my comments as follows:

“Public participation is a good thing. You see [that] nine members are needed to oversee a $3.8 million budget,” she said, also citing the seven members who make up the Township of Middletown Sewerage Authority.”

The Township Committee was not exempt, she said.

“Right now you have five people on the Township Committee controlling a $60 million budget. It seems to me you need a consistent policy here. If you’re going to watch one closely, watch them all closely,” Baum said.

I think that anyone reading that would have trouble following my logic. Also, he makes it sound like I’m arguing in favor of the two additional appointees to the Library Board, which I wasn’t. I’m against it given the current political environment, but I admit I may not have stated that outright. I didn’t organize my comments as well as Melanie did, so I can understand if there was confusion.

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Filed under Board of Directors, Board of Trustees, budget surplus, guest blogger, Linda Baum, Middletown Library, Middletown NJ, Middletown Patch, public hearing, the Independent, TOMSA, Tony Fiore

MIDDLETOWN SEWERAGE AUTHORITY (TOMSA) BOARD MEMBER SOON TO JOIN THE LIBRARY BOARD ??

by guest blogger Linda Baum

TOMSA and the Library – two topics I write about often. The differences are innumerable. Now, though, they may have something in common.

In my 11-28-2011 post, “The $500,000 Raid on the Library Won’t Be the Last — The Township Committee adds two additional Library Board members, sets the stage for majority control in 2012”, I speculated that the new members of the Library Board would be well-entrenched members of the Republican Party who are already serving on other boards or commissions.

Fast forward to the Library Board meeting on Wednesday, December 14th. I arrived late to find two other visitors in attendance. One was APP reporter Kevin Penton, who attended the November Board meeting as well. The other fellow, dressed to the nines in suit and tie, looked oddly familiar. He obviously recognized me as well and tried to hide his face. It dawned on me that I know him from the TOMSA Board meetings. I decided to try out a maneuver I learned from Pat Parkinson when I attended my first TOMSA Board meeting. I said, “Hi. I’m Linda Baum, and your name?” He had his guard up and replied dryly that it was nice to meet me but that he chose not to give his name, stating his right to privacy as a member of the public.

Putting TOMSA Board members’ names with their faces has been a struggle because there are no name plates at TOMSA Board meetings even though it’s typical practice by other boards, including the Library Board. So I’m not sure who the man is, or whether he is a TOMSA Board member or perhaps one of TOMSA’s professionals or high-level employees. However, I’m told he fits the description of TOMSA Board alternate member Emil Wrede, who is also a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The man, whoever he was, left early. So did Committeeman Settembrino. At the end of the meeting, I told the Board that they had probably just met one of their newest members. Wendy Latona, Library administrator, said she already suspected as much because he came in the day before to ask for a copy of a resolution. She didn’t say which one, but he obviously obtained it on the spot. In contrast, I have yet to receive even a phone call from TOMSA in response to my own information request.

I guess we will have to wait until Township Reorganization Day on Sunday, January 1st at noon to find out, with certainty, who the new appointees are. Another date to keep in mind is the Township Committee’s regular meeting at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, December 19th, when there will be a hearing on the Township ordinance increasing the membership on the Library Board. See you there.

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Filed under board members, guest blogger, Linda Baum, Middletown Library, Sewage Authority, TOMSA

The $500,000 Raid On The Middletown Library Won’t Be The Last

The Township Committee adds two additional Library Board members, sets the stage for majority control in 2012.

by guest blogger Linda Baum

A couple of months back, there was a rumor that the Township Committee intended to appoint two additional members to the Middletown Library Board, bringing the number of Board members from 7 to 9. (By comparison, keep in mind that the Township Committee consists of just 5 people.)

As it turns out, the rumor is true. At the Township Committee’s November 21, 2011 meeting, Ordinance 2011-3048 was introduced to add two new Library trustees. A public hearing on the Ordinance will be held at the Town Committee’s regular meeting on Monday, December 19, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.

Two of the existing Board members, Mr. Milne and Ms. Raymond, are up for re-appointment at year end, and another Board member was already booted and replaced with Committeeman Settembrino at the start of this year. Add to those three spots the two new ones, and that’s a 5-4 majority to do the Town Committee’s bidding. So it would seem our mayor and his fellow Town Committee members have no intention of stopping at half a million.

