Planning Board Vice-Chairman Andrew Conte (fourth from left, in black shirt) speaks during the February 10th, 2022 Planning Board meeting. Conte accused Mayor Melham and other township officials of unethical, improper and perhaps illegal conduct related to Planning Board activities.

Since 2019, Mayor Michael Melham has claimed the right to appoint almost all members of the planning board, despite contrary evidence. The planning board’s vice-chairman challenged the mayor’s claims at a recent planning board meeting.

by FF3, Lead Editor

Note: This is the first part in a multi-part series about the Planning Board and its activities since the election of Mayor Michael Melham’s BetterBelleville slate of candidates in 2018.

The February 10th, 2022 Planning Board Meeting: A Day Of Reckoning

The February 10th, 2022 Planning Board meeting agenda seemed simple enough: presentation of a study of the Belleville Industrial Center at 705-757 Main Street, ostensibly to see if the property could be deemed a Condemnation Area In Need of Redevelopment.

Quickly, though, it took an unexpected turn. Planning Board Vice-Chairman Andrew Conte took the floor to speak, and wasted no time in accusing Mayor Michael Melham and other town officials of unethical, improper, and possibly illegal actions. (View the full meeting here, and Mr. Conte’s specific remarks here.)

In short, Mr. Conte stated most of the planning board members were appointed and re-appointed improperly, that Mayor Melham (himself a planning board member) had on several occasions unethically heard and voted on applications before the board when he should have recused himself, and accused township attorney Steven Martino of pressuring the board into paying bills for services of professionals that it usually did not.

Mr. Conte said that he was sending information to the State of New Jersey and that he believed that the things he spoke of could result in all applications approved or heard before the planning board in the past few years being invalidated.

Mayor Melham’s ambitions to unduly influence the Planning Board became clear early in his administration. Unfortunately, members of the Town Council didn’t see fit to challenge those ambitions — or their results — until much later.

The Planning Board

The planning board is among the most powerful entities in local government. It oversees land use and development in a town or city — how it grows, and by how much. It does this by creating and updating a Master Plan, which guides how land is used, and for what purposes. The Master Plan lays the foundation for zoning laws. The board also hears applications for new development in town. When the governing body wishes to determine if a certain property needs to be designated for redevelopment, it requests the planning board commission a study, hears the study’s results, and makes recommendations. The governing body then votes whether or not to adopt those recommendations.

An ambitious politician — beholden to legal, construction, engineering, and development interests who fill the campaign coffers — would likely be interested in wielding control of the planning board. It seems that, here in Belleville, we may have a politician who fits that description: Mayor Michael Melham.

Melham Appoints Township Employee As Class IV Planning Board Member

The Melham/Planning Board saga began in 2019, when Jacquelyn Guaman — appointed as a Class IV Planning Board member on December 11th, 2018, and then to the Historic Preservation Commission on February 11th, 2019 — was hired as the mayor and town council’s account clerk on February 19, 2019. Guaman now serves as deputy municipal clerk, since the retirement of longtime deputy clerk Mary Docherty.

Title 40:55D-23 of the 2009 New Jersey Code states unequivocally that Class IV members “shall hold no other municipal office, position or employment.” The statute states one Class IV member on the board can also be a member of the historic preservation commission or the zoning board of adjustment but does not make any exceptions with regard to township employment.

Belleville resident and then-Board of Education trustee Michael Sheldon first publicly questioned Ms. Guaman’s presence on the board in March 2019. Planning Board Attorney Rose Tubito told Mr. Sheldon to take the matter up with the Town Council. When Sheldon did so, Mayor Melham stated the council didn’t get involved with planning board matters. In light of continued questions about the appointment, Ms. Tubito promised Sheldon a legal opinion. It took Tubito almost four months to deliver that opinion. Tubito’s letter concluded Ms. Guaman’s appointment was proper.

In the meantime, a group of residents called Belleville Town Advocates (Disclosure: I was a member of BTA,) arising from the former Concerned Citizens of Belleville, solicited a legal opinion from eminent land use attorney Michael B. Kates, who concluded that Ms. Guaman’s appointment was barred by state law.

The matter became moot when Ms. Guaman resigned from the Historic Preservation Commission on January 13th, 2020. The very same day, Mayor Melham appointed reappointed his Class I appointee Frank Zangari as a Class IV member, and Guaman as his Class I member, according to documents.

Editor’s Note: Early coverage of this controversy by Belleville Watch can be viewed here.

Coming Soon: Part 2, In Which Mayor Melham Uses An Outdated Municipal Ordinance To Claim The Right To Appoint Most Planning Board Members