By Frank Fleischman III (FF3,) Lead Editor
Editor’s Note: Belleville Watch does not endorse candidates for public office. This piece reflects only the editor’s opinion about the BetterBelleville ticket, elaborated upon by use of specific examples. Nothing in this piece should suggest the endorsement of any candidate or public/elected official by Belleville Watch or its editor. The original piece, upon which this updated one is based, can be found here.
In May 2018, the BetterBelleville campaign ticket — consisting of mayoral candidate (and former 4th Ward councilman) Michael Melham and council-at-large candidates Naomy DePena and Thomas Graziano — won election. They campaigned on promises of a break with Belleville’s nasty politics, increased transparency in government, better services and more community spirit.
On balance, however, we believe they have failed. Below are but a few of the reasons we believe BetterBelleville has simply embodied age-old Belleville politics, but dressed in a newer, sleeker wrapping they try to sell as Progress:
- Melham appears to have misrepresented where he was living (he allegedly testified before the Belleville Planning Board that his primary address was in Lyndhurst) while attempting to vote in Belleville’s 2014 municipal election.
- As a one-term councilman from 2000-2004, Melham supported — some might say spearheaded — a plan to redevelop huge parcels of land in Belleville’s Valley section. Many of the parcels included residential housing — with many houses occupied by lifelong or longtime Belleville residents — as well as viable and functioning businesses. Citizens pleaded with the Town Council not to go ahead with the project, and according to many of those citizens, Melham appeared unmoved by their pleas. Thanks to local citizens banding together, the Town Council abandoned the project.
- Melham is anticipated to receive almost $200,000 in taxpayer dollars over five years from leasing his commercial property at 335 Union Avenue to the Belleville Board of Education. Three school board trustees — two whose campaign Melham directly managed, and another whose campaign seemingly received a contribution from Melham/BetterBelleville — voted for the lease instead of recusing themselves.
- Since July 2019, Melham has made moves seemingly designed to gain control over the planning board, seemingly going against state law and local ordinances, according to a top land-use attorney. Between July 2019 and June 2021, he later appointed six Class IV planning board members by memorandum, instead of having the entire Town Council vote on the appointments. Top land-use lawyer Michael Kates wrote an opinion, stating the “memorandum appointment” method was improper. Most recently, an ordinance was introduced to try to fix the issue, and the council voted 4-3 to introduce (but not yet adopt) the seemingly flawed ordinance as well as reappoint six planning board members. Mr. Kates weighed in with another opinion. Much of the controversy became public in February 2020, after Planning Board vice-chair Andrew Conte questioned the manner in which Melham appointed planning board members.
- The Belleville Public Library Board of Trustees, presided over by Melham in 2020, voted to remove the “Landscape of Belleville” painting from the library. It was re-located to Melham’s Town Hall office “for the duration of his term in office.” The painting is owned by the Belleville Historical Society and was loaned to the library for display. Melham’s original explanation was that the board voted to loan the painting to his office because it didn’t fit into the library’s new decor following renovations. He later changed that explanation, claiming it was removed from the library to his office because of concerns that water leaks from the library roof could damage the painting. There appears to be no evidence supporting Melham’s assertion about the roof at the time the board took this action. He also publicly disclosed the painting’s six-figure value, thus forcing the Belleville Historical Society to offer it to a Rutgers University museum for safe display once the Society reclaimed it in 2021.
As mayor, Melham seems to have opened wide Belleville’s gates to real estate, engineering and legal interests, while emphasizing the needs of “young professionals with disposable income.” The needs of longtime and middle-aged residents or senior citizens — many barely hanging on, between high property taxes and increased water rates — don’t appear to be a priority.
- Under Melham, Jaffe Communications has handled public relations for the township (Jaffe’s president Jonathan Jaffe has contributed money to Melham’s campaign.) The company has billed the Township thousands of dollars for public relations work that could presumably be handled in-house. Jaffe’s work for the township often seems focused on Melham. Melham seemed upset in March 2021 when Second Ward Councilman Steve Rovell suggested the council approve public relations communications before they are distributed to the media.
- The Township calendar seems to have taken on the appearance of a Melham/BetterBelleville campaign piece. Pictures of Melham, DePena, and Graziano seem to dominate the calendar. The 2022 calendar reportedly cost about $17,000 to produce and print.
- In March 2019, Melham addressed an e-mail to local realtors and sales associates. In the e-mail, Melham said he is “first and foremost a Realtor” and encouraged recipients to attend the March 26th, 2019 Town Council meeting, where Belleville development and re-development would purportedly be featured. The e-mail further states that the Realtors who attended the meeting would receive an “exclusive invite to a private meeting” with Melham.
