Town council mired in controversy

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    WEST MILFORD-Community watch dog Martin O'Shea wants his local government to comply with the Open Public Records Act. When he thinks they aren't, he takes action. He has filed lawsuits against the town council, the planning board and the board of education in an attempt — as he sees it — to force them to adhere to the law. The town council opted to fight the lawsuits against itself and the planning board, a costly procedure which sparked a clash between Democratic Councilman Robert Nolan and Township Attorney William DeMarco and served to highlight a deeply divided board. The debate ignited when Nolan raised concern about a bill from law firm Weiner Lesniak, which is representing the planning board, for $7,640. He wanted the lawyers to come before the board to explain the bill and clarify the services they are providing. He said, "We need to find out if we should be continuing to spend this kind of money. It's like they have a blank check." DeMarco told Nolan to contact the planning board and ask for a copy of the billing. Republican Counciman Joseph Elcavage then voiced concern at the relationship between Nolan and O'Shea. "The plaintiff in this case [O'Shea] is an associate of Councilman Nolan and I think that when it comes to this issue … perhaps he should step back and recuse himself from this issue." DeMarco asked Nolan if he was indeed an associate of O'Shea. Nolan and DeMarco bickered back and forth on the issue, with DeMarco aggitating for Nolan to recuse himself and Nolan saying it wouldn't make any difference if he did, since he'd still want an accounting of monies spent. The council voted to pay the bill to Weiner Lesniak. It passed three to two, with the two Democrats on the council, Nolan and James Warden, providing the dissenting voices. Nolan brought the conversation back to DeMarco, saying, "If we are to continue to pay Mr. DeMarco I think we need a signed contract and a resolution. I would, however, like to see us appoint a new attorney." DeMarco has declared his intention to step down from the position as township attorney as soon as his replacement is found and the recruitment process is currently nearing conclusion. He made mention of this when he said, "With regards to Mr. Nolan, so he understands this, this is the third time I've said it." Nolan responded, "Well sometimes I'm dense." DeMarco jumped on the remark and said, "I don't hold that against you, I assure you." Nolan replied angrily, "You work for the council, we pay you, show a little respect." DeMarco made his feelings clear on continuing in the position, "Quite frankly, don't worry about it. I don't want to be re-appointed." "It could have all been avoided" 70-year-old O'Shea, a former newspaper reporter for the New York Times, said it could have all be avoided if only the town clerk had responded to his initial complaint. "There should not have been the need to even file my lawsuit, but I was unable to convince the appointed and elected officials of the township to do the right thing without taking action in court." O'Shea is now a board member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, a non-profit group designed to help keep government records open. "All three of the defendants have not been adhering to the law for years. More often than not, for instance, they go into executive session to discuss subjects that should be talked about in public." O'Shea feels taxpayers and residents should have access to public meeting minutes in a more timely fashion so they can be fully involved and informed. At a July hearing in Passaic County Superior Court regarding the issue, Attorney William DeMarco asked Judge Robert J. Passero, "Can you phrase the order that the minutes of the regular meetings will be due two days before the next regular meeting and the minutes of the workshop meeting will be due two days before or the day before the next?" Both the Judge and O'Shea agreed to that suggestion, however O'Shea claims minutes are still not being produced on this schedule. "Township Clerk Kevin Byrnes has allowed production of minutes to fall behind Judge Robert Passero's order. I recently submitted an OPRA request for minutes, so Byrnes was forced to catch up with them." Critics of O'Shea say he is costing the township thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend the council. Councilman Joseph Elcavage has spoken out several times against O'Shea describing his lawsuits as "frivolous." Elcavage also accuses fellow council member Robert Nolan of being an "associate" of O'Shea. The claim is based on Elcavage's belief that O'Shea campaigned for Nolan and therefore Nolan has a conflict of interest regarding the lawsuit. Nolan denies any conflict of interest. O'Shea responded to Elcavage, "There is nothing frivolous about the public's right to know. As for being an associate of Nolan's, I campaigned for John Kerry in the last Presidential campaign, does that make me an associate of his?" As for the township legal costs, O'Shea passes the responsibility to the lawyers. "I have made three serious attempts with no expense to settle this matter. It's the lawyers that are running the cash registers." O'Shea summed up his argument saying, "I want my public officials to be responsible. If you oppose my law suit you oppose open government." Several unsuccessful attempts were made by The West Milford Messenger to contact township attorney William DeMarco.