Lakewood List of Firsts Adds OPMA Complaint

July 21st, 2017
Lakewood List of Firsts Adds OPMA Complaint

[Editor's Note: At 6:25 p.m. on July 22, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.]

In a town of firsts, Lakewood is once again making history.

According to Al Della Fave, spokesman for Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato, on July 7, 2017, this editor/reporter for NJ News & Views filed the first and only Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) complaint with his office since Gov. Chris Christie appointed Coronato to the position in 2013.

Anyone else can and should do the same if they observe a violation of state law under OPMA, as this editor/reporter did in Lakewood on June 29, 2017, and can prove it.

Below is a copy of this editor/reporter's July 7, 2017 e-mail complaint, filed with Della Fave:

Good afternoon, Al.

As per our telephone discussion earlier this week, please be advised that I am formally filing an Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) complaint with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office against officials of Lakewood Township.

Last year, I contacted you regarding Lakewood Township's posted notices on the township Web site, which categorized meetings of the Lakewood Master Plan Advisory Committee and its' subcommittees as executive sessions, even though the group is an advisory panel that does not oversee a budget, hire paid personnel or engage in litigation as it does not have any legislative authority other than to make recommendations to the Lakewood Planning Board. 

While I greatly appreciate the Ocean County Prosecutor's intercession in this matter, as well as the subsequent meeting that Committeeman Lichtenstein scheduled with me to discuss the matter, township officials continued to disregard state law.

Last night, the Master Plan Advisory Committee held a meeting that, once again, was noticed on the township Web site as an executive session, even though it was open to the public and held in the municipal building auditorium.

Even more disturbing, on June 21, 2017, the Master Plan Advisory Subcommittee on Density reportedly held a secret meeting with developers' professionals and representatives seeking zoning changes for residential and commercial projects. 

After residents found out about the meeting, members of the public and the media, including myself, attempted to attend the continuing discussion on June 29, 2017. However, the municipal manager, Thomas Henshaw, not only held the meeting in his offices, he locked all his office doors to the public during business hours.

At one point during the lockdown, which a colleague live streamed, township officials summoned Lakewood police.

My colleague attempted to request the minutes for both meetings, which township officials initially told him had not been approved - even though the June 29, 2017 density subcommittee meeting was reportedly the last before the full advisory committee is scheduled to make recommendations members will submit to the planning board. 

Under public pressure, Lakewood officials have since posted the minutes for both meetings on the township Web site. However, that does not absolve township officials from their continued action to incorrectly notice an advisory committee meeting as an executive session, or that the township had any legal justification to lock out members of the public seeking to attend such meetings.

I attempted to discuss this matter with an elected representative of the township, as well as appointed officials, to apparently no avail. Under the circumstances, I now seek to file a formal OPMA complaint against township officials.

Sincerely,

Joyce Blay
Editor/Reporter
NJ News & Views
www.joyceblaynewsandviews.com

Michael McLaughlin, a member of the Master Plan Advisory Subcommittee on Density, who attended the locked-door meeting on June 29, 2017, confirmed that during the unadvertised meeting, members approved rezoning recommendations later posted on the township Web site, but not reported in meeting minutes.

Their recommendations included rezoning Eagle Ridge Golf Course, an open-space tax ratable located on environmentally-sensitive land off Cross Street, as a densely-developed mixed-use planned community where minor children will be permitted to live, adjacent to the Fairways adult development, where they are not.

Because Lakewood Township permits schools to open in almost every zone, many non-public schools are open for business in the Cross Street area, where many residents have testified that an increased number of school buses, as well as increased vehicular traffic, reduce the quality of life for everyone.

There is a lot at stake for Lakewood residents seeking to continue living in the Cross Street area, as well as for those seeking to sell their homes and leave it. All investors in Lakewood real estate are entitled to know how developers and township officials propose to rezone the Cross Street area during any public discussion of it.

Two months ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held a filled-to-capacity public forum on the proposed Eagle Ridge Golf Course project, which is not permitted under state law. The only area venue large enough to hold the May 9 public discussion was the 1200-seat auditorium at Jackson Memorial High School.

The majority of speakers that discussed the project opposed it.

The majority of speakers were Lakewood residents.

Their voices were not heard on June 29, 2017, when the Lakewood municipal manager locked his department's doors to shield special interests from public scrutiny.

Minutes later posted on the township Web site did not report adoption of all rezoning recommendations during the meeting and later posted on the township Web site, thereby rendering the minutes inaccurate as a record of public business from which private interests will profit.

Also at stake is the education of thousands of Lakewood's public and non-public school students.

The faster Lakewood accelerates its' growth from a township to a city, the more demand and greater the cost for school district services.

At the June 22 meeting of the Lakewood Township Committee, members approved an $84,000 grant to the Lakewood Board of Education to restore the Lakewood High School Football program, which was cut from the 2017-18 school budget due to lack of funding.

At the July 13, 2017 meeting of the Lakewood Township Committee, members approved a total grant of $1,157,222 to the Lakewood Board of Education, with $231,416 to be disbursed the first week of September 2017, with a subsequent disbursement of $925,806 the first full week in January 2018.

According to the July 19, 2017 Lakewood Board of Education meeting agenda, $557,556 of the $1,157,222 grant will fund reinstatement of the 2017-18 public school sports program, while $599,666 will fund non-public school students with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004) services.

Municipal tax dollars will not only benefit students enrolled in costly out-of-district special education religious schools, they also will benefit the Lakewood attorney that publicly lobbied committeemen on June 22, 2017 to restore public school funding for high school and middle school football programs.

For years, Lakewood High School graduate Michael Inzelbuch has earned a living by soliciting clients seeking to enroll their special needs student in a school providing an "appropriate" education at taxpayer expense. By enrolling their child in Lakewood public schools, parents then sued the Lakewood Board of Education for funding to enroll him or her in a more expensive, out-of-district religious school.

The Lakewood board not only had to pay more expensive tuition at a private school, they also had to pay Inzelbuch's legal costs.

Now, so are members of the Lakewood Township Committee.

By lobbying committeemen for funding to restore public school athletic funds cut due to lack of district funding, Inzelbuch stands to profit from committeemen's action to also fund non-public school special education services.

One hand washes the other.

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

Taxpayers are the losers of such self-serving gestures.

Their hard-earned tax dollars fund the misery that misdirected municipal public policy inflicts on Lakewood residents.

Those residents deserve a better quality of life, one that requires developers - not taxpayers - to install adequate parking, street lights, sidewalks and road improvements.

Their children deserve safe transport to class, where they can receive a thorough and efficient education at a cost that taxpayers and the school district can afford.

Right now, that is not what they are getting from municipal government.

Instead, the public is being shown the door, and that door is being slammed in their collective faces.

It's time for a change.

Instead of promoting overdevelopment just because there is a demand for it in Lakewood, committeemen and their appointees could and should listen to their constituents, not lock them out of public meetings held behind closed doors during business hours.

As Lakewood grows, so, too, will neighboring townships.

Lakewood's growth is everybody's concern, not just its' residents and property owners.

Everybody has a stake in how the township develops.

Everyone holding public office in Lakewood needs to be held accountable to those stakeholders.

During the July 13, 2017 committee meeting, Mayor Raymond (Ray) Coles discussed the district grant in responding to a comment by Lakewood Superintendent of Schools Laura Winters, who thanked him.

"Tonight, each and every one of you can feel like a hero," she told committeemen.

Coles denied that he was a hero.

"I don't feel comfortable being called a hero," Coles said. "It's not us giving you the money, it's every Lakewood taxpayer."

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