Belleville Mayor Michael Melham says a recent controversy about his possession of a classic painting is much ado about nothing, but the Belleville Historical Society still doesn’t see it that way.
Several weeks ago, the mayor offered a video message to announce the township’s plans for celebrating the 150th Chinese New Year. In doing so, he offered the message in front of a painting of Belleville that was created in the 1830s. It wasn’t the first time, either, that Melham offered a video or photo in front of the painting. In fact, he says he’d done so, to that point, numerous times for social-media posts, reading to the children in Belleville schools and several other times.
But the thing is, the painting, at the time of the video in the mayor’s office, belongs to the society — which, by agreement, displays the painting in the Belleville Public Library.
Michael Perrone, the chairman of the BHS, is not pleased Melham has the painting and is demanding it be returned.
But before we get to Perrone, it is important to note the Belleville Library Board, a mix of folks appointed by Melham and previous Mayor Raymond Kimble, voted unanimously the allow Melham to take possession of the painting temporarily, according to the mayor.
“It wasn’t just the people I appointed to the board, it was everyone,” Melham told The Observer.
Melham says one day, he found the painting sitting on the floor of the library, not hung. When he asked why it wasn’t on the wall, he was informed it was because of a leaky roof in the library. The director didn’t want it to be damaged by water.
“At first, I was asked if I just wanted to take the painting temporarily and put it in my office,” Melham said. “I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to do it through the proper channels. So it was put up to a vote to the entire library board and the vote was unanimous. It was fully known at the time the painting would come to my office until the leak was repaired. As soon as the repairs were complete, I’d return the painting to where it belongs.
“That’s always been the plan and Mr. Perrone knows that.”
Melham says the repairs to the roof have not yet been done. Initially, the plan was for the library board to bond for them to be done. However, money was found in the township’s capital improvement funds, so there will likely be no need to even bond for the repairs to be made.
“And once they’re done, the painting will go back to the library where it should be,” Melham said.
NOT SO FAST
Perrone, meanwhile, isn’t buying it.
When the Belleville Library Board, on which Melham sits, met March 17, he addressed them.
“The Belleville Library Board of Trustees must make immediate arrangements for the safe return of the nearly 200 year old painting, ‘Landscape of Belleville,’ from Belleville Town Hall to a safe and secure location within the Belleville Library,” Perrone said in a prepared statement. “This historical and extremely valuable painting on loan to the library by the Belleville Historical Society was unlawfully removed from the premises, without the authorization of either the Hatch family (which donated it to the BHS in 1962) or the Belleville Historical Society. The library board’s unlawful resolution loaning out the private property of others must be revoked this evening.
“For security reasons, both the Belleville Historical Society and the Belleville Public Library have always kept the value of the painting strictly confidential. The irresponsible act of taking the painting from the library and then announcing the value of the painting at a public meeting has made a bad situation worse by creating a major security issue. If there were ever any concerns about the physical well-being of the painting, the obvious response would have been to immediately notify either the Hatch family or the Belleville historical Society, not to give the painting away.”
In response, Melham said the painting is properly insured.
But Melham continued.
“David Hatch, is the sixth generation grandson of Belleville founding father Josiah Hornblower,” he said. “Josiah Hornblower built the first steam engine in America here in Belleville. Hornblower served as Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly during the American Revolution and was later elected to the Continental Congress where he championed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Hornblower’s descendant Mr. David Hatch is a completely disabled veteran, having served as a Marine Corps sergeant during the Vietnam War, where he contracted a near fatal case of malaria, spending six months in a hospital. The after effects of agent orange and PTSD have left him exhausted. For Mr. Hatch, now 76, this painting has been a part of his life since childhood. The irresponsible and unlawful actions of handing out the Hatch family treasure as a political trophy has caused Mr. Hatch severe stress and anxiety.
“The painting must be returned within seven days. Law-enforcement authorities on both the local and state level have been advised of this unlawful taking of private property valued in excess of $125,000. Failure to comply may subject library board trustees to both criminal and civil action. Guide yourselves accordingly.”
Despite Perrone’s words, the mayor reiterated that the painting being in town hall is completely legal and it will remain there until the repairs are made to the library. He also says he plans on recalling “historical artifacts” the BHS is responsible for and that he says are in Perrone’s personal possession.
Perrone says he has no such artifacts.
And he says it was the original owner of the painting’s desire that it never fall into the hands of “some politician.”
“For two generations, thousands of Belleville residents of all ages have been able to get a glimpse into Belleville’s past at our public library thanks to the generosity of the Hatch family and the Belleville Historical Society,” Perrone said. “It was the Hatch family’s greatest fear that the painting might end up hanging on the wall of ‘some politician.’ Entrusting their family treasure to the Belleville Historical Society for the benefit of the public was their gift to the people of Belleville. But as it says in the Old Testament Book of Job 3:25, ‘That which I feared has come upon me.'”
LIBRARY BOARD’S ATTORNEY
GETS INVOLVED WITH LETTER
Victoria A. Lucido is an attorney at the Aloia Law Firm, of Bloomfield, which represents the Belleville Library Board. Lucido wrote a letter (a copy of which has been obtained by The Observer) to Perrone, dated March 18, in which she makes it clear the painting will be returned when the leak is fixed.
“The board plans to bring the painting back to the library for display as soon as it is safe to do so upon completion of the roof and window repair in the atrium,” Lucido wrote in the letter. “Going forward, the board will continue to do its due diligence with respect to any other stored historical artifacts. Moreover, the board will work to secure any other historical artifacts that may have been removed from the library. In fact, it is the board’s goal to establish a museum room in the library to display the ‘Landscape of Belleville’ painting as well as any other historical artifacts at the library. The board sincerely hopes that this resolves any issues relating to the painting going forward.”
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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.