As many of you know, I regularly attend the Library Board meetings and have since February of this year. I’m the only member of the public who regularly attends. If the woman who frequented Board of Education meetings was seen as the natural pick for that Board, I figure that makes me the front runner for one of the two new spots on the Library Board, right??? So I am submitting to the Town my application for Library Board membership, a futile effort since I am not likely to be appointed. My guess is that the two new appointees, or likely four if Mr. Milne and Ms. Raymond are replaced, will be members of the Republican Party faithful who are already serving on one or more other boards or commissions. I guess we’ll find out on Township Reorganization Day.

To understand what these changes could mean, let me recap a little history. In a taxpayer-funded play in 2010, Township attorney Brian Nelson succeeded in having New Jersey law changed to require our municipal public library to relinquish to the Township a significant portion of its surplus. (Previously, the law allowed for the transfer of funds but there was no requirement.) Now, the Library can keep some surplus — an amount no more than 20% above the prior year’s budget — but has to fork over the rest, with some exceptions. Some Library monies are protected under the law and are not considered surplus, such as restricted reserves for capital projects.

You may recall that of the $500K taken from the Library this year, half was restricted reserves that the Township was not entitled to legally. That’s one of the reasons such a battle erupted. The Library trustees were out-maneuvered from the start and in the end most felt obligated to pay the full $500,000. It was not without recognizing the precarious financial condition it left the Library in.

Faced with the substantial reduction in funding, the combined result of the $500K raid and an overall revenue decline in line with lower assessments, the Library trustees have been diligent this year about reducing costs where feasible without disruption to services. However, success in reducing the operating budget also has the effect of reducing the amount of surplus that can be retained (20% of the budget), leaving more on the table to be taken by the Township. In addition, the trustees have had to balance the need to set aside reserves – for unexpected expenses or to compensate for annual fluctuations in revenue – against what they stand to lose. The greater the reserve, the more the Township can take.

At its November 16th meeting, the Library Board discussed moving $122,000 to the capital fund to save for the parking lot expansion. Restricting a portion of the reserves for capital projects is supposed to protect the money from seizure by the Township. It won’t. The Library Board need only vote to unrestrict the funds, as was done this year. While the current Board is not likely to do that a second time, the newly re-structured 9-member Board might, and the Town Committee can ensure that it will by appointing the “right” people to the Board.

Sadly, the result may be a Library Board that fails to act in the best interests of the Library.

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Filed under Board of Trustees, guest blogger, Linda Baum, Middletown Library, Middletown NJ, reserved funds, resolutions and ordinances, surplus funds

Highlights From The Sewerage Authority Board Meeting Of November 10, 2011.

by guest blogger Linda Baum

I attended my first Township of Middletown Sewerage Authority (TOMSA) board meeting on Thursday night, November 10th. I got there about ten minutes early. There was a conversation going on that promptly ended. The moment I walked in, Pat Parkinson jumped up to introduce himself and get my name. I felt set upon. I shook his hand because he caught me off guard, but gave him only my first name. It took him about a minute to run out of the room to inquire, and I heard my full name mentioned in the hall by someone I didn’t see, and who didn’t see me, when I walked in. So I had to wonder how that person knew who I was. The front gate took a long time to open when I arrived, so it appears someone is watching. In fact, the gate remained closed for so long that I thought I had come to the wrong place and had begun to back up to leave when it finally opened.

Chairperson Chantal Bouw also came over to introduce herself and get my name — she wasn’t there for the Parkinson maneuver. At that point I was annoyed and admit I was impolite.

When it was time for public comments at the end of the meeting, I said that never before had I attended a public meeting and had so many people in a tizzy to know who I was. I said that it was a public meeting and I was a member of the public and expected to just come in and sit down. Ms. Bouw said they rarely had visitors and wanted to make the public feel welcome and part of the process. I said a better way to do that (besides leaving the gate open!) is to make more information accessible easily and at no cost, and mentioned all the information they could be providing via email and on their website like the Town does — financial documents, agendas, resolutions, etc. (And by the way, even the documents the town offers are just the tip of the iceberg.) Parkinson said that people are welcome to come in during office hours and review documents, and I said no they aren’t because not everyone is free during the day and some people are disabled and can’t easily make the trip.

