Note: More on this meeting, including a potential lawsuit against AcuteCare and debates over appointing a new councilman, will appear in the Aug. 13 edition of The Link News.
By Neil Schulman
Oceanport — Tempers flared at Thursday night’s Borough Council meeting over how Oceanport is being run.
Critics of Mayor Michael Mahon, including Councilman Joe Irace, said the mayor and Borough Administrator John Bennett are excluding them from discussions.
Mahon responded that he always gets input from council members on major decisions, and that in recent weeks groups have started making false accusations and “character assassination” on Facebook and elsewhere in the community.
It was an angry night at the Maple Place School auditorium where the meeting was held, with police approaching the council early on as Bennett and Irace stood up and started shouting at each other.
Borough resident Jay Coffey, who had sent out a mass email earlier asking residents to attend the meeting where he would bring up his concerns, was asking about revisions to the personnel policy manual.
Soon after Coffey began, saying he had questions, it was clear that Irace and Mahon were not on the same page.
Mahon said that Coffey should say what he wanted, and he and others would respond it appropriately. “It’s difficult to respond to people who are intent on making a point,” Mahon said.
“We’ve always made a practice of answering the public’s questions,” Irace responded.
The personnel changes were supposed to be ready by the end of June for the borough’s Finance Committee to review.
Irace, who said he sits on the committee, said he had not gotten them. He also said that former council president Bert Lynch, who resigned in July, had not seen them either.
But Bennett and Mahon said Irace was not technically a member of the committee, but had only been appointed as the mayor’s designee on the three-member committee. Since Mahon wanted to have a say on this issue, Irace was not serving on it currently.
When Irace said he and Lynch had asked for them and not seen them, Bennett responded “That’s not true.”
Both were soon standing up, yelling at each other, “You’re a liar!” Police approached, and Irace walked out of the meeting, returning several minutes later.
Both later apologized for losing their temper.
Mahon said that this issue with the personnel manual concerned some recent work done on it, saying that the finance committee had done “exemplary” work “with saving the borough money.”
Mahon said that Lynch wanted to revise the policy of sick time, comp days and vacation days, eliminating those three different categories and giving employees a set number of days to take off when they wanted, without choosing a category.
Mahon said that after seeing the proposed revisions, which were finished on May 31, he had some concerns, including the fact there were no checks in place to keep all of the borough staff from calling out the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Mahon said when he told Lynch his concerns, Lynch’s reaction was “who the hell are you?”
While some said the tensions have been brewing for a long time, Mahon characterized this attitude between him and some other council members as new.
“Up until the last four weeks, with the character assassination that’s taken place on Facebook… the character of the committee was ‘we,’” Mahon said.
“Ha!” responded Irace.
Speakers noted that Lynch isn’t the only person to resign. Coffey said that several employees, including the borough’s CFO and subcode officer, have also stepped down recently.
Lynch is the second council member to resign this year. Earlier, Gerald Bertekap left, saying his work schedule conflicted with meetings.
Lynch’s resignation letter said he was stepping down due to family concerns. Mahon said he chose to take the statement at face value, and said he had set up a meeting to discuss some of his concerns about personnel in late July, which never took place because of the resignation.
In addition to concerns about the personnel manual, Coffey and Irace also complained about several other issues. Those included Bennett’s lack of contract.
Bennett has served as borough administrator for two years, and was borough attorney before that. While he and Mahon say he has an agreement with the borough, there is no written contract in place.
Bennett and Mahon said that in a closed session meeting, details of his contract were worked out. He is paid a salary, but gets no health or other benefits. In addition to being Administrator, he serves as the head of the Public Works department.
Originally, he was going to be both Borough Administrator and Attorney, but after Coffey pointed out rulings saying that posed ethical concerns, Bennett took over the public works role instead.
He said that he’s still an attorney, but is only helping his daughter with her practice.
Still, a contract detailing his responsibilities, and whether he could work outside the borough as an attorney, has never been prepared.
“Was this agreed?” Irace asked.
“You were sitting there at the time,” Bennett replied.
Mahon said that in September the council will prepare a formal contract.
Councilman Chris Paglia was not present, but left a letter which was read into the record. He said that he’s seen the tone change recently.
“At various points in the past year, 50 percent of council members have not been on speaking terms with the mayor,” Paglia wrote. “This lack of communication must stop, and it must stop at once.”
He said he believes it was a reason Lynch resigned.
Paglia said that when the business administrator tells council something, they should both be able to take that on faith, and be able to verify it if needed.
He also said that the fights on council – which are “just as much my fault” – are part of the reason he’s not seeking another term this November.
“I’m not running again in November because I don’t think I’m making a difference.”
Mahon, who said he wouldn’t respond to the attacks made on him on Facebook, said that he always tried to get council’s input, but that it was also important to understand the roles of government, and when the mayor or administrator has authority instead of council members.
He highlighted the many achievements and challenges he and the council have faced together in recent years, including affordable housing suits, Fort Monmouth issues, and Superstorm Sandy.
“It is important to communicate,” he said.
Irace wasn’t buying this.
“The mayor is so delusional, he thinks everything is fine,” he said. “The truth is the truth.”
Following the mayor’s remark, a member of the public wanted to respond. Mahon refused, saying the public portion of the meeting had already been closed.
Irace said the mayor could have relaxed that rule, which the governing body often does. “This is a dictatorship,” he said.