In New Jersey, it is required that when government meets in public, citizens shall have an opportunity to express themselves. That’s why all public meetings have a public comment section. Public comment is not an opportunity for elected or appointed officials to interrogate citizens, or to badger them, or to intimidate them. The purpose of public comment is to ensure that citizens have an unrestrained opportunity to address their government.
…All this needs to be accomplished while insuring an opportunity for all to be heard in a civil and courteous manner at all times, especially when we disagree.
James Imbriaco’s campaign for township council has focused heavily on his role in the Windy Acres case when it was before the planning board during his chairmanship. The following audio excerpts from the public record are from an October 5, 2005 joint meeting of the council and planning board.
The purpose of the meeting — which lasted over three hours — was for public comment. Then-mayor Tom Borkowski relinquished control of this meeting to planning board chairman James Imbriaco. Mayor Borkowski sat mum thoughout virtually the entire proceedings while Imbriaco badgered and intimidated Clinton Township citizens — and also while Imbriaco disparaged the Hunterdon County Freeholders and the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, both of whom had come to the township’s aid.
The topic of the joint meeting was the proposed “settlement” deal between the township and Pulte Homes, the developer of the proposed Windy Acres project. The turnout was so large that the meeting had to be held at North Hunterdon High School. Minutes of the meeting are on the township website. The audio recording is available from the township clerk.
The council and planning board sat at separate tables while Imbriaco ran the meeting. As the meeting started, Councilwoman Rose Marie Malaker addressed the planning board chairman about the importance of responding to the public’s questions raised at the last public meeting.
The planning board chairman, who serves at the pleasure of the elected council, dismissed the councilwoman and invited the first speaker to the microphone instead.
Prior to the public hearing portion of the meeting, the township planner, Michael Bolan, set up large placards on either side of the room, ostensibly outlining the “pro’s and con’s” of the settlement deal.
A citizen commented on the quality of the information presented:
This is the first of the commenters who does not support the settlement agreement. The chairman interrupted and attempted to intimidate the citizen, who was under no obligation to submit to interrogation:
A pattern quickly emerged during the three-hour public hearing. Commenters favoring the settlement were permitted to speak freely as along as they liked. An attorney by profession, James Imbriaco dealt with those who expressed legitimate reservations about the settlement by applying his legal skills to interrupt, intimidate and interrogate them.
The chairman commented on the integrity of the information being presented:
Ironically, another citizen objected to the compromised nature of the information presented to the public by the planning board and confronted the attempt to manipulate public opinion:
Unknown to the public was that the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Bradley Campbell, had submitted a letter to the township — on the day of the public hearing — declaring his “strong objection” to the settlement deal, in part because he believes it “is inconsistent with [the] legal obligation” of the planning board.
When it was my turn to speak I expressed my dismay that the Commissioner’s letter had been withheld from the public. I went on to read the letter into the record and to comment on it as I read — while Chairman Imbriaco angrily attempted to stop me from providing my comments. (He had plenty of opportunity to read the letter to the public himself, yet chose not to do so.) :
Like others, I refused to allow Imbriaco to abridge my rights and I made my comments. Another member of the audience, frustrated that citizens were being constantly interrupted, and upset that Councilwoman Malaker’s suggestion was totally ignored, called out from the back of the room (way off the range of the microphone). He suggested that citizens be permitted to speak without interruption and that the council and planning board respond fully to the public’s comments after people spoke.
The chairman proclaimed that, ”We’ll interrupt when we think it’s appropriate so that the comments reflect the accurate record.” In fact, the statements of the public are the public record. Imbriaco’s attempt to manipulate the public record by manipulating citizens’ rights to speak freely became such a stark attack that news reports appeared the next day.
After muzzling the public, the chairman warns the citizen that he himself will not be muzzled or stopped from interrupting speakers.
Then the meeting began to shift dramatically. Commissioner Campbell’s letter was revealed to be the solution to Windy Acres — a solution served on a silver platter by the State of New Jersey itself. This was the help — the silver bullet — Clinton Township had been hoping for. Citing this letter, Mayor Borkowksi or Chairman Imbriaco could easily have suspended the hearings and the settlement process in order “to allow interested regulators [the DEP and other agencies] additional time to ensure that that requirements of the law have been met” — per Commissioner Campbell’s suggestion.
