Mayor Michael Melham often mentions a political opponent’s past with a real estate developer turned FBI informant. But some things in Melham’s political career don’t exactly appear wholesome, either.
By Frank Fleischman III, (FF3,) Lead Editor
We all know that one person — a friend, family member, acquaintance or co-worker — who mouths off about others and what they’ve done, but has no business doing so because we know that person has behaved just as badly, or maybe worse. Normally, we either remain silently annoyed, shake our heads and maybe even laugh a little to ourselves, because their hypocrisy is harmless or mildly embarrassing at most.
Sometimes, though, it’s a little more than that.
Belleville Mayor Michael Melham has, on more than one occasion, attempted to shut down criticism from a former Belleville mayor/longtime political opponent during Town Council meetings. Melham has brought up the person’s alleged past connection with convicted felon real estate developer turned FBI informant Solomon Dwek. The person, a licensed Realtor, arranged a meeting in 2008 between Dwek, then-mayor Ray Kimble and other town officials.
Unbeknownst to everyone except involved Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Dwek was operating as an informant in the FBI’s “Operation Bid Rig” sting operation, focusing on political corruption in New Jersey. Dwek would routinely pose as a real estate developer seeking to either bribe politicians for special treatment of his development plans or get them to agree to violate state laws. Because a shady or unethical politician in New Jersey is as common as a losing lottery ticket, more than 44 people — many of them elected officials or bureaucrats on the local, county and state level — were arrested in the sting operation by the time it ended in 2014.
Ultimately, the Dwek-Belleville meeting went nowhere, as Kimble and Township officials didn’t want to go along with what Dwek was asking. (Editor’s Note: Brevity prevents us from detailing the very complex Solomon Dwek story. It was covered extensively in the book The Jersey Sting by Star-Ledger reporters Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin.)
In short, it’s an easy way for Melham to get some cheap laughs and score political points against a longtime critic; all’s fair in war and politics, of course. Yet, to be truly fair, Melham has a few things in his political past that maybe he’d rather the people of Belleville forgot, at least when it comes to real estate developers and seemingly shady behavior.
The “First And Foremost A Realtor” Letter
Beginning from his single term as a Belleville councilman from 2000 – 2004, to his election as mayor in 2018, Michael Melham has never been shy about his love of real estate development/redevelopment. As a councilman, Melham was a big proponent of a redevelopment plan for the Valley section of Belleville that would have declared the entire Valley an “Area In Need of Redevelopment,” including occupied residential properties and viable business properties. Thankfully, resident opposition and the fact that Melham didn’t run for a second term doomed the proposal.
As a mayoral candidate, he was more diplomatic about his vision for Belleville, but after he won a three-way mayoral race in 2018, he quickly began telling the media and anyone who would listen how he wanted to achieve a “Better Belleville” through aggressive re-development and gentrification. This became quite clear with a communication he sent to the local real estate community in 2019.
On March 3, 2019 Melham sent an e-mail to local real estate brokers and sales agents from his “melhamforbelleville” e-mail address. With a subject line of “An Important Real Estate Message from Belleville Mayor Michael Melham,” the letter boasts of how he will use any and all methods to bring development to Belleville, details what he had done in his first year as mayor, and lists several development projects “coming to Belleville,” a few of which had been approved under the prior administration.
One of the most bizarre (and telling sentences) in the e-mail is at the beginning, when Melham states that he is “first and foremost a Realtor.” Such a statement screams divided loyalties; is Melham loyal to the interests of Belleville, or to those of his chosen profession? Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead saying such a thing; could you imagine New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy saying he is “first and foremost a Wall Street financier?”
“Exclusive Invite To A Private Meeting” With Melham
The letter/e-mail gets worse.
Later in the e-mail, Melham encourages these same real estate agents and such to attend a Town Council meeting on March 26th, 2019. It was at that meeting that Melham used a portable podium to propound on how necessary and beneficial it was for the town council to agree to tax breaks for big developers.
In the next paragraph, Melham offers an interesting (but disturbing) proposal: “all Brokers and Sales Associates attending this Council meeting will receive an exclusive invite for a private meeting with me to discuss the details and see renditions of all the current large-scale development projects. We will also have a question and answer session.”
A private meeting between the mayor of Belleville and real estate folks? Hmmmm. Sounds familiar.
