(Editor’s Note: This article refers to “BetterBelleville” only as a political platform. It is not intended as a critique of the BetterBelleville Civic Association, upon which this website takes no position.)
This past Wednesday’s Town Council Reorganization meeting marked two full years of the Melham administration having been in power. It’s a milestone that the “BetterBelleville” ticket — Mayor Michael Melham, his councilpersons-at-large running mates Thomas Graziano and Naomy DePena – and their supporters, are no doubt celebrating.
Underlying this celebration, however, is a hard truth those same persons may not realize, or would rather Belleville not pay attention to: the BetterBelleville political brand is dead. Its facade, having crumbled, leaves only its tacky pretense.
How has Your Belleville Watchdog arrived at this conclusion? Well, several things in the past two years certainly delivered critical wounds (and both Belleville Watch and Essex Watch have reported and commented on more than a few of these,) but it was a seconds-long answer by the mayor to a resident’s question that struck the fatal blow to the BetterBelleville brand.
The BetterBelleville political brand is dead, at least to the extent that it had been alive at all. Its creator and champion, Mayor Michael Melham — aided and abetted by a mostly complicit Town Council — killed it.
Melham, Town Council’s Message To Belleville Taxpayers: You’ve Always Paid for It, So…….
At the June 23rd Town Council meeting, resident William Mildon III, in an e-mail submitted to the Town Clerk, asked why Belleville taxpayers should pay for the Mayor and Council’s health insurance benefits?” Melham’s response was telling: “They always have. Mayors and councils have received health insurance for many, many years.” (Editor’s Note: You can watch the reading of the question, and the mayor’s response, between roughly 54:50 and 1:30:00 on the video.)
Read or watch the mayor’s response again, and put aside that the mayor didn’t answer Mr. Mildon’s question. Do you hear the message beneath the response? We have this benefit, and we’re not about to change it, never mind that you pay for it.
With that response, the political premise of BetterBelleville — an open, transparent, citizen-focused administration promising to be better than any that had come before — came crashing down before Melham had even finished his response.
We covered this controversy previously, and in two separate public meetings Melham admitted that because the previous mayor and council (four members of which still sit on the Town Council) acted improperly by trying to change an ordinance through a resolution (the purpose of which was to reverse a 2010 ordinance change that barred future elected officials from obtaining Township health insurance,) the current council was “only” acting to make the change completely legal by going through the ordinance process. (Melham has claimed the resolution — while improper — expressed the “will of the Town Council.” The “will of the Town Council” is irrelevant — the Town Council can “will” whatever it wants; what matters is correct form and procedure in having an ordinance passed.)
Let that sink in for a moment. In a state where, as of this writing, the unemployment rate is approximately 15%, tens of thousands of working people have been for months either furloughed, laid off and/or have lost their benefits, with the worry about how they will make ends meet, our current mayor and town council (essentially part-time employees paid a yearly stipend) voted 5-2 to allow themselves to obtain (or to continue enrollment in) taxpayer-funded Township health insurance.
Under the guise of what he called a “clean-up ordinance,” Mayor Melham and four councilmembers took advantage of the improper actions of a prior administration and voted to ensure their taxpayer-funded health coverage was legal, instead of ending or restricting the benefit. “Tone-deaf” doesn’t even begin to describe this egregious action.
The Town Council’s handling of the health benefits ordinance was a test of BetterBelleville’s promise to the town’s residents, and they failed it, miserably. Voting to end or even restrict health benefits for Township elected officials might not have saved taxpayers tons of money, but it would have been a way to recognize the struggles of Belleville’s residents and small business owners.
A Power Grab, Good Government Be Damned
BetterBelleville’s credibility began to crumble when Melham’s apparent need to control local government became crystal-clear; he no longer even tries to hide it. From his view that local ordinances grant him the right to appoint the majority of Planning Board members, to his February election as president of the Belleville Library Board of Trustees (no mayor from our neighboring towns serves as president of their town’s library board,) to his appointment of Planning Board members who seem to share his vision of making Belleville “Hoboken on the Passaic,” it appears Melham needs to have his hands on all the mechanisms that will speed his agenda through. What’s worse, there is the conspiracy of silence among our Town Council members who, with few exceptions, seem willing — nay, eager — to give him the power and control he seeks.
None of this is becoming of a political brand that two years ago promised a clean break from the politics and government of the past, especially when one remembers Melham’s erstwhile political mentor was disgraced local kingmaker Richard Yanuzzi. It would seem the student has not forgotten whatever lessons about power and control he learned at his mentor’s knee.
Melham apparently wants his hands on as many parts of Belleville government as possible to secure his agenda, and the members of the Town Council — with rare exception — have enabled his power grab.
Public Meetings: Do As We Say, Not As We Do
The most recent display of the governing body’s derision and contempt has been how it has handled public attendance at Town Council meetings. Early last month, Governor Phil Murphy relaxed the public health restrictions on indoor gatherings. Three local activists attempted to enter the June 23rd Town Council meeting and were denied entry, with claims that the Health Department hadn’t cleared the Council Chambers for public attendance.
The reorganization meeting two days ago was limited to immediate family and invited guests. Belleville resident Jeff Mattingly — one of the three denied entrance to the June 23rd meeting — sent Town Manager Anthony Iacono an e-mail demanding an explanation as to why the public was still barred from attending public meetings. Iacono replied that the public would be banned from Township meetings until the Health Director gave authorization, as the Township couldn’t ensure social distancing. Iacono also stated that the reorganization meeting wasn’t a “regular” meeting, and so restricting attendance to immediate family and invited guests was proper. However, the mayor even referred to the meeting as a “formal meeting,” and with a quorum and actual Township business having been discussed and acted upon, the meeting must conform to the Open Public Meetings Act.
The Act assigns responsibility to the governing body as to how the meetings are conducted related to public attendance and other matters. The fact is the Town Council could have made arrangements for the Health Department to screen persons wanting to attend the meeting, and there is always a police officer at the meetings who could enforce social distancing/capacity limitations. Then again, the whole matter could have been resolved by moving the meetings to a larger venue, such as the high school auditorium. But again, this is how contemptuous the mayor and council are of residents and their right to attend meetings.
Did You Vote For This?
Your Belleville Watchdog is finishing this piece on the eve of July 4th — Independence Day. It’s the day we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration’s primary author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in its preamble that governments are instituted to protect unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that these governments derive “their just power from the consent of the governed.” That is, only the people can decide how powerful its government can be. The nation’s Founders, with all their faults and failings, took a dim view of centralized political power and allowing elected representatives to exercise power citizens had not given them.
While you are celebrating the Fourth, having your family barbecue in the backyard, and with the possibility of the mayor “crashing” your party (a bold, if reckless, action to take in this era of Covid-19 and social distancing,) or just sitting at home hearing (or seeing) fireworks, think about how one elected official (who won a three-way mayoral election — hardly a mandate –) has vulgarly grabbed power, with the apparent blessing of the often-silent Town Council.
Then, ask yourself a simple question: “Is this what I voted for?”