A similar request had been submitted by the Hunterdon County Freeholders. Another request came from State Senator Leonard Lance, who submitted a letter to the township requesting an extension of the public comment period as well. At long last, the efforts of citizens fighting Windy Acres were bearing fruit — help from the County, the legislature, and a state agency.
But James Imbriaco was having none of it. When Freeholder Director Nancy Palladino initiated an effort to help Clinton Township out of the Windy Acres bind, the chairman called it “a bucket of steam”:
It was no wonder that during the years Imbriaco approved The Mews and Water’s Edge, no help was to be had from the county and the state. Arrogance knows no friends.
By this point Imbriaco was losing it. While Mayor Borkowski stood idly by, the appointed planning board chairman had already insulted an elected councilwoman in front of an audience of well over a hundred residents. Now Borkowski permitted Imbriaco to attack the Freeholder Director, the Freeholders and the County Planning Board — and to dismiss a State Senator in the bargain — without saying a word to stop him.
The next speaker was Richard Webster, the attorney representing the Clinton Township Community Coalition and 3,600 Clinton Township residents who had joined to stop Windy Acres. Webster, a British corporate attorney who had turned to environmental law when he came to the United States, used the public comment period to address the significance of Commissioner Campbell’s letter.
Imbriaco attacked Webster, insulted and dismissed the Commissioner, and launched a bizarre courtroom drama rather than permit Webster to freely put his comments on the public record:
By the end of the meeting, Imbriaco had succeeded in stifling public comment by himself using up approximately a third of the time that was promised to the public. He had one final task to demonstrate who was in charge.
Wilma Frey, manager of the N.J. Conservation Foundation, drove a long way to speak at the meeting on behalf of a coalition of many N.J. environmental assocations. She waited patiently for over three hours while Clinton Township residents were given precedence. Frey, a wisp of a woman, came to the microphone, daring to expect some courtesy even though Imbriaco himself had run the clock out. Referring to himself in the third person, “the chair” shouted her down and called on a police officer to arrest her. Nonetheless, Wilma was not meek when she saw she was getting the bum’s rush.
The council had voted the previous week to extend public comment until October 26 — three weeks later. The solution to Windy Acres was at hand — much-needed help from the County and State — without the onerous conditions imposed by the Pulte settlement deal.
Nonetheless, James Imbriaco took his planning board into executive session at the end of the evening of October 5. They returned to public session and voted unanimously to sign the Pulte settlement. Each read a lengthy prepared statement — clearly written prior to the meeting. (In fact, one of the statements — Marc Melloy’s — was read into the record by Imbriaco. Melloy was not even in attendance. He did not hear or consider the public comment. Yet he submitted his statement in support of the settlement. Was it any wonder that Imbriaco’s planning board was labeled “rogue?”)
Ignoring all further public comment, Imbriaco arrogantly voted to sign an agreement that was worthless without the consent and approval of the council.
In a last ditch effort to convince the council to renege on its promise to extend public comment, Imbriaco made a statement so irresponsible that it led me to name a new planning board chairman after I became mayor:
I do not believe that any public official has the right to expose the citizens of this town to the risks that the failure to adopt this agreement poses. I think that to reject this agreement is reckless and irresponsible. I think that an outcome that results in 365 active senior units when measured against 911 market units, when measured against the substantial amount of counsel fees that we will hemmorhage, starting within the next six weeks if we don’t get this deal done will be irresponsible…
The very idea that “any public official” does not have the right to vote their conscience is a corruption of the most fundamental precept of representative democracy.
Imbriaco’s statement was a bold and arrogant threat against the council, intended to intimidate them into approving the agreement.
The Hunterdon Democrat reflected public opinion when it responded to Imbriaco’s irresponsible bullying, which put the township in danger while help had already arrived on the battlefield against Pulte:
Last week’s letter from state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell opposed the settlement on environmental and legal grounds. With such a powerful ally, why compromise now?… Regarding this push to compromise, township officials have been accused of recklessness, of overlooking facts, of caving in to a powerful developer. One serious complaint is that the Planning Board ended hearings abruptly, denying people a chance to comment.
October 20, 2005
The council continued to take public comment. In yet another misguided effort to force the agreement through, Imbriaco and Borkowski sent a poison-pen letter to Commissioner Campbell, demanding that he withdraw his letter to the township. But the DEP Commissioner submitted an even more detailed and emphatic legal and regulatory analysis of the settlement agreement. Campbell reiterated that — contrary to Imbriaco’s boastful claims – the settlement agreement would abridge the planning board’s powers. In other words, by accepting the agreement with the expectation that his planning board could deal with any eventuality, Imbriaco would put the township at great risk.