All politicians want the voters (and the media) to only see the positive side of their character, and not see what they do in the dark, or what they have hidden in their pockets or clenched fists.INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER jACK NEWFIELD (1938-2004)
What Hath Melham’s “First And Foremost a Realtor” Agenda Wrought In Belleville?
It’s no secret that Melham and his BetterBelleville political machine have greatly benefitted from opening the developer floodgates in Belleville. A clear example of this is the $1,000 per-ticket fundraiser “soiree” honoring Melham and his BetterBelleville running mates, at-large Councilpersons Thomas Graziano and Naomy DePena in February 2022 during their re-election campaign. The fundraiser was sponsored by Premier Development of Englewood Cliffs, the company responsible for the “Essex” development at the corner of Washington Avenue and William Street (and one of the developments mentioned in Melham’s e-mail.) The Town Council under Melham gave Premier a multi-year tax abatement for the development.
Even before that, however, after the 2018 election, an event was held at Nanina’s In The Park that appeared to be a BetterBelleville event. Developer Brian Stolar, who originally presented the “Silver Lake Apartments” development on Belmont Avenue to the Planning Board in April 2018, attended that fundraiser. That property later received a long-term tax abatement from Melham and the Town Council as well.
While there’s no conclusive evidence that Melham’s letter to the real estate community ever resulted in the “private meeting” he advertised, it’s plan to see that Melham has benefitted politically — if not personally — from his cozy relations with that industry. Developers have received generous tax breaks and benefits under his administration, while Belleville taxpayers pay ever-higher property taxes.
As of today, the only developments that have come to fruition in Belleville are the Silver Lake Apartments on Belmont Avenue and the Ethos on Franklin Avenue near the Nutley border. The Silver Lake Apartments are on land that was deemed highly contaminated by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (the contaminated soil was either partially removed or has been “capped in place” underneath concrete, asphalt and landscaping.) Neighboring residents have complained about more traffic and more parked cars on the streets, ostensibly from tenants trying to avoid paying for a parking space on the property. Even Melham apparently knew this development wouldn’t be popular, because in February 2020 he held what might be considered the most low-key groundbreaking ceremony in history.
One of the earliest developments of the past decade, the Soho Hospital at the corner of Belleville and Franklin avenues, appears to have been completed, but there’s been no grand opening or even any advertising of it. When it was first proposed and approved by the Planning Board under the Kimble administration, the developer said it would be luxury apartments; according to neighbors who have spoken to some of the workers, they have turned out to be standard, market-rate apartments with basic amenities and fixtures.
The “Essex” appears to be nearing completion, and the developers of the “Terry Lofts” at the corner of Cortlandt and Joralemon streets just applied for — and were given — an extension of their financial agreement with the Township, probably meaning it’s taking more time to be completed. The large development across from the Motorcycle Mall (and owned by the Motorcycle Mall owners) has had fits and starts, and the Kelsey development (further down Washington Avenue, past the Shoprite) just began work again, after what seemed like nearly a yearlong hiatus. A smaller development across the street from The Whiskey Priest on Union Avenue seems to be taking some time as well.
So, what does Belleville get for all of this? Platitudes from experts hired by developers to say that any additional school-age children from these new developments will be minimal, if there are any at all; dismissal of any notion that new residents will bring more vehicles to Belleville roads (try making it up or down Belleville Avenue or Mill Street within five minutes during AM and PM rush hour these days) and promises from our elected officials that eventually, one shining day, all this development will pay off in lower property taxes.
Mayor Melham and his enablers have shot residents and taxpayers the line that, one day, all this development will benefit Belleville in the form of younger residents with disposable income, and more tax ratables to ease the high property tax burden. Yet it seems the BetterBelleville six-figure campaign chest benefits almost immediately when developers and their cohorts in related fields make generous contributions.
Melham Has Some Stones, Throwing Rocks In His Glass House
If you’ll pardon the double entendre, Mayor Melham has no business accusing others of shady behavior when it comes to real estate and development. It seems his Better Belleville campaign chest has benefitted more quickly and substantially from his special treatment of developer interests than will Belleville taxpayers.
“Private meeting” or not.
Editor’s Note: Belleville Watch sent Mayor Melham an e-mail asking for comment. We did not receive a response.