The “BetterBelleville” mayor and council candidates promised transparency, focus on resident concerns and most importantly, a clean and clear break from the political misdeeds of prior town councils. BetterBelleville’s electoral victory in 2018 had Belleville residents looking forward to those promises being fulfilled.

This past July, following the 2020 Town Council reorganization meeting, and based on the actions (or inaction) of the Mayor and Town Council over the past two years, Your Belleville Watchdog declared the BetterBelleville political brand dead, if it had ever lived at all.

Mayor Michael Melham further proved my assertion at last Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, offering a convoluted response to a simple, direct question about whether or not people who worked on the 2018 BetterBelleville campaign now have town jobs.

A Simple Question

At the meeting, Township Clerk Kelly Cavanagh read a public comment e-mail from Mario Drozdz. Drozdz, a former Belleville mayor asked, among other things, about persons who worked on the BetterBelleville campaign having town jobs. The question was asked previously, but this was the first time Melham took the time to truly respond (the video is here; Mr. Drozdz’s question starts around 1:55:00, with Melham’s response shortly after.)

Melham’s response had enough twists, turns and stretches to rival those of a contortionist. He contended there are less employees on the town payroll than in the past two years and that salaries for new or vacated positions are dramatically lower. Finally he said, in not so many words, that even if there were people who supported or campaigned for BetterBelleville who now had jobs, that the idea that โ€œmany people who had either supported myself or the other elected officials is simply not true.โ€

How on Earth can our elected town officials claim to be transparent and responsive to resident needs when they won’t even directly answer a simple question?

Enter Spin Cycle

Mayor Melham’s appeared to dance around Mr. Drozdz’s question. Imagining Melham as an archer, his arrows would have nicked the target, slid into a river and pierced a tree nearby.

Welcome to the world of spin, Belleville! It’s a world where politicians can appear to answer a question by offering misdirection, empty platitudes and little to nothing of substance, and yet somehow be able look at themselves in the mirror.

Belleville saw this with the recent controversy about healthcare benefits for Belleville’s elected officials. So the new ordinance gave everyone on the Town Council access to taxpayer-funded healthcare? Nah, it’s just a “clean-up” ordinance to make sure it’s all official! Town officials were always able to obtain healthcare benefits! (That’s questionable.)

It’s possible that the township payroll may be smaller and some salaries reduced; that isn’t the point. The Melham administration has failed the most basic task of good governance: definitively answering a resident’s direct question.

Mr. Drozdz has been a consistent critic of the Melham administration, as he was to the Kimble administration. Some will claim Mr. Drozdz or other critics/activists aren’t political saints themselves, or may be pushing their own agendas. Regardless of what their intentions might be, Belleville residents asking questions deserve answers from their elected officials.

Has Team Melham Betrayed the BetterBelleville Ideal, or Just Given Up The Pretense?

The issue of whether or not Team Melham supporters currently have town jobs is something I’ll write about in the near future. If true, there are ethical and political implications for which the mayor and council must be held accountable. For now, however, the fact that Melham couldn’t even give a direct “yes” or “no” answer to an ethically and politically important question clearly demonstrates his contempt for the open, transparent government Belleville deserves. It is, as I mentioned above, further evidence that the political brand of BetterBelleville is dead.

Some might consider the death of BetterBelleville as simply the retelling of an old political tale: politician gets into office with high ideals, politician is tempted by the trappings of power, politician sells out. Perhaps, in the end, there is some truth to that.

A more plausible explanation, however, is that the high ideals of BetterBelleville were little more than window-dressing. Perhaps they served as the velvet glove hiding an agenda to transform Belleville into something other than a small suburban town. This, while continuing to foster Belleville’s unfortunate reputation of hard-nosed political influence, if perhaps in a different manner.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, after all. The Town Council won’t even consider passing a resolution encouraging the New Jersey Attorney General to investigate potential criminal acts related to the $4.2 million Board of Education deficit in 2014, which costs Belleville taxpayers almost $500,000 a year to pay back.

So long as Belleville residents continue to receive spin to the questions they ask of their elected officials, BetterBelleville will continue to be shown as the barren political facade that it is or, arguably, always was.