Thursday, January 21, 2016
Lobbyist Controversy Discussed at RCA Meeting
The controversy over the Radburn Board of Trustees' secret hiring of a lobbyist was the headlining event at Wednesday night's RCA meeting. The club room at the Grange was packed with what appeared to be more than fifty residents, including some current and former trustees. And there was no shortage of opinions, history lessons, and statements of fact being shared and discussed.
At the outset of the meeting, RCA President, Jill Davis, and her officers handed out name tags and encouraged everyone to sign in and participate. Jill opened the meeting by stating that the letter she sent to the community in early January regarding NJ Bill A469 and the engagement of a lobbyist by the RA was criticized by some residents and board members as being one-sided. Her response to that criticism was that she felt the RCA took a neutral position on the subject and that it is the duty of the RCA President to represent the entire community and keep all residents informed.
The next thirty minutes were allocated to standing agenda items and committee reports, such as sports & recreation and community events. One resident brought up how nice the new tennis courts are but wondered if it was wise to leave the nets up all winter, especially after new nets were just installed. It was agreed that the office should be informed about that. The dialogue committee was also briefly discussed, and Joy Bradway, committee Chair, read the mission statement and summarized the goals and purpose of the committee. Information will be posted to the RCA Facebook page.
The topic that was on the minds of all who were in attendance was the legislative bill (A469) and the controversial actions taken by the trustees in response to it. Eric Schutz began the conversation by presenting a summary of the bill and what it sought to achieve. There was also a hand out, that some residents who are in support of the bill collaborated on, called "36 Things You Need to Know About Radburn." This Q&A document is also available on a website called Radburn United and addresses questions such as "Who is in charge of the Radburn Association" and "Did the board have a right to hire a lobbyist without disclosure to the community."
It is not an overstatement to say that practically all residents who were in attendance were confused and upset by the actions of the board. Some recounted stories of years past when the board behaved in similar fashion by failing to consult with the community about the sale of Daly Field. Ron Coll even presented the New York Times article from 1987 where Don Morris, then President of the RA, stated that residents wouldn't be ignored on the eventual fate of Daly Field. In that article, Mr. Morris was quoted as saying ''Nothing will be done without input from residents. It'll be done as a community, not by the board of trustees. We're not Tammany Hall."
The secretive decision by the board to hire a lobbyist, followed by their hubristic defiance to not acknowledge their error and apologize for that action, was a stark reminder of the Daly Field days for those who lived through it, and was a serious wake up call to new residents of the unfettered power of the board of trustees. "We're told that we have $4 million in investments with UBS, but we aren't allowed to see the performance reports. I guess we're just supposed to trust that it's there", someone quipped. "Regardless of what anyone thinks about the bill, the trustees decided to spend our money without our knowledge, and I'm not ok with that", said another resident.
"Privileged information cannot be both public and private", said Craig Lechner. "If the board can claim attorney-client privilege when information was clearly available to the public, what's to stop them from claiming that same privilege on everything they do? What else don't we know about", he asked. Ron Coll expanded on that question by explaining that attorney-client privilege is designed to protect the client, not the attorney. If the Radburn attorney advised the trustees to claim attorney-client privilege as a reason to not disclose to residents the contract with the lobbyist, then the board might want to rethink their relationship with that attorney, he suggested.
This dialogue seemed to illustrate the main theme of the discussion: What recourse do residents have when trustees breach the trust of the community they are supposed to represent?
On the flip side, one resident took the board's point of view and asked if anyone knew when the bill was brought to the NJ Legislature. The suggestion being that those who were responsible for doing that did so without anyone else knowing, ergo those people should also be held accountable. June Meyerson was quick to counter that allusion by explaining that the courts specifically instructed the plaintiffs of the Moore v Radburn case to petition the legislature if they wanted any possibility of reform; which is exactly what they did. When asked again when this occurred, Eric Schutz explained that the records are publicly available on the NJ Legislature site, and anyone can search for all types of bills that were introduced in various legislative sessions.
*As a side note, the bill was originally introduced in 2011 under A4080.
The conversation quickly became focused specifically on the bill itself and questions were buzzing about why the trustees would be willing to spend so much money in order to fight it. After a lot of back and forth on that, Lou DiGeronimo spoke up and presented another question: "What is the ultimate gain that we, as residents, are getting by the RA trying to defeat this law?" To him and many others in the community, the action taken by the board to secretly hire a lobbyist is a blatant misuse of funds, since it seems to only benefit a select minority who are already members. He went on to say that if the board does not dismiss the lobbyist, he will file a criminal complaint against the Radburn Association since the decision to enter into the contract without an open voting meeting was not only for the trustees' personal gain, but was also a violation of New Jersey law.
Marion Paganello, the Vice President of the board, was in attendance and took offense to that assertion. She said that the board is made up of volunteers who serve the community and the idea of "personal gain" was very pejorative. "I am hopeful that we can all come to an understanding so another lawsuit could be avoided", she concluded. Mr. DiGeronimo quickly retorted that a criminal lawsuit is much different from a civil lawsuit, and he would personally see to it that the board is held accountable if they don't cancel the contract. Residents also remained skeptical of the board and their motivations. "Personal gain doesn't have to be only about money", one resident proclaimed. "It can also be about power."
The comments and questions by the majority of people in attendance suggested that residents were not only in support of substantive change - be it in the form of legislative mandate or self correction by the board - but were angry at the current state of relations between the board and residents. It was brought up that Radburn is the only community in New Jersey that has a two class system of dues-paying unit owners, and this simple fact has led many to question the future viability of maintaining this status quo.
As with any home-owner association community, there is obviously no panacea to avoid disputes between residents and management. It's bound to happen from time to time. But to support the claim that the Radburn system of governance is not broken or not easily manipulated or is functioning just fine, is to be either unconcerned for the future well being of this community, or simply ignorant to the current state of affairs.
As summed up by a resident at the conclusion of the meeting, "It's time to bring Radburn into the 21st century."