Is appointment to Belleville Planning Board illegal?

A group of concerned Belleville residents who have formed a coalition say Mayor Michael Melham has improperly and illegally appointed a township employee to the Belleville Planning Board — and they’re demanding she be removed, immediately, from that seat.

Belleville Town Advocates (BTA) have issued a formal demand to Melham and the Town Council that they immediately remove Jacqueline Guaman from the board.

The individual in question, who by all accounts also serves as Melham’s personal assistant and photographer despite being listed as an “account clerk” on the township payroll, was appointed with the consent of the council to the Planning Board in 2018.

However, under the NJ Municipal Land Use Law, a municipal employee is barred from being a Class IV member.

The language of N.J.S.A. 40:55D-23(a) is clear and unambiguous, members of BTA say, and they claim there are no exceptions. They reiterated this in a Jan. 19, 2020, letter to the mayor and council.

“The members of Belleville Town Advocates demand this body act on this issue. Either seek the individual’s resignation from the planning board or vote to rescind the appointment,” the letter reads. “If the mayor and council votes on appointments to municipal boards, it stands to reason this body has the power to rescind them as well. Failure to act on this issue will result in complaints and reports being filed with the appropriate state and law-enforcement agencies.”

A letter from land-use attorney Michael Kates concurring with BTA’s collective opinion was also presented to Melham and the council, said Lee Dorry, public advocate and founder of the watchdog organization Essex Watch (www.essexwatch.com).

Kates is the Counsel Emeritus for New Jersey Planning Officials, and a contributing author to the “Cox Book,” a guide to zoning and land-use law in New Jersey.

“…My conclusion is not difficult,” Kates wrote in the opinion. “(The state law) expressly mandates that Class IV members are appointed from ‘other citizens of the municipality,’ not municipal office holders or employees. And the statute further mandates that ‘members of Class IV shall hold no other municipal office, position or employment. I conclude (the employee’s) appointment to the position of Class IV member of the planning board was barred by NJSA 40:55D-21 (a).”

BTA says it also sought the opinion of Jason Kasler, executive director of the NJPO, who also confirmed the appointment is illegal, and that there are no exceptions to that restriction at all. However, Rose Tubito, the Belleville Planning Board Attorney, says the appointment was legal because the employee in question was, at the time, also a member of the Belleville Historic Preservation Committee.

“Therefore, based on the documents reviewed as aforementioned, it is my professional opinion that Jacky Guaman on the Belleville Planning Board as a Class IV member is allowable,” Tubito wrote in a letter dated Nov. 4, 2019.

However, according to records, Guaman resigned from the Historic Preservation Committee Jan. 13, 2020. As such, the law appears to be clear — Guaman must resign or be removed from the planning board forthwith.

What is the Essex Watch?

The Essex Watch is a volunteer local government watchdog organization and public-advocacy platform. It partners with engaged citizens in various municipalities and consults with them on their rights, and how best to deal with corruption and impropriety in local government.

The Watch also investigates allegations of public corruption, and publishes its findings. In some cases, its reports are sent directly to law enforcement, and have been featured six times on News 12 NJ’s “Kane In Your Corner,” with investigative reporter Walt Kane.

Essex Watch has been partnered with members of BTA for nearly six years, addressing what it calls “rampant political corruption within their municipality.”

Most notably, the collaborative work of Essex Watch and members of the Belleville Town Advocates culminated in a scathing forensic investigation of the Belleville Board of Education by the State of New Jersey several years ago.

That report was released by the Office of Legislative Services in 2018, and was referred by the OLS to the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice.

“We patiently await criminal prosecution for those matters,” Dorry said. “Despite our repeated objections to the planning board appointment and the written legal opinion of Kates supporting our position, the Belleville Council has refused to remedy this illegal appointment for more than six months. Frankly, this should have been a very simple issue to resolve, but the council’s continued obstinate and arrogant refusals to comply with state law has forced us to mobilize and take action.

“This is just a first step in holding elected officials accountable for their recent actions. If BTA’s demands are not fully satisfied by the governing body, the Essex Watch will escalate any ongoing issues further with state and federal law enforcement agencies, alongside a vigorous public corruption awareness campaign in the media. No one is above the law, despite what Belleville politicians seem to believe year after year.”

The Observers Kevin Canessa may be reached at kc@theobserver.com or @kevincanessa on Facebook & Twitter. Feedback is welcome and encouraged.

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.