UF may restructure environmental panel

Environmental Advisory Committee could replace the Environmental Commission in Upper Freehold, giving the township committee more control over funding and appointments.

By: Lauren Burgoon
   UPPER FREEHOLD — Mayor John Mele is considering a plan that would abolish the troubled Environmental Commission and create an Environmental Advisory Committee, a move that would give the Township Committee more control over the group.
   The plan presented at the Feb. 19 Township Committee meeting would put financial and hiring control of the now independent commission in the hands of committee members.
   "The whole point of this is to bring power back to this group (Township Committee) as this concept moves forward," he said. "That means on appointments from day one and on funding" which the Township Committee has not had control of under the current commission.
   In a later interview, Mayor Mele said an Environmental Commission was not appropriate for Upper Freehold because the group is independent, which can leave communication with the Township Committee lacking.
   "The intent as I saw it in attempting to do this was to take what exists and make it better but not have an independent authority," Township Attorney Granville Magee said. "The whole purpose being better communication in town, with you … and with everybody."
   According to Mr. Magee’s summary of the proposal, the committee would differ from the current commission in several ways. The plan requires at least one farmer to sit on the committee, while now there is no quota. The committee would have nine members, as opposed to the current seven-member commission. Also the entire Township Committee would appoint committee members. As it stands now, the mayor has the power to appoint commissioners, though traditionally in Upper Freehold the committee has had input.
   Mayor Mele’s plan also calls for committee members to serve staggered three-year terms with appointment dates retroactive to January. The committee would receive funding from the Township Committee and would be able to hire professionals from that funding. Additionally one Township Committee member also would sit on the panel.
   Mayor Mele and Mr. Magee stressed that the ideas presented were not set in stone. Among the possible changes Mr. Magee hinted at was a provision that the mayor would appoint the committee chairman. Mr. Magee said he considered advising Mayor Mele to give that power to the entire Township Committee.
   The committee did not call a vote to introduce an ordinance about the Environmental Commission. Instead the group voted on a motion to discuss the mayor’s ideas, a move that kept the document from becoming public.
   The mayor said he decided to hold the discussion in public to debunk any idea that the Township Committee has been dodging Environmental Commission issues. Some residents accused the committee of inaction over the reappointment of Commissioners Bob Cottrell and Sue Kozel, which members denied.
   "We have to present to the public that I am not sitting on my hands doing nothing and that the committee is not sitting on their hands doing nothing," Mayor Mele said. "This is a very important decision for the committee to make and I want to make sure we have time to make it."
   The change from a commission to a committee has ramifications on the group’s structure. According to the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, one environmental commissioner is required to sit on the Planning Board. The commission also must meet the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and keep meeting records and give annual reports. Committees are not bound by these requirements.
   During the discussion, committeemen revealed the township’s Environmental Commission may not have been adhering to the regulations. In response to a question from Committeeman Stephen Alexander, Business Administrator Barbara Bascom said she was not aware if the commission had ever filed comprehensive reports or meeting minutes.
   Committeeman Sal Diecidue said fixing the problems might be more appropriate than abolishing the commission in favor of a committee. He compared the circumstances to car troubles.
   "I have a leak in my radiator and the first thing someone told me is to get a new truck. Why not fix it for a $100 instead of spending $30,000 for a new truck?" he said. "I’d rather see the energies focused on trying to fix the commission than jump to a committee."
   Committeeman David Horsnall said he favored a plan that would give the Township Committee more control over problems with the Environmental Commission.
   "I believe that the governing body under the committee form has a much easier job in realigning the makeup of the Environmental Advisory Committee," he said. "It makes it easier for the Township Committee to adequately represent the interests of the township. Unless somebody can show me where this weakens this township’s ability to control their own destiny then I am very much in favor of an Environmental Advisory Committee."
   Controversial Environmental Commissioner Kozel later said the plan does exactly that. She said taking away control from the commissioner would make it easier to remove people who speak out against the commission or Township Committee.
   The mayor denied that and said, "The purpose is to get better communication among the boards. This by no means weakens the commission. It actually strengthens it because there will be professional involvement."
   Commission Chairman David Perlman came out in favor of the proposed changes after the meeting.
   "I haven’t seen anything in writing but I think the concept is a good idea," Mr. Perlman said. "It prevents the wrong people from getting a hold of the Environmental Commission and ruining the township."
   He added that the Environmental Commission should not have control of itself but should be an advisory panel to the township.
   The idea to overhaul the Environmental Commission came months ago at the time of a commissioner’s criticism that group members were pro-development, Mayor Mele said. Ms. Kozel has acknowledged making those complaints and has said her fellow commissioners’ retaliation was to a write a letter to the mayor asking that she not be reappointed based on her personality clashes with the group.
   Mayor Mele said the proposed changes were not motivated by personality conflicts, but by concerns that the commission was not functioning properly.
   "I’m not interested in personality issues," he said. "Someone raised an issue and it’s my job to fix it."
   The fate of current commissioners if the committee plan moves forward has not been decided, Mayor Mele said.
   The Township Committee will continue to discuss the proposed plan at tonight’s (Thursday) workshop meeting.