- At least three BetterBelleville/Melham supporters have been hired as Township employees. Melham has attempted to spin this by saying new employees are often paid lower salaries or given additional responsibilities. These employees are potentially eligible to receive gold-plated healthcare benefits from Belleville’s self-insured plan.
Some may say that BetterBelleville has done good things for Belleville, but when you take a good look, you find those good things are fruit from a poisoned tree — poisoned by strong strains of the same old, same old Belleville politics.
- In late 2020, Melham claimed the Kimble Administration had for years essentially ignored increased water rates from the City of Newark, allegedly resulting in a deficit and allegedly requiring increased rates. When those projected increases were announced to the protest of residents, Melham quickly blamed accounting errors in Town Hall for inflated numbers. The Town Council later passed an ordinance featuring lower (though still significantly high) rate increases. Questions still abound as to why the rates had to be hiked so high. Belleville resident Michael Sheldon, a mathematician, analyzed water rate payments made to Newark by Belleville. If his numbers are correct, Belleville collected roughly $8 million in water rate payments from residents in 2021, but sent only about $3.5 million to Newark, seemingly leaving a $4.5 million surplus!
- Melham, DePena, and Graziano have voted to approve engineering firm Remington & Vernick for various Township engineering projects. BetterBelleville consistently received contributions from Remington & Vernick in the 2018 campaign and again in the 2022 re-election campaign. Melham has explained these votes away by saying that because the contributions are publicly reported, no conflict of interest exists.
- Both Melham and Graziano have heard and voted for applications as Planning Board members, despite some of the companies involved in planning board matters (CME, Sound Development, Neglia) apparently having contributed money to Melham/Graziano & DePena campaigns.
- In late 2021, Melham sought a Town Council vote to encourage Town Manager Anthony Iacono to suspend a Township employee pending an investigation into allegations the employee submitted invoices for work for which he was allegedly already being paid. A measure before the Town Council encouraging the town manager to suspend the employee failed to pass. Public discussion of the matter between councilmembers during a council meeting revealed the employee may have filed a “hostile workplace” complaint against Melham sometime prior to the investigation. The complaint was reportedly reviewed by an outside attorney and Melham claims he was cleared of wrongdoing. The attorney’s findings, however, may have claimed Melham and the Township hadn’t followed “best practices” in dealing with the whole matter. One might also ask if Melham had an ethical conflict in this matter, as one of Melham’s family members works in the employee’s department. Additionally, personnel matters are the Township Manager’s responsibility.
Councilpersons-at-large Naomy DePena and Thomas Graziano seemed to hitch their political fortunes to Melham, apparently at the cost of remaining largely silent on anything Melham proposed or did.
- In 2019, Melham attempted to allow energy companies to solicit residents for alternative energy plans. A Town Council majority vote defeated the measure, but not before it was discovered the BetterBelleville campaign had previously received donations from a New Jersey energy-sector political action committee.
- Melham has publicly acknowledged that his company AlphaDog Solutions has operated the Township website at least since late 2018, reportedly at no cost. He has claimed he has no hand in operating or maintaining the site, and that an assistant handles the website. In the summer of 2019, content on the Planning Board’s website mysteriously changed to reflect Melham’s claim that he could appoint most Planning Board members.
- Melham has made no secret of his fondness for high-density development (this 2017 article lays out much of what Melham/BetterBelleville has pursued, although in it he criticizes large developments on Washington Avenue.) A developer once associated with what is now the “SilverLake Apartments” on Belmont Avenue was seen in photos at a purported BetterBelleville event or fundraiser a few weeks after the 2018 election (there appears to be no record of it in campaign finance reports). The following year, the Town Council — including Melham, Graziano, and DePena — voted to give the development a decades-long tax break. Although the project itself was approved under the Kimble administration, Melham and BetterBelleville fully embraced it and hosted a rather low-key groundbreaking for the development, perhaps due to resident protest against constructing a residential development on the property, which has a toxic environment history.
- In February 2022, the developer of the high-density residential building at the corner of William Street and Washington Avenue held a $1,000 per-ticket “soiree” fundraiser for the BetterBelleville candidates at a restaurant in wealthy Englewood Cliffs. Melham, DePena, and Graziano hdd previously voted to approve a generous tax abatement package for the development.
