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Council shifts elections to November, moves on Eminent Domain, Corner Cars, and more

A jam packed agenda led to a long but maybe the most productive meeting in memory with a number of initiatives passed such as moving municipal elections from May to November, establishing Corner Cars by ordinance, finalizing the budget amendment and overall budget to name several.

Dr. Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor from Stevens made
a rare appearance speaking in favor of November elections. He described
his study of the issue as near and dear to him. Many on the council and public agreed
with his primary goal of the move to increase voter turnout.

A complete discussion on campaign finance reform was halted when an error by the clerk’s office was brought to light but those ordinances were demonstrated to be legal based on a number of other NJ municipalities successfully implementing them over the last several years. The legality of the ordinances was raised over and over again but there was no tangible argument to suggest they were unconstitutional and would be challenged successfully in court. It hasn’t been voided as unconstitutional elsewhere in NJ: Atlantic County, Dumont and several others all have similar legislation on the books.

The controversy over moving on a Southwest Park began with a grandstanding press release by an Assemblyman’s aide Alex Habib via Tim Occhipinti leading 48 hours into the county deadline today. The retort from the Administration to the park politricks was to up the ante placing eminent domain on the table while stating the funds should be used where possible on behalf of Sinatra Park.

From a policy and controversy standpoint, the park item became a political football and unexpectedly led to legislation allowing the city a tool or more appropriately a hammer to identify a property for sale – putting eminent domain on the table in the Southwest.

The issue in the Southwest however has been and is one of availability. Earlier Wednesday in an interview with Freeholder Anthony Romano, the terms of the county’s $3 million grant were outlined. The Freeholder explained the county was happy to work with the mayor and council as long as the allocation terms were met. The funds must be dedicated to a specific project right down to a specific location by lot number.

A box of his own creation. Councilman Tim Occhipinti called out the Administration and colleague Councilman Dave Mello to earmark $3 million in County funds to a Southwest Park. The funds can only be applied to a property the city controls. Occhipinti never mentioned that fact and the Administration raised the stakes by invoking an eminent domain resolution. It passed in a most unusual 5-4 vote.

“Both Council members Tim Occhipinti and Dave Mello have asked to reprogram the open space fund to a park in the 4th ward,” the Freeholder said. “We’re glad to support it but you have to show a designated area to do it.”

During the City Council meeting, that point was missed although it was clearly connected to the reason for the Administration to present an eminent domain initiative. Overall most of the minority members stated it was unreasonable to be placed “in a box,” by forcing a vote on the issue.

In the end, the vote on eminent domain passed in one of the most unlikely votes of the year. Council President Ravi Bhalla challenged Councilman Tim Occhipinti to stand up and be consistent on a park for the Southwest by supporting a needed tool to make it a reality. With no seller agreeing to terms with the city, Councilman Occhipinti became the fifth critical vote breaking with the minority in an important vote for the very first time.

Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino voted no on eminent domain having inquired earlier on the standards for earmarking the $3 million in county grants. She clearly joined with the Administration in looking to have those funds allocated to Sinatra Park where they can be used now, while declining to move on the more controversial aspects of eminent domain in the 4th ward.

The meeting again displayed characteristics not seen in many months in its reasonable discussion and lack of circular arguments being repeated as has been the case at times in the past year. Council President Ravi Bhalla has shown strong leadership and a deft touch in moving the agenda forward. Although the meeting ended after midnight, it was perhaps the most productive meeting in recent memory.

The body as a whole can take credit for that as well. Was there other reasons involved?
MSV believes there is but for the moment we’ll defer from those suppositions.

Talking Ed Note: One option the City has is applying for an extension on the County grant.
A willing seller is required for the county grant regardless.

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