Is ‘Open Space' dead?

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:13

    WEST MILFORD - "If the council wants it dead, they will have to officially put a bullet in it themselves," says Celeste Byrne of West Milford. That challenge came in response to efforts to dissolve the Open Space Committee and Mayor Joseph Di Donato's refusal to address the matter openly at the council meeting of May 13. The issue is not a new one; the council and former members of the committee have been crossing swords since January. At the workshop session Councilwoman Patricia Lotz-Moore asked why the Open Space Committee was crossed off the newly posted Administrative Code on the township website. She said her understanding of the matter was that voters had agreed to support the committee, as well as the penny surcharge incorporated into their tax bill. Lotz-Moore then dropped the topic after whispered words from the mayor. The deliberate exclusion of the public by Di Donato's actions did not discourage those in attendance, who applauded Lotz-Moore for her efforts. Byrne later told Lotz-Moore: "You have more chutzpah than all of the eight men who share the dais with you." After chastising other members of the council for their actions, Byrne made the announcement that the Open Space Committee would be reconvening despite lack of council sanction. Byrne sent out e-mails on Friday saying "The West Milford Open Space Committee will resume meetings at Hillcrest Community Center on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., and every third Tuesday of the month." In an e-mail from Byrne to Acting Township Administrator Kevin J. Byrnes, she made a second request for copies of all maps the Open Space Committee used. "Those maps highlight the properties recommended for purchase in the still unadopted open space master plan." Byrne goes on to say, "We need this for our meeting on Tuesday." In the administrator's response, Byrnes writes, "Dear Ms. Byrne, You have requested a copy of a map depicting the properties for acquisition by the Open Space Committee. During that phone conversation I noted, what you have stated at numerous Township Council meetings, that the Township Council has not appointed a full board. As a matter of fact, the Township Council on Jan. 7, appointed four people to the Open Space Committee; Julia Heid, Michael Yuhas, yourself and Councilman Paul Bailey, as council liaison." The Town Clerk and acting administrator adds, "The ordinance establishing the Open Space Advisory Committee indicates that the committee shall consist of nine full voting members, three alternate members and three non-voting liaison members which includes the council liaison. I tried to explain to you that it made the status of the Open Space Committee questionable." The rest of the e-mail goes into detail regarding the request for maps, eventually concluding with, "You will be able to pick up these maps from the Administrator's Office on Monday afternoon after 3:30." In 2001, West Milford residents voted in favor of the Open Space Committee. The 15-member advisory committee's duty is to identify lands for preservation, and to evaluate their worth for acquisition. The township also voted for a one-cent surcharge, to be added to each resident's tax bill. The already collected funds, which total close to $300,000, were mandated by voters to be used specifically for the purpose of acquiring land for preservation. The committee is responsible for applying for matching Open Space Grants. When the new council took office in January of this year, they reappointed three committee members and failed to fill the remaining 11 vacant seats. The move shut down the committee from meeting, because they could not meet the majority voting requirement. Early in the year, it was reported the mayor planned to merge the Open Space Committee with the Environmental Committee, something to which some residents were opposed. Byrne has repeatedly told the council they cannot legally change the committee's structure as it was mandated by voters. The matter has been regularly brought up at meetings but the council has avoided discussing the issue thus far. Despite the township administrator's acknowledging the existence of the panel, and despite the four members appointed to the committee, the Open Space Advisory Committee appears to exist in a state of limbo. It is omitted from township's meeting schedules website, and likewise omitted on the township's site showing authorized committees.