by Frank Fleischman III (FF3,) Lead Editor

Belleville has seen bad politicians come and go but we believe that never has a Belleville mayor like Michael Melham so blatantly and arrogantly grabbed for power, control, and benefit. Throughout the past four years of Melham’s reign, his running mates on the Town Council have been largely silent. For these reasons, it is our opinion that Melham and BetterBelleville do not deserve re-election.

Editor’s Note: Belleville Watch does not endorse candidates for office. This piece reflects only the editor’s opinion about the current mayoral administration. Nothing in this piece should be construed as an endorsement of any candidate.

In May 2018, the BetterBelleville campaign slate — consisting of mayoral candidate Michael Melham, and council-at-large candidates Naomy DePena and Tommy Graziano — won a close election. They defeated then-mayor Ray Kimble, councilman-at-large Kevin Kennedy, and filled the empty seat left by councilman-at-large Joe Longo’s under-a-cloud resignation.

The BetterBelleville slate ran on the promise of bringing something different to Belleville. They promised a break from the politics of Belleville’s past, transparency and ethics in Town Hall, and a fresh approach to governing, in contrast to what some might have considered lackluster years under Mayor Kimble.

It’s 2022, and despite bringing some improvements to Belleville, the Melham/BetterBelleville administration seems to have offered little different from typical Belleville politics. We believe this due in large part to what we view as unseemly and arrogant actions by Mayor Michael Melham, aided and abetted by the silence of his BetterBelleville colleagues and other councilmembers loyal to him at various times.

Michael Melham: A Dark Political Past Comes Back To Haunt Belleville

Those who write about politics find irresistible one type of story: that of a politician, full of energy and high ideals, who falls from grace by being corrupted by power and becoming everything he or she hated. In Michael Melham’s case, there seems to be no fall from grace: he appears to be the same politician he was when he was elected to a single term as Fourth Ward councilman in 2000.

One insidious thing stands out in Melham’s seemingly unremarkable term as councilman. Besides alienating the fire department by supporting layoffs, and suggesting to his fellow councilmembers that part of Washington Avenue between Belleville Avenue and the Newark border be made a one-way going toward Newark, he helped pursue a plan to declare most of Belleville’s Valley section an “Area In Need of Redevelopment,” which would have paved the way for redeveloping huge tracts of property. Many of those properties were single and two-family homes and viable businesses. Belleville Watch’s parent site Essex Watch featured extensive coverage of this debacle, which was defeated thanks to protests from Valley residents.

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.

Melham’s Questionable Actions

Following soon after he was sworn into office, Melham made moves that seemed designed to exert more control over the various municipal boards and as a result, open the floodgates to real estate, construction, legal, and engineering interests. The planning board under his administration quickly revised the Master Plan, although the board under the Kimble Administration had only recently revisited it. The changes watered down the Zoning Board’s authority, radically changing residential density limits and making variances seemingly easier to obtain.

As early as 2019, Melham claimed authority to appoint most Planning Board members, clearly contradicting state law governing land use and forms of government. (Update: Attorney Michael Kates, considered the state’s pre-eminent authority, issued in April a legal opinion stating Melham improperly appointed six planning board members. The Planning Board has suspended operations until further notice due to the legal opinion.)The Library Board of Trustees — made up of members he appointed or who seemed loyal to Melham — elected him board president for its 2020 term. Few if any New Jersey mayors have served as library board president, often appointing someone as their representative. His tenure as library president directly resulted in a privately-owned painting on display at the library being moved to his Town Hall office.

A key tenet of many or most codes of public or professional ethics is the duty to “avoid even the mere appearance of impropriety.” We believe that Mayor Melham, by his actions and behavior, has shown little regard — if not outright contempt — for this basic commitment to the residents of Belleville.

In the nearly four years he’s been in office and even in some cases before being mayor, Melham has acted and behaved in ways some may consider ethically questionable, if not potentially unlawful. Some were simply unwise. To cite a few:

  • A 2018 campaign flyer alleges that even before running for mayor, 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.
  • 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 received a contribution from Melham/BetterBelleville — voted for the lease instead of recusing themselves.
  • The Belleville Public Library Board of Trustees, presided over by Melham in 2020, voted to remove the “Landscape of Belleville” painting from the library, to be located in 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.
  • 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 reasonably 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.
  • 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. When projected rates 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 rates but were still significant increases. Questions still abound as to why the rates had to be hiked so high. The water issue and earlier claims of a Town Hall “financial crisis” seem eerily reminiscent of similar claims made when Melham was a councilman back in 2001.
  • Melham, DePena, and Graziano have voted to contract 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) 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.
  • 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. 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 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 that 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. 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 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 its construction. 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.
  • Melham has 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 — is a paid, ticketed event. Ticket prices for the 2022 event — sponsored by the BetterBelleville Civic Association — range from $15 to as much as $240. “State” 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, as the mayor serves only as a seventh councilperson, but who has 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,) as both either own properties or hold interest in businesses that would directly benefit from these changes.

When challenged on these matters, Melham has responded with either ridicule, eye-rolling, audible exasperation, spin, or silence. Staying silent after being arrested might be a prudent idea; in politics, however, silence could make one look guilty in the eyes of voters.

Graziano and DePena: Deafening Silence

This opinion piece would be incomplete without mentioning Councilpersons-At-Large Thomas Graziano and Naomy DePena. Graziano, a third-generation Belleville resident, was recruited off the Board of Education; he served little more than a year of his term. DePena was a relative unknown in Belleville politics, but Melham made a grand presentation out of meeting with her and convincing her to join the BetterBelleville ticket. In 2021, she had the distinction of becoming the town’s first Latina deputy mayor.

Graziano and DePena chose to hitch their political fortunes to Melham, apparently at the cost of staying silent about his grab for power and his unseemly actions.

Both Graziano and DePena have been solid Melham supporters, rarely if ever publicly deviating from his ideas or actions. Graziano voted no to a measure asking Town Manager Anthony Iacono to suspend a Township employee (mentioned above.) That’s the only time that comes to mind either councilperson has deviated from Melham.

Graziano is a Class III member of the Planning Board, appointed by the Town Council. In 2019, Graziano voted yes to approve construction of The Ethos, a mixed-use development on Franklin Avenue near the Nutley border. The Ethos’ developer was Sound Development, and its employee actually presented before the Board. In July 2019, that employee contributed money to the De Pena/Graziano re-election campaign. In 2021, the Planning Board heard another application by Sound Development, to develop the Rubber Foam Fabricators property at 740-748 Washington Avenue. It seems obvious that, ethically, Graziano should have recused himself from hearing those applications to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

DePena has been Melham’s most reliable ally on the Council. Last month, civic activist and longtime Belleville resident Michael Sheldon brought to public attention that DePena hadn’t filed required annual financial disclosure forms to the state since taking office in 2018. DePena has since filed the missing financial disclosure forms, and in an email to Belleville Watch said she made “an honest mistake.”

Conclusion: A Blatant Power Grab Wrapped In The Language of “Progress.”

BetterBelleville campaigned as a fresh-faced alternative to what some considered a stodgy, out-of-touch Belleville government. Thanks in large part to Melham’s flair for spin and technology, BetterBelleville appealed to a younger and newer segment of Belleville’s population and delivered the three candidates a win. During the campaign and after the win, the promises were clear: in place of Belleville’s past politics, a transparent, citizen-focused government, and economic