A tangled web, indeed

Photo by Ron Leir The commercial property at 170 Washington Ave. that is the subject of a legal dispute.
Photo by Ron Leir
The commercial property at 170 Washington Ave. that is the subject of a legal dispute.


He once designed and maintained the township’s web site.

But now Michael Melham is entangled in a web of intrigue in a legal battle with Belleville officials over a small commercial structure he has been rebuilding next to the Municipal Building parking lot.

On June 16, Melham filed a federal lawsuit against Belleville Interim Manager/ Assessor Kevin Esposito and the township, alleging that the township unfairly sought to take his property via eminent domain.

And, in a statement released to the media, Melham said that, “one day after my lawsuit was served,” the township allegedly began harassing his contractor by blocking construction-related deliveries dependent on access through the parking lot.

Meanwhile, the Township Council has responded by voting June 29 to hire a highpowered law firm, DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole, headquartered in Teaneck, for an amount not to exceed $16,500 to counter-sue Melham for “frivolous litigation claims.”

As outlined in his complaint, filed May 8 by Raritan attorney W. Timothy Howes in Newark Federal Court, Melham said he and business associates assumed the mortgage on a mixed-use property at 170 Washington Ave., which had a vacant restaurant on the first floor and apartment above, which was in pre-foreclosure, and paid the back taxes owed, at a cost of $200,000. Subsequently, “several” of Melham’s associates exited.

In his complaint, Melham said he began talks with the township’s interim Manager Kevin Esposito, who also serves as township assessor, on the possibility of selling the property to the township so that the parking lot possibly could be expanded and that Esposito told him he would recommend such a plan to the governing body.

Melham said he “negotiated a settlement to buy out the mortgage on the property for $225,000 plus fees throughout early 2013. A contract was negotiated and a closing date was set.” He said he then advised Esposito of the buyout and, after that, was told by Esposito that the mayor and council “had authorized him, in closed session, to proceed with due diligence,” starting with getting an appraisal of the property.

But the week of the proposed closing, Melham said, the township code enforcement inspector issued violation notices May 7 for 170 Washington, directing the owner to clean debris and weeds, correct unsafe conditions with interior structure and remove awnings in disrepair.

At around the same time, Melham said, Esposito – acting in his capacity of assessor – reduced the property’s assessment, from $528,000 to $298,900 and the township sought an appraisal of the property “for the purpose of an eminent domain proceeding.”

In the wake of these developments, Melham said, his remaining business partner bowed out and the closing was canceled.

Melham alleged that by acting in a dual role, Esposito “was subject to making decisions as assessor based on the township’s financial interests, as opposed to making decisions based on the value of each individual property.”

Further, Melham said, by holding the offices of assessor and manager, Esposito has violated the common law doctrine of incompatibility, violated state law 40:81-11 which says that, “… the offices of municipal manager and auditor or assessor shall not be held by the same person” and violated state ethics law which says that municipal officers may not undertake any employment or service “which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of official duties.”

Melham said that Esposito and the township violated his “constitutional rights as a property owner” and that the township’s actions represented a “taking of [his] property … without compensation ….”

Melham is seeking an unspecified “money judgment” for damages plus legal fees from the township and a jury trial on the alleged violation of his civil rights and the taking of his property.

Asked for reaction to the suit, Belleville Township Attorney Tom Murphy said the township, as a matter of policy, does not comment on pending litigation.

Learn more about the writer ...