I also said TOMSA’s copy fees are unreasonably high and further deter people from obtaining the information. (Per their OPRA form, the first 10 pages will cost you a hefty $7.50, and 100 pages will cost you $32.50. Compare that to the Town’s charges for paper copies, for which 100 pages would cost you $5 for letter size or $7 for legal. However the Town typically emails material at no charge. TOMSA does not.)

Parkinson said that they are a small operation and that copy fees are to offset their costs. I can’t recall if I mentioned the $750K surplus gifted to the town over the last two years, which shows TOMSA doesn’t need the additional source of revenue. Parkinson said that most people are not interested in financial documents, anyway. The fact is he has no way of knowing that — maybe they just don’t want to pay the $50 bucks for them! I said it didn’t matter how many people were interested in the information, that TOMSA is a public entity and should be providing it. Then someone whom I believe may be their attorney stated they are in full compliance with the Open Public Records Act. (A very Brian Nelson-esque comment.) I said the Act didn’t preclude them from providing information and wasn’t meant to be a guide as to what they should be providing.

There was no notebook with copies of resolutions and ordinances for me to look through like there is at Town Committee meetings. There should be that at least since TOMSA doesn’t list the documents on their website. This is something else they could do to make “the public feel welcome and part of the process”, as Ms. Bouw put it.

They were all pleasant at first but started to steel themselves during my comments. Parkinson finally launched into talking points that reminded me of what we hear at Town Committee meetings. He offered familiar comparisons about operating at lower cost than other towns. I let it slide but next time may point out the $750K surplus and excess benefits, without which operating costs would be much less. He also said something about providing services they don’t charge for, like timely response when a resident is having a problem. I said those aren’t free services, that residents already pay fees for that.

There was mention that the solar bids are due December 1st from the County. Currently, TOMSA is paying about 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, which includes the delivery charge.

Aside from the professionals in attendance, board members there were Chantal Bouw, Emil Wrede, Tom Stokes, and Charles Rogers. Absent were Joan Smith and James Hinckley.

I learned that Emil Wrede and Joan Smith are actually alternate members, even though Joan Smith is listed as Secretary/Treasurer on the TOMSA website and Emil Wrede is listed as Commissioner. There is no mention of their “alternate” status. According to Ms. Bouw, the TOMSA board is actually a five-member board that currently has one empty seat that was vacated by Cliff Raisch earlier this year.

It will be interesting to see if that empty seat is filled because any new board appointee would not receive pension and medical benefits, which were stripped per a 2009 Town ordinance. That ordinance also “grandfathered in” those benefits for existing board members, whose compensation was never meant to include them.

When I had no more comments, Ms. Bouw stated that business was concluded and that there would be no executive session. No one said otherwise. Yet, with the exception of two staffers, no one was leaving and they were clearly waiting for me to leave. I did, only to realize afterwards that there was no formal vote to close the public meeting in line with Robert’s Rules of Order. And today I noticed that the last page of the meeting agenda does list an executive session as the last item.

I was in my car but hadn’t left yet when I realized I should pick up a copy of the OPRA form before going because it’s not on the TOMSA website. I went back in to find the conference room door closed. So, was that an executive session or a continuation of the public meeting, which was never formally closed? And will there be minutes for that non-public discussion, I wonder?

A woman was in the office when I came back in and she provided me the OPRA form. Per quick glance at it, I saw no information for submitting it other than a street address, so asked for the fax number. I asked a few other questions about the process, but the woman said she didn’t know and that Mr. Parkinson was the person to ask. She then went into the conference room to let them know I was there.

Parkinson came running out, happy to help. As long as I had the opportunity, I pointed out to him that the fees listed on the OPRA form were much higher than what he quoted during the meeting – the starting price is 75 cents per page, not the 25 cents he quoted. He said he didn’t know those details exactly. That struck me as insincere. The policy has been the same for years, and there has been plenty of criticism of TOMSA’s fees and overly burdensome records request process, enough that he should be well familiar with all the rules. He’s the executive director, so he set the policy, didn’t he?

What’s interesting to note is that Mr. Parkinson made a habit that evening of rushing over to help. In one instance, as two TOMSA staffers were leaving at the end of the public portion of the meeting, I stopped them to ask their names. In a flash, Parkinson was between us, offering to help. It was ridiculous. He was clearly running interference. I think the question is, why did he feel the need to?

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Filed under guest blogger, Linda Baum, Meeting Minutes, OPRA requests, TOMSA