Officials return Toubin to utility board position


Staff Writer

MANALAPAN – The Township Committee has voted to reappoint Steve Toubin as a commissioner on the Western Monmouth Utilities Authority (WMUA) Board of Commissioners.

The WMUA, with headquarters on Pension Road, operates a waste water sewage treatment plant that provides service to 25,000 residential customers in Manalapan, Marlboro, Englishtown and Freehold Township.

The commissioners vote on contracts awarded by the authority, approve the operating budget and customer rates that are charged by the WMUA and conduct other business in running the operation.

The WMUA provides service calls when customers call with notice of a sewer backup; it treats the sewage at its facility and is required to provide tertiary treatment – an extra level of treatment because the treated material is not discharged into the ocean, but rather into a local brook, according to information provided by WMUA officials.

Toubin and Eric Abraham are the commissioners appointed by the Manalapan Township Committee. There are two commissioners appointed by the Marlboro Township Council, Ralph Zulferino and Jeff Hymowitz.

Toubin was one of four Manalapan residents who applied for the appointment the committee made during a special meeting held Jan. 31. The other applicants were former WMUA commissioner Joel Schechter, John McNaboe and Jeff McKay.

Although the 3-2 vote to appoint Toubin was taken in public session, the discussion on the merits and qualifications of each candidate was conducted in closed session.

Mayor Andrew Lucas, Deputy Mayor Michelle Roth and Committeeman Richard Klauber voted to appoint Toubin. Committeemen Joseph Locricchio and Anthony Gennaro voted no on Toubin’s appointment.

There were mixed opinions among the members of the governing body about whether it was necessary to hold the discussion about the candidates in closed session instead of in front of the public.

According to officials who were available for comment, the discussion of the candidates was held in closed session on the advice of Township Attorney Carolyn Casagrande.

A resolution read by the committee before going into closed session stated that the private meeting was being held to discuss matters of litigation and personnel. Those are two of the topics state law allows a governing body to discuss behind closed doors.

Township Clerk Rose Ann Weeden said the discussion was private because although the person appointed to the WMUA would not be a township employee per se, he would be receiving an approximate $5,000 annual stipend and medical benefits for the five years of the appointment and that made the matter a personnel issue.

Toubin will begin a second five-year term as a WMUA commissioner. He was initially appointed in January 2002.

Reached after the meeting, Lucas, Gennaro and Locricchio were asked about the WMUA discussion being held in closed session. They all said they followed their attorney’s advice to discuss the matter in private.

Lucas said he believed the reason for the closed session was that since Frank Abate, the WMUA’s former executive director, has been charged in a federal indictment for actions related to his tenure with the authority, it was “prudent” for the committee to discuss all of the candidates, including Toubin, who served as a commissioner during Abate’s tenure as director, out of the public light.

Lucas said he believed his administration has proven its commitment to “open government” given that “all the other processes were open.” He noted that this year’s interviews of township professionals (i.e. attorneys and engineers) had, for the first time, been conducted in public.

“If I didn’t feel we could be putting the township in an untenable position, I would have preferred the matter be conducted in public,” the mayor said.

Klauber said he voted to reappoint Toubin because of Toubin’s strong financial background. Klauber said that is an asset to the WMUA. He said he was convinced from talking with Toubin that Toubin had not been aware of any impropriety by Abate.

“I know there were some concerns about Mr. Abate, but [Toubin’s] answers satisfied me that he was unaware of any of it. I thought Mr. Toubin was a qualified candidate,” Klauber said.

Gennaro said that in agreeing to the closed session discussion he was following the advice of counsel and had not thought to question the legal advice.

When asked why he voted against reappointing Toubin, Gennaro said that since the discussion that helped him decide his vote had been held in closed session, he was not certain he could answer the question without violating the parameters of the closed session.

However, Locricchio, who agreed that the discussion about the men seeking the WMUA appointment was held in private on the advice of counsel, did not believe the members of the governing body were constrained from commenting even though the matter had been discussed behind closed doors.

Locricchio said even though he agreed to the closed session on the advice of counsel, he said he would have had no problem with the matter being discussed in open session.

Commenting on his vote not to reappoint Toubin, he said, “I could not see my way clear to voting for the person who raised the rates over 60 percent in the combined increased of 2005 and 2006, and the man who voted to give Frank Abate [a] monster pay increase.”

Locricchio also commented negatively on the WMUA appointment discussion and vote being scheduled as a special meeting agenda item.

“The matter was the subject of a special meeting, where the public never attends, because the powers that be did not want to deal with the public reaction to his (Toubin) being given another five-year term that includes with it medical benefits as well as a stipend,” he said.

When asked to comment on Locricchio’s comments regarding the Jan. 31 special meeting, Lucas said, “If a consensus could have been reached at the (Jan. 24) regular township meeting, there would have been an appointment then.”

In 2005 the WMUA raised its quarterly rates for regular customers from $81 to $105 per quarter. Among the reasons cited by the commissioners for the increase was a significant increase in operating expenses including employee benefits, chemicals, and fuel and plant repairs. In 2006, the rate for regular customers increased from $105 to $109 per quarter.

Roth was out of the country on business and not available to comment for this story.