On October 26 the public comment period ended. On October 27 the council voted 3-2 to reject the Pulte settlement.
Imbriaco’s judgment was deficient and dangerously wrong. In spite of the invectives he and Mayor Borkowski hurled at the DEP Commissioner, the DEP provided input to the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) that resulted in COAH ultimately rejecting Windy Acres as a viable affordable housing site. The township did not bleed counsel fees.
In fact, when a new administration stepped into office in January 2006, the township fired the attorneys responsible for six year’s worth of the Windy Acres legal debacle and hired Coughlin Duffy, a powerful corporate litigation firm to aggressively defend against Pulte’s “damages claims.” While the former township attorney, Albert Cruz, threatened along with Imbriaco that capitulation was the only option, it was Pulte that capitulated. Ultimately, it was the destruction of Pulte’s baseless legal claims by Coughlin Duffy that resulted in the sale of Windy Acres to the township. Pulte simply had no more leverage to force the township to “partner” with it to obtain the sewer and water permits it needed to develop the site.
As for the “365 active senior units” Imbriaco and his vice chair Pat Papa promoted as wonderful ratables, the township dodged yet another bullet. Builders in New Jersey found that the market for age-restricted housing was a fantasy. Empty, half-built shells of buildings sat incomplete. Towns thought they were getting “great ratables without school children” — then desperately conceded and permitted the conversion of senior projects to regular market housing. On March 16, 2009 both houses of the N. J. legislature approved S-2577, empowering developers of age-restricted housing developments to convert them to market housing. Governor Corzine is recommending revisions to the bill, but it exposes towns that have approved such projects to massive new costs. The truth seems to be that builders were using “age restricted housing” as another ruse to build anything they wanted — and to sucker many towns into building more new schools.
The press had a lot to say about Chairman Imbriaco’s behavior in 2005 — and about the travesty his arrogance almost brought down on Clinton Township.
Residents lambasted the planning board in letters to the Hunterdon Democrat.
Editorials questioned the integrity, intentions and behavior of James Imbriaco and his planning board:
We were disappointed at the way the meeting of the Planning Board and Township Council was conducted last Wednesday, and believe that it would have been in Planning Board Chairman James Imbriaco’s better interest to spend less time fighting with residents and more time listening to their concerns. We agree with Clinton Township resident Patricia Clarke who told the Plannning Board chairman that he should answer the questions of residents rather than challenging them.
October 12, 2005
Stung by criticism from the public and the press, “James Imbriaco railed against complaints that his group had become a ‘rogue’ board by endorsing the proposed settlement…” In September, Imbriaco’s loyal planning board vice chair Pat Papa had written a letter to the editor endorsing the agreement, signing it with her formal title — before public comment even started. Her reason for following Imbriaco’s lead was reported in the October 12, 2005 Hunterdon Review: “For me, this really came down to a business decision… As members of the planning board we have to consider the whole community.”
After Imbriaco was rejected by the council in January, 2009 when it selected a replacement to fill Mayor Kevin Cimei’s unexpired council seat, Papa and former mayor Borkowski chafed when Imbriaco’s public record was cited as evidence that he does not belong on the council. The two derided the article in the Hunterdon News Online that was cited about Imbriaco’s public record. Former Hunterdon County Sheriff Bill Doyle is cited in the minutes of that council meeting as saying, “he felt the events of the meeting referenced by Mr. Corcodilos were more than likely taken out of context.”
But Imbriaco’s public record is clear — and it is reported widely in the press. James Imbriaco’s reckless arrogance turned the most important body next to the council into a rogue planning board. The Windy Acres episode is merely the crown of thorns on a body of decision-making that led to a 25% increase in the township’s residential development during Imbriaco’s reign and to a massive shift from commercial ratables to heavy residential taxes that have become unbearable to many.
James Imbriaco almost cost Clinton Township yet another high-density development — more than twice the size of The Mews. Misjudgment about “age restricted housing” could have cost us another new school. During his chairmanship on the planning board, he faced the same regulatory, legal and public policy pressures that another group faced between 2006 and the present — yet that new group of public officials stopped the biggest residential developer in the United States and turned around Clinton Township’s land use policy.
When a political candidate complains of ”negativity” when his public record is cited — it’s probably because the public record is not very favorable.