BLOOMFIELD, NJ — An Appellate Division court ruled in favor of four Bloomfield residents who alleged that 2nd Ward Councilman Nicholas Joanow had a conflict of interest when he voted for a $10 million bonding ordinance to finance the purchase by the town of property contiguous to his own. This ruling reversed a lower court decision and invalidates the bonding ordinance.
On Oct. 17, 2016, the three-judge panel said Joanow’s motives to purchase a 12-acre tract, for a proposed park, were immaterial. They concluded that he should not have voted to prevent any possibility of self-interest.
The land in question is on Lion Gate Drive. A developer had begun construction of a proposed residential project but stopped that project in order to sell the property to the township. The judges asserted that “development of the Lion Gate property, as a park rather than a 104-unit townhouse project, clearly would have had a financial impact on Joanow’s property, whether it be good, bad or whatever.”
The four Bloomfield residents who filed the lawsuit are Russell Mollica, James Wollner, Chris Stanziale and former Mayor Raymond McCarthy. They were represented by Mark Maryanski. The township and Joanow were represented by Kevin McManimon.
McManimon would not comment for this story. Maryanski said the judges agreed with what his clients were saying all along. “Now the question is what happens,” he said.
The attorney said that because of the ruling everything based upon the bonding ordinance is void.
“One could argue that title to the property remains with the developer,” he said.
Local bonding laws, he said, have a mechanism in which refunding bonds can be reissued. “It’s up to the town to figure it out,” he said. “They just can’t sit down and have another council vote. I don’t see it that way.”
The original bonding ordinance was approved by a 5-2 vote. The appellate judges said that if the council does reintroduce the bonding ordinance, Joanow cannot deliberate or vote in the matter.
At the council meeting on Monday, Oct. 17, Mollica read from a prepared statement during the time set aside for public hearings.
“The issue has always been a conflict of interest,” he said. “Councilman Joanow had full knowledge of the ethical laws governing a public official’s behavior.”
Mollica said on Jan. 26, 2011, he informed Joanow that the Lion Gate tract was in foreclosure for $1.8 million.
“He did nothing about it,” Mollica said.
McCarthy, outside the council chambers, said the appeal was about a public official staying above the fray.
“It’s what I’ve been saying for years,” McCarthy said, “that Nick couldn’t vote on Lion Gate. My whole purpose was to make this above board. It was about being honest with the people.”
After the meeting, Mayor Michael Venezia said he thought the decision was totally wrong.
“The judges should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.
Venezia said the same conflict of interest argument could be made anytime a member of the council votes for something which would benefit the township. Joanow, he said, has lived at his present address for 20 years. Venezia said the council may wait until January to vote on a new bond ordinance.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Oct. 18, Venezia said he understood from several attorneys, and the appellate ruling, that the council could go ahead and vote on a new ordinance.
“The project has been held up long enough,” he said. “Ray McCarthy has always had an issue with Nick Joanow and me, and Russ because I beat him in 2013.”
Mollica was the Republican mayoral candidate in 2013.