WEST MILFORD Despite the beginning of 2006 being closer than the start of 2005, the township is only now reaching a point where the municipal budget might be approved. The town council agreed on Wednesday to amend the budget, so the financial plan for the township may be approved next Thursday night. The amendment features many relatively small adjustments about $189,292 worth but $757,687 in Watershed Moratorium Aid will provide a measure of relief for taxpayers. Even at that, the municipal budget will cause a rise of about $65 to the average home owner. This does not include any increases in the school or county taxes. The amendment passed on Wednesday by a vote of 4 n 1. Council member Paul Bailey considered voting against the amendment before a change of heart. Council member James Warden rejected the resolution. They both questioned the need to maintain the planning department at its current size in view of the Highlands Act, which severely limits development in the town. The proposed budget includes $348,000 for salaries within the department which has a planning director, William Drew, and principal planner, Linda Lutz. Warden said, "I'm voting no on this resolution because I feel this council did not do a service to the taxpayers. We did not address the hard decisions that had to be made." Warden focused on the planning department, saying, "Drastically or at least partially reducing the planning department should have been a red flag because we are in the preservation area. The fact is, if you are really informed you know there is no need for two planners in West Milford because of the Highlands legislation." Council member Joseph Elcavage defended the retention of the planning department saying "I question the wisdom of just saying, the Highlands Act is here, we don't need a planner, we can manage that ourselves.' We have to consider what I call the gift that keeps on giving." Elcavage explained that the "gift" was the constant presence of planners who ensured timely action and expert decisions with regard to planning matters. The subject of legal fees caused considerable discontent between Warden and other members of the council. In excess of $100,000 was spent in legal fees defending action taken by town resident Martin O'Shea, which was recently settled with the council and board of education. Warden blames decisions made by the former Township Attorney, William DeMarco, and Planning Department attorney firm, Weiner Lesniak, for prolonging legal action with O'Shea. Elcavage disagreed, laying the blame for the legal fees squarely on O'Shea. Elcavage said, "Offers to mediate and settle since January 1, 2004 were rebuffed by the plaintiff [O'Shea]." O'Shea, who was present at the meeting, interrupted Elcavage saying, "The man's nose is growing." In another matter, O'Shea reported the township to the Government Records Council for failing to provide him complete copies of bills and vouchers he requested in Nov. 2004. The council did provide O'Shea with the records he requested, however parts of the documents had been blacked out. While governing bodies can black out (or redact) information before releasing it to the public, the situations in which it is allowed are few and very specific. The Government Records Council upheld O'Shea's complaint and ordered the town clerk to produce the notes un-redacted for O'Shea. Originally, the township appealed that decision, but on Wednesday, Township Attorney Fred Semrau announced the council's decision to withdraw its appeal. It's expected O'Shea will be allowed to see the full notes by Friday. There will be a public hearing on the budget at town hall next Thursday night, Aug. 11, starting at 7:30 p.m.