A rare, extended discussion broke out during City Council‘s pre-meeting conference tonight when a trio of council members tried to pull a resolution authorizing a study of potential redevelopment areas.
A resolution authorizing the Planning Board to study six potential redevelopment areas was pulled from last month’s meeting agenda. A new resolution (AR-219-16) emerged on tonight’s agenda which was essentially the same, identifying about 120 properties in six areas that the Planning Board would study to determine if they qualify as a condemnation redevelopment area, pursuant to Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1). The Redevelopment Agency formally requested a preliminary study in October and the process includes the Planning Board as well.
A motion to pull the resolution failed by a 6-3 vote after a discussion that lasted about 30 minutes (the entire meeting lasted less than 40 minutes). Third Ward Councilman Bob Bresenhan, 2nd Ward Councilman Michael Cox and 5th Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier voted to pull the resolution. The properties to be studied are located throughout the city but primarily six areas, most falling within the 1st Ward along Elizabeth Avenue, or the 2nd and 5th Wards, along West Grand Avenue (depending on which side).
Here’s a map of the properties identified in the resolution (several lack a specific address so they might appear in the incorrect location on this Google Map) but a block and lot number is provided along with some other relevant data). If you’re interested, you can cross-reference any incorrect locations with the block and lot in this spreadsheet.
At issue was an apparent meeting four council members had with the administration just prior to the pre-meeting conference. The three members who supported pulling the resolution were not at the meeting and argued that they lacked adequate information.
Cox called it the longest discussion in his eight years on the governing body. There have always been conversations in the weeks or months before voting on a measure but “this was kind of dropped on us by surprise,” he said. “That’s not how government should work.” He argued that the measure is not time sensitive and with the holidays coming, nothing will happen until January anyway, suggesting the resolution be tabled out of courtesy so all council members can be informed.
City Council President James Baker said the balance of City Council will have the opportunity to meet before the next regular meeting.
The governing body’s pre-meeting conference is held the week before a regular meeting to set the agenda, not to vote on any legislation. Typically it involves little discussion with the City Council president merely assigning which council members will provide the motion and second on resolutions and ordinances to be voted upon at the regular meeting.
Bresenhan recommended that in the future, all council members be privy to meetings and not just some members at one time with the balance at a later date. “We are not informed, we need a level playing field.”
City Attorney Brian Hak clarified that the meeting within the administration was kept to four members of City Council as any more would violate open public meeting laws. A meeting of at least five of nine City Council members would require a public notice since it constitutes a quorum where official business can be conducted.
In a brief interview after the meeting, City Administrator Cherron Rountree defended meeting with few enough council members to avoid a quorum, saying it’s akin to a subcommittee meeting which is not an uncommon practice in other municipalities. She also stressed that she’s always open to communication and routinely answers questions from council members as things arise. Asked why a presentation isn’t made before the full governing body during the pre-meeting conference, Rountree said questions often come come up on an ad hoc basis.
Lack of information wasn’t the only issue though. The idea of condemnation redevelopment was a concern.
Wenson-Maier suggested there are other tools that can be used, including non-condemnation redevelopment or designating the whole town as a redevelopment area. “I’m not against redevelopment, I’ve voted for each redevelopment project in the past,” she said. Information is lacking about vacant properties, code enforcement issues, tax liens or foreclosures within the potential redevelopment areas. “This needs to be studied within the city itself,” she said.
“The purpose of the resolution is to investigate that and authorize a study to take place. That information is gathered during the process, which must begin somewhere,” Hak said.
Wenson-Maier countered that the same study can be done without a resolution, instead hiring a planner to investigate potential redevelopment areas.
“The language in here bothers me,” Bresenhan said. “Government overreach scares me, the way the resolution is currently written,” he said, suggesting alternatives, such as “non-condemnation redevelopment” or areas “in need of rehabilitation.”
Councilman At-large Jeremy Mojica stressed the key word is preliminary. “It’s something just to look into, it doesn’t have to be decided on what’s condemned.” City Council can vote yes or no on plan in the future. A preliminary investigation may yield valuable information to the city, he added.
The study would go to the Planning Board but eventually come before the governing body again, Sixth Ward Councilman Ray Giacobbe, Jr. said. Properties within a redevelopment area can be determined at a later date.
Fourth Ward Councilman David Brown said three properties are identified within his ward for investigation. “I did get some satisfaction in what they’re trying to do,” he said, adding that the city has treated people fairly in the history of redevelopment. Canceling the resolution would just prolong the process by a month or two. “I’m quite sure council members will get the chance before the next meeting to be spoken to so I’m ready to move forward,” he said.