Regardless of whether you agree with it, there is absolutely no denying that in the last four years, Belleville has seen unprecedented growth, from new residential units to commercial sites and more. In fact, it’s not just redevelopment that has happened at warp speed here. It’s just about everything the municipal government has a hand in.
And now, Mayor Michael Melham, who spearheaded mostly all of what’s gone on, is asking Belleville residents for four more years to build on what he’s accomplished and on what he hopes to continue to do through 2026.
And the incumbent says his opponent, Councilman Steve Rovell, despite being critical of much of what has happened the last four years, has offered no platform of his own while continually bashing him, despite voting in favor of much of it.
“You can’t apply logic and reason to ‘crazy’ as I say all the time,” Melham said in a sit-down interview with The Observer last week. And then he noted the importance of the PILOTs, or payment in lieu of taxes, the township has granted to developers.
“It’s a partnership program and they never talk about the fact that these PILOTS are given because most of the time, the environmental pollution — or the cleanup associated with that pollution — is cost-prohibitive to doing anything. So they’ve been content with empty, environmentally contaminated properties that yield no real revenue to the township. They’re content with that. But if we have a developer come in, incentivize him with a PILOT, he cleans up that soil, remediates it to NJDEP residential standards, and then puts a structure on it, where we get up to $900K a year in revenue, as opposed to $10K a year for an empty contaminated site, they are not content. Yet they want us to reduce taxes and provide more services for them.”
And Melham says his administration has cut costs, but that’s never enough.
“It’s all OK, but it’s pales when your insurance bill comes in at $1 million higher next year,” he said.
It’s all about finding new revenue, something he fears his opponent is incapable of doing.
“For 20 years, they built nothing,” Melham said, noting prior to his administration, the last new building in town occurred circa 2000 when townhomes were erected on Franklin Avenue.
Despite all of the negativity, Melham says he plans to continue to run on his accomplishments — he will not go negative as has thus far followed through on that promise — and those achievements, he says, are plenty to earn him a second term.
“We’ve doubled down in 3½ years what was done in this township over the past 20 or more years,” Melham said. “And yet, only 19% of the voters came out four years ago. We need more than that. And I believe if you lined up those voters, one-by-one, they’d say they are happier (now) than they were four years ago. However, we need 51% of those people who come out in the May municipal election to think that way. So I keep trying to raise awareness.
“We’re going to make the case of what we’ve accomplished and what we’re going to continue to do and what the future looks like under a Melham administration. That said, my opponent has been around 18 years (as a member of the Township Council.) He really can’t propose anything new because he would have done it already
“All he can do is knock me, but factor in a lot of the things he knocks me for, he’s already voted on. …He’s blaming me for overdevelopment, yet 65% of all of these approvals came before I got into office. They happened under him. So everything he wants to attack me on, he voted on. …It’s just sad to see. I would have a lot more respect for Councilman Rovell, but at this point in time I have zero respect for him. I used to have some respect for him.
“He should at least be putting forth his platform, his vision, but his entire campaign is nothing more than a poisoned pen, a social media hit job on me and he’s using that 20-year-old playbook. That worked back when the voter base was far more ignorant to the facts. I’ve spent the last four years educating them … today’s Belleville electorate is far more knowledgeable and aware of what’s happening, so they’re not going to fall this anymore.
“They’re the same people who used to do anonymous mailers, deceive, lie, they’re out there saying I’ve made millions of dollars in real-estate transactions. I keep challenging my opponent — show me one. I have not sold a piece of property to any developer. I have not made millions of dollars in real estate in Belleville.
Legitimate defamation of character in 2018
Words do, indeed have consequences. And while in the past, anonymous mailers almost always went unchallenged, it got so bad when Melham ran as a challenger he decided to take the steps needed to prove he and his co-candidates were defamed.
Following two mailers that year, disguised with paid-for language that was “Concerned Belleville Citizens,” that attacked running mate and current Deputy Mayor Naomy DePena with inaccurate, false and misleading information about her years as a Belleville teacher and her teaching credentials, Melham et al sued for defamation four years ago.
It led to a settlement with one of three named defendants, his opponent in the 2018 election, the late Mayor Raymond Kimble.
Two of the other defendants are former Belleville Board of Education members, one of whom was the board’s president — Tom Grolimond and Michael Sheldon.
The mayor says Sheldon recently asked the court for summary judgment — or, a complete dismissal of the case — but a judge denied that request so the case could — and would — move on. It’s been delayed for quite some time because of the pandemic.
Melham says he’s noting the suit now because he says if it happens in 2022, and if it’s as damaging as the one in 2018 — he will again sue.
“We will find you and hunt you down,” Melham said.
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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.