WEST ORANGE, NJ — After a resolution designating the Essex Green and Executive Drive area as “in need of redevelopment” was passed at the Jan. 9 Township Council meeting, council members are questioning why town planner Paul Grygiel was not at the meeting to answer questions from the council about his report and recommendation regarding the property. The council resolution came after the Planning Board approved Grygiel’s recommendation at its Dec. 6, 2017, meeting.
At the Jan. 9 council meeting, Councilman Joe Krakoviak asked why Grygiel was not at the meeting, after mentioning that the council members — with the exception of council President Susan McCartney, the liaison to the planning board — did not have the chance to ask questions or comment on Grygiel’s report at either of the two planning board hearings on the subject, as they had been advised by the administration not to participate.
“It really prevents us from questioning … him on this study that he made that we’re supposed to be taking under advisement in whether we as the council are going to determine whether there’s an area in need of redevelopment,” Krakoviak said.
In response, township attorney Richard Trenk said that he and his associates had conducted research that ultimately showed that Grygiel was not legally allowed to be present at the council meeting to answer questions from the council members.
“Obviously I want, as a legal matter, to tell you why unfortunately or correctly under the law, Councilman Krakoviak is inaccurate as a matter of law,” Trenk said at the meeting. “Your function tonight is to either approve the recommendation of the planning board or not.
“Your job is not to find facts,” he continued. “Your job is to say whether or not the report and recommendation you’ve been given by the planning board is sufficient in your opinion.”
Krakoviak expressed his dismay at not being able to ask Grygiel questions about his study, and asked the other council members to consider not voting on the resolution until they were able to do so.
“I find that astounding that we as the council are being asked to make these decisions without being able to question the people, the person that put together this study,” he said. “It just boggles my mind.”
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino also expressed disappointment that Grygiel was not present, though said at the Jan. 9 meeting that she felt she had all the information she needed before voting. The council ultimately passed the resolution 4-1, with Krakoviak in the minority.
At the Jan. 23 council meeting, Krakoviak again questioned why Grygiel had not been at the Jan. 9 meeting, citing an example of a past redevelopment resolution where a planner had attended the council meeting. On Oct. 26, 2016, the council approved a resolution to designate Central Valley Corridor as an “area in need of redevelopment.” At that meeting, Peter Van den Kooy of Planner-Matrix Engineering, the firm that had prepared the property study, was present and answered the council’s questions about the area in question.
Krakoviak wanted to know why the council was not able to ask Grygiel questions about his report when they were able to question the planner in a similar situation in 2016.
In an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Jan. 26, Trenk summarized the redevelopment process, beginning in September when the council approved Grygiel to conduct the survey and write the report. He did not tell the Chronicle why the council members were not able to question Grygiel, though did say at the Jan. 9 meeting that, if council members were to ask Grygiel questions, it would add information to the record, which was completed by the planning board, saying that “the record is the record that the Planning Board provided you with.”
“The Planning Board had extensive public hearings and Planner Grygiel testified and was subject to cross examination. The Planning Board acted and provided a detailed Resolution to the Council. The Council voted overwhelmingly to accept the recommendation,” Trenk told the Chronicle.
When asked to clarify why Grygiel was not at the Jan. 9 council meeting despite the fact that the planner from the Central Valley Corridor report was at the Oct. 26, 2016, meeting, Trenk did not answer the question.
“The planning board obtains the study and takes appropriate testimony with cross examination by the public,” he said in an email on Jan. 29. “The council determines whether to accept the planning board recommendation or not.”
The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:12A, does not say that the local governing body is required to ask the planner questions of their own, but also does not say that they are legally prohibited from doing so.
“A municipal governing body shall have the power to: (1) Cause a preliminary investigation to be made pursuant to subsection a. of section 6 of P.L. 1992, c. 79(C.40A:12A-6) as to whether an area is in need of redevelopment; (2) Determine pursuant to subsection b. of section 6 of P.L. 1992, c.79 (C.40A:12A-6) that an area is in need of redevelopment; (3) Adopt a redevelopment plan pursuant to section 7 of P.L. 1992, c.79 (C.40A:12A-7);(4) Determine pursuant to section 14 of P.L. 1992, c.79 (C.40A:12A-14) that an area is in need of rehabilitation,” the law reads.
One reason Krakoviak said he wanted Grygiel to attend the Jan. 9 meeting was because council members had been advised that they should not participate in the planning board process. Though they were not prohibited from asking questions at planning board hearings, they were advised not to do so by the administration.
According to Frank Marshall, staff attorney for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, council members are not legally prohibited from asking questions at planning board hearings.
“There are exceptions, but there’s not a complete ban,” Marshall said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Jan. 26. “They live in the town and can ask, not in their capacity as an official, but as someone who will be affected by it.”
At the Jan. 9 meeting, Trenk said that the council’s job was to consider the planning board’s recommendation, not to re-examine the issue.
“Your function tonight is to either accept the recommendation or not. It is not to go beyond it,” he said. “This is an appellate, not in the sense of court, but that is not your role tonight, to examine the plan. It’s not. I’m sorry that you disagree, but that’s the law department’s analysis on this issue.
“We didn’t ignore you at all. We looked at it. We could not find any other instances where the governing body was involved in that issue.”