- In 2019, when municipal water in several Essex County cities towns was found to have high levels of lead due to leaching from old lead pipes, Melham made a media spectacle of calling on the state Department of Environmental Protection to provide free water filters and developed an online petition, purportedly to be sent to the DEP commissioner. More than 1,000 residents signed, but there appears to be no evidence the petition was ever sent.
- Melham garnered publicity about the remains of Chinese laborers buried on the grounds and under the basement of the Belleville Dutch Reformed Church. Township officials allegedly invited a geophysics professor and students from Rutgers University to the site to do some research, seemingly without the consent of the church’s pastor. The basement is full of coal ash and was not sufficiently clear for the students and the professor to do the necessary sonar work. Belleville Historical Society president Michael Perrone issued a press release as a corrective to Melham’s claims.
- In April 2020, early in the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, Melham publicly said he believed he had Covid-19 in late 2019, due to suffering similar symptoms after attending a conference in Atlantic City. He claimed his doctor gave him a Coronavirus antibody test, which experts say was sometimes inaccurate when first produced. Experts agree that the first Covid-19 cases were found in China in 2019 and the first US cases were detected in January 2020. Melham was interviewed and his words were featured by Chinese Communist media outlets and the Chinese government quickly seized on Melham’s foolish media statements as propaganda to refute claims that Covid-19 originated in China. The media blitz led some to refer to Melham as “Mayor Zero.”
- Melham refused to even consider adopting a resolution encouraging the State of New Jersey to further investigate possible criminal activity related to the nearly $4 million school board deficit incurred in 2014, for which taxpayers are paying almost $400,000 a year to pay back a state loan designed to close that deficit.
- The Planning Board under the Kimble Administration approved plans for the warehouse being built at the Walter Kidde property, despite Melham’s seeming attempts to capitalize on the development. Melham also takes credit for upgrades to the municipal stadium, although the groundwork and early funding for it was set under Kimble’s administration.
- Melham has also taken credit for housing values/prices rising in Belleville when the Covid-19 pandemic and persons fleeing crowded urban areas during that pandemic all across the nation seem to have been more the cause.
The numerous flag raisings at Town Hall, the community garden and various fairs and events are important and great, but when property taxes and water bills keep rising and residents wonder if they can even afford to stay in Belleville, these projects and events become akin to ancient Roman “Bread and Circuses.”
- Melham has allegedly rented commercial space — or has worked out of rental space — that seems to lack a current certificate of occupancy, legally required for persons to live or work in a dwelling.
- BetterBelleville takes credit for introducing “Free Pre-K” into Belleville. Currently, that pre-K program is being paid for by state funds; if those funds aren’t renewed in a few years, the program may end or if it survives, it’s reasonable to believe it would have to be funded via school or property taxes.
- This year, Melham’s “State of the Town” address — like in 2019 — was a paid, ticketed event. Ticket prices for the 2022 event — sponsored by the BetterBelleville Civic Association — ranged from $15 to as much as $240. “State of the Municipality” addresses are usually given by mayors in towns with a “strong mayor” form of government, as the mayor in such towns serves as CEO. In Belleville’s council-manager form of government, the “mayor” title is largely ceremonial, with the mayor serving only as a seventh councilperson, although with the authority to preside over meetings. The town manager in Belleville’s form of government serves as CEO.
- On April 12th, the Town Council approved changes to the zoning law, changes the Planning Board voted to recommend during their March 10th meeting. Mayor Melham sat on the planning board and voted at that meeting. Both Melham and DePena voted for the changes at the April 12th meeting, when ethically they should have recused themselves from voting (and Melham should have recused himself from voting as a planning board member to recommend the changes,) as both either own properties or hold interest in businesses that might potentially benefit from these changes.
- Councilwoman DePena failed to submit state-mandated financial disclosure reports since 2018. Only when resident Michael Sheldon publicly challenged her on this at a public meeting in March 2022 did she finally submit those reports.
Based upon at least these examples, we believe BetterBelleville has betrayed the public trust by, at the very least, failing to “avoid the mere appearance of impropriety” — a key part of most professional and public codes of ethics. Mayor Melham appears driven to control as many aspects of Belleville’s government as he can, especially when it comes to the power to grant approvals for development. With many campaign contributions coming from those in the real estate, engineering, construction and legal sectors, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Councilpersons-at-large DePena and Graziano have been essentially silent on many of the matters mentioned above, even as other councilpersons have begun to express concerns over the BetterBelleville agenda and apparent unethical behavior on Melham’s part.
In closing. we believe BetterBelleville represents a squandered opportunity to make Belleville truly better. In our opinion, Melham and BetterBelleville do not deserve to be re-elected.