Council vote ratifies Belleville Planning Board appointmens

In a move officials say was made at the request of Planning Board attorney Rose Tubito, the Belleville Township Council voted last week to ratify all Mayor Michael Melhams Planning Board appointments.

While the township stands behind its understanding the mayor has the authority to appoint Class IV members to the Planning Board, the mayor and council believe it is in the best interests of the township, the Planning Board and all future applicants to provide this quick and easy remedy.  

The question of my ability to appoint Class IV members of the Planning Board which was first raised in 2019 and has repeatedly been asked and answered.  The townships belief is rooted in state statue, local ordinance as well as two legal opinions one from the current Planning Board attorney and another from our township attorney, Melham said.

The Planning Boards approvals issued were never in jeopardy, as only several Class IV Members had come under question.  A majority of the board, Melham (Class I Member), Jacqueline Guaman (Class II member), Councilman Tommy Graziano (Class III member) and two Class IV members, have never come under question.  

Furthermore, in the years since the mayors appointments have been questioned, not a single Planning Board approval was ever challenged during the 45-day legal challenge period immediately following board approval. 

In November 2019, the Planning Board attorney was asked whether the mayors appointment of a specific individual, as a Class IV member of the board, was permitted.  While the original question dealt more with whether a particular individual could be considered a Class IV member, the attorneys opinion found this member was rightfully appointed by the mayor under Chapter 19 of the township code the section the mayor has relied on to make appointments. 

If the mayor was permitted to appoint this individual as a Class IV member, then it stands to reason, its the Planning Board attorneys position that the Mayor could appoint Class IV members. 

Also in November 2019, the township attorney was asked to provide input on this same topic.  

He cited state statute, N.J.S.A 40:55d-23a Planning Board Membership  which reads:

Class IV other citizens of the municipality, to be appointed by the mayor or, in the case of the council-manager form of government pursuant to the Optional Municipal Charter Law, P.L.1950, c. 210 (C.40:69A-1 et seq.) or the municipal manager form of government law (R.S.40:79-1 et seq.), by the council, if so provided by the aforesaid ordinance.

State statute does indicate the Council may appoint, if local ordinance permits.  To that end, Belleville does have a local ordinance, Chapter 19, under which it has been operating, however; it gives the appointment to the mayor consistent with the Municipal Land Use Law.

Belleville Administrative Code; Chapter 19-1.1; Planning Board, Establishment.

Class IV. Six other citizens of the municipality to be appointed by the mayor.

Melham added: What we saw at the last Planning Board meeting was disgusting.  Three weeks before a municipal election, it was an attempted coup, with all the players reading off a script. The chairman should have never allowed activists to disrupt a public meeting in the manner they did.

At that time, the Planning Board chairman said meetings should be suspended, and the Planning Board attorney stated, on more than one occasion, the meetings would be suspended, and no meetings would take place until the appointments of the mayor were ratified by the Mayor and Council.  

They were on April 26.

Without a vote by the majority of the Planning Board, the meetings have been suspended by order of the Planning Board attorney.  

The mayors appointments have now been ratified by Mayor and Council as requested, and therefore the meetings will resume, Melham said.

Meanwhile, it was town activist and former Board of Education Trustee Michael Sheldon who brought most of the attention to the Planning Board situation by hiring a land-use expert attorney to say the appointments weren’t proper. Based on one paid-for attorney’s opinion, the meetings had been suspended.

Sheldon referred to his attorney’s most recent opinion to the board, written on his behalf to be submitted as a statement of his own to the council.

In the opinion, he refers to a case from 2001 where a decision was made that quorums couldn’t be made retroactively.

“If you disagree, the best approach, in the interest of innocent third-parties that may have relied upon actions taken by the Planning Board in the recent past, is to seek a declaratory judgment in the Superior Court. Let a court decide whether Mr. Kates is correct in his interpretation or Mr. Martino is correct.  Without it, the status of approved development applications will remain uncertain ​and will be detrimental to the public interest in resolving these important issues.”

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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.