Councilmen claim they were tricked into purchasing YWCA

EAST ORANGE, NJ — According to East Ward Councilman and mayoral candidate Kerry Coley and West Ward Councilman Harold J. Johnson, the YWCA deal Mayor Dwayne Warren has been pushing City Council to approve was already done last year.

The Warren administration has expressed an interest in buying the old YWCA building on Main Street for $1.5 million using a grant for $2.5 million from the state Department of Community Affairs, to turn it into a new recreation center.

Coley and Johnson have alleged the Warren administration tricked the council into voting to approve Resolution No. 112-2015 to lease the old YWCA building with an option to buy at a later date, pending review and approval by the council. In actuality, they said the mayor had already agreed to buy the old YWCA, regardless of whether the administration planned to ask for permission to do so. Therefore, the councilmen insist, a resolution to buy the YWCA on the council’s meeting agenda for Tuesday, Feb. 2, is moot.

“Read paragraph 23 of the YWCA lease agreement,” Coley said Saturday, Jan. 30. “Attached are some very important documents that confirm that the mayor and city attorney Dan Smith exercised the option to purchase the YWCA back in August 2015, without the governing body approval. At the Feb. 2, 2016, meeting, Resolution 27-2016 is on the agenda for the council to approve the purchase of the YWCA. According to the signed attached letters by the mayor and Dan Smith, no further action is required by the city. To me, it looks like they are attempting to have the council clean up their mess.”

Johnson said the Warren administration refused to give him information that he and other council members had requested regarding the YWCA purchase, despite multiple meetings with the mayor regarding the deal, until a special meeting the council requested finally took place Wednesday, Jan. 27. According to Johnson, it was only because he had filed an Open Public Records Act request that the documentation about the YWCA deal was released.

“The administration crafted a very deceptive Resolution No. 112-2015 that only needed the council to vote once on April 7, 2015, to allow them to lease, exercise the option and to purchase, without ever coming back to the council,” Johnson said Sunday, Jan. 31. “The administration’s intent was to purchase the building in ‘as is’ condition from the start. The most important date in the contract was July 31, 2015, that was later amended to be Aug. 14, 2015. So, as you can see by the execution of these documents by the Warren administration, they have a closing date set for Feb. 28, 2016.”

Johnson and Coley said that means the YWCA deal is already done. But Council President April Gaunt-Butler disagreed.
“It is on the agenda for tomorrow night,” said Gaunt-Butler on Monday, Feb. 1. “And the council needs to vote on it before the project can move forward.”

Coley and Johnson said Gaunt-Butler was wrong. They said that, based on the documentation Johnson received from the Warren administration then forwarded to the rest of their council colleagues, the YWCA deal was officially already done last year.

Johnson said the scheduled vote on Tuesday, Feb. 2, covered up the fact the Warren administration had fooled the council majority last year. He also said it’s a last-ditch effort to clean up the fact the administration has been refusing to give the council the information and details about the YWCA deal they asked for last year.

“When I started asking about due diligence reports that had to be signed off by the YWCA bankruptcy trustee, the administration had to try and scramble to come up with something. All along, I was questioning how could we, the council, move on the option to purchase if we had no idea what we were buying? That made the administration dig in and not provide those three documents that would have explained everything back on Aug. 14, 2015. So I started to tell the community via emails the Warren administration was withholding important information from me, as a council member. At the council meetings, I kept asking the mayor or anyone from the Law Department — ‘Where were the documents?’ — because I knew they had to exist. Again, they were a requirement of the resolution.”

“Here comes the challenge for the administration, convincing the council that they entered into the lease agreement, exercised the option to purchase and authorized the purchase of the YWCA building at 395 Main St. at the April 7, 2015, with no idea how we were going to pay for it, what was going to be the cost of repairs and what was the real financial impact this venture would have on future budgets. The Warren administration sold this thing by saying they had money for the purchase, money to do all of the repairs and that it would pay for itself with all of the program fees and joint ventures with the YWCA nonprofit.”

However, according to Warren, his administration has never tried to hide anything about the YWCA deal. He also said his administration does not withhold public information.

“We strive to always fully comply with the Open Public Records Act,” Warren said Monday, Feb. 1.