Township Council Nixes Private Meeting With Rutgers Plaza Owner Over Zoning Change

Township Councilman James Vassanella makes a point September 28 during a discussion about a private meeting among Council members, the owner of Rutgers Plaza and their attorneys.

The idea of a private meeting involving some Township Council members and the owner of the Rutgers Plaza to discuss the latter’s plans for the former K-Mart building were nixed by the Council at its September 28 meeting.

It was not known which Council members would have attended the meeting with Levin Management and its attorney, as well as township attorney Lou Rainone.

Levin has withdrawn its application to raze the K-Mart building to build a four-story apartment building, and has instead scheduled an “informal” session with the Planning Board on October 12 to discuss changing the area’s zoning from commercial to residential.

The meeting involving Council members was broached by Mayor Phil Kramer, who said such a meeting is against the Council’s “culture” that has been in place for 13 or 14 years.

“I am against them doing that, especially in the Kmart case because they are going to present it to the Planning Board Council members can just watch it on TV,” Kramer said.

Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5) then asked if a stenographer could be at the meeting to create a transcript of what was said.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Vassanella said of the meeting. “I heard about it a few days back. I hope it doesn’t take place.”

When he was informed that because the meeting would most likely involve attorney-client privilege issues, a stenographer could not be present, Vassanella moved that the meeting not take place at all.

“I’ll make a motion … that we just do not have a meeting with the developer and let this play out in front of the Planning Board,” he said.

Councilman Ram Anbarasan (D-At Large) took exception to Vassanella’s motion, calling it unfair.

He said if a taxpayer wants to meet with the Council, with attorneys, “as elected officials of this town, are you saying we can’t meet with anybody?”

Township Manager Robert Vornlocker said elected officials meeting with developers is one way a town’s citizens’ wishes could be relayed to the developers. Others, he said, is for the citizens to attend Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment meetings, and express their wishes directly to the developer, or for a town’s planning staff to do so.

“But your township council can’t tell them that unless they can meet with them,” he said. “It is done like that all over the state and all over the country, where people have an idea of what they’d like to do, and they bring it to their elected officials.”

“When there is a major zoning change involved … I think it’s good to not meet,” Vassanella said.

Deputy mayor Crystal Pruitt told Vassanella that she agreed with his motin, but also said that the Council should have the ability to meet privately with developers.

“Sometimes we have to make it very clear to people who want to do things in our town that that is not acceptable … and you need to be more creative,” she said. “Sometimes that takes another person in the room, and that is not a staff member.”

“I’m supportive (of the motion), I am not in disagreement with that motion,” she said. “I’m struggling to separate it from the idea that we can’t be assertive and aggressive and call on these people to tell them what we want and what we will not stand for.”

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a discussion with someone who wants to do business in this town,” Pruitt said. “I feel that I should be able to call them out.”

“There is nothing illegal, there’s no hanky-panky going on, it is a simple informational gathering,” Ambarasan added. “I feel there’s nothing wrong in two parties meeting … it is a very myopic view to say you can’t meet.”

Kramer said the way to get messages to developers is the way it’s been done ” \for the last 10 years or more, through staff. If people really want to meet … the only way I would want it done is in public.”

“I don’t know why we would need an extra meeting,” he said. “I just don’t like the idea of a face-to-face between Council and a developer.”

The vote to cancel the meeting was unanimous. Council members Kimberly Francois and Ed Potosnak were not present at the meeting.

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