Inherent conflict in dual role?


Will Kevin Esposito have to step down as interim township manager or as township tax assessor?

Will he remain serving in that dual role?

Those are the questions now facing the Township of Belleville as it grapples with the repercussions of a federal lawsuit filed by Michael Melham, the prior designer/operator of the township’s website.

In his suit, filed in May, Melham, a former Belleville resident who is now attempting to develop a commercial property next to the Belleville Municipal Building parking lot, alleges that Esposito downgraded the assessment on the commercial property at 170 Washington Ave. as part of an eminent domain proceeding, “based on the township’s financial interests” rather than recognizing the market value of the property.

Melham then complained to the Essex County Board of Taxation that Esposito was in violation of state law by acting in a dual capacity as township manager and assessor. Esposito has been serving in both roles since May 12.

On Sept. 18, Essex County Tax Administrator Joan Codey Durkin wrote to Belleville Mayor Ray Kimble and the Township Council advising them that a legal opinion rendered July 12, 2001, by then-state Attorney General John Farmer “… concludes that such dual office holding as Municipal Tax Assessor and Municipal Administrator gives rise to an unavoidable conflict of interest that must be avoided.”

In his opinion, Farmer notes that, “… the Legislature has expressly provided that, under the Council-Manager form of government, a municipal assessor may not also be the municipal manager.” Farmer goes on to say that such a prohibition is “… intended to ensure that the assessor appears impartial and would not be unduly tempted to make decisions based on the municipality’s need for money.”

In light of the foregoing, Farmer said, “… that, because the assessor’s duties as administrator would reasonably appear to impair his or her independence of judgment in the exercise of assessor duties, a conflict of interest arises when the assessor concurrently serves as administrator for the same municipality.” In her letter to the township, Durkin gives Belleville officials 10 days to “advise … how you intend to cure this apparent conflict of interest Mr. Esposito now finds himself within.”

Last Friday, with Esposito continuing in both jobs, The Observer tried to reach Durkin to learn what, if any action would be taken by her office. An employee in that office who would only identify herself as “Kenya” replied: “The tax administrator has no comment.”

Township Attorney Tom Murphy said: “I believe the interim manager will remain as interim manager and I have confidence that the Essex County tax administrator, after due deliberation, will agree. … Kevin will be fine, both as assessor and as interim manager. We want the statute to be read and interpreted literally. We have an interim manager.”

Murphy said that by having one individual cover both positions, the township has saved a considerable amount in salaries. And, he added, by doing so, it has followed the “shared services” policy guidelines recommended by Gov. Christie.

“I believe absolutely this is the best thing for Belleville,” he said. “And, by the way, in the hundreds of properties that have been assessed [since May 12], no one has raised this conflict issue until Mr. Melham filed his lawsuit.”

– Ron Leir 

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