County Democrats Say Open Space Purchase Announced Prematurely To Boost GOP Freeholder Campaign

Claim emails show the announcement was made before deal is done to boost Freeholder campaigns of Levine, Palmer

Brian Levine1

Township Mayor Brian Levine, a Republican county Freeholder candidate, said he knew nothing about the timing of a press release issued by the county to tout the purchase of open space in the township.

Somerset County Democrats claim that an announcement made earlier this month about the purchase of open space in the township was released before the purchase was actually completed to help boost the campaigns of Republican freeholder candidates.

The Democrats say their case is borne out by an email conversation held by Fran Varacalli, the township’s open space consultant, and Tom Boccino, the principal planner for the Somerset County Parks Commission.

On Oct. 9, Somerset County announced the joint acquisition – with the township – of about 187 acres bordered by Canal Road, Route 518 and Old Georgetown Road. The land was sold by the owners of Trap Rock Industries. The township will put up 10 percent of the property’s $5.1 million price tag.

The county’s press release announcing the acquisition includes quotes from Freeholder Peter S. Palmer and township Mayor Brian Levine, the Republican candidates for freeholder.

They are being opposed by Democrats Anthony Pranzatelli and Joan Pritchard.

In Oct. 15 emails between Varacalli and Boccino, Varacalli questions whether the township and county had actually closed on the property.

“The twp. Does not have signed documents and (I was) not aware the property closed,” Varacalli wrote. “How did you close without Twp funds?”

A few minutes later, Boccino answered, saying the release was “fast-tracked” for the election.

“We have not closed yet,” he wrote. “Contracts were just signed.  We will need to be in touch with the Township to coordinate the funds for closing so you will know when the closing gets closer.  We still need to prepare the survey and perform our environmental assessment.  We fast tracked the release primarily for the election.”

The township has not yet been approached about its share of the purchase price, which comes to about $500,000, said township manager Bob Vornlocker.

“The latest information received by the Township regarding the current status was received from Tom Boccino in an email dated 10/15/14 at which time we were advised that the sale had not closed but that a contract had been signed,” Vornlocker said in an email.

Varacalli confirmed the authenticity of the emails quoted in the Democrats’ release, but would say nothing more.

“I’ll be making no further comments on this issue,” she said.

Boccino did not return a request for comment.

Democrats say the Boccino may have violated state ethics rules regarding government employees engaging in political activities while working.

“Not only is Boccino’s confession in violation of state ethics regulations that prohibit government employees from political activity on government-provided property (including emails), but it also reveals that Somerset County officials deliberately deceived the public when they proclaimed the Open Space acquisition as finalized on October 9, 2014,” the release said.

“To prematurely publicize an agreement that politically benefits our opponents, and admitting to doing so while clearly violating the law, shows that they can’t be trusted to be honest with the public,” Pranzatelli and Pritchard said in a joint release. “This behavior is a case of playing partisan politics at our expense, and Somerset County residents definitely deserve better from their public officials.”

In a statement, Somerset County attorney William T. Cooper III wrote, “The Trap Rock Stavola Property has been listed in the Somerset County Park Acquisition Plan under the South County Initiative since September 2000. The County began discussions with the owners of these properties in connection with easements for the Route 518 realignment. It was during these discussions that the County learned that the property owners were willing to sell.

“In March 2014, County officials began negotiations with the property owners that culminated in the Somerset County Freeholder Board considering the purchase on April 8, 2014,” Cooper wrote. “Franklin Township supported the purchase, agreeing to pay up to 10% of the purchase price. On June 24, 2014, the Board authorized the formal offer to Trap Rock. On or about August 27, 2014, formal contracts to purchase were forwarded to the Trap Rock-Stavola attorney. The contracts were executed and returned to the County on or about October 1, 2014. The County press release was issued on October 9, 2014.”

Levine said he knew nothing of the timing of the release about the acquisition.

“Nothing was ever said or briefed to me,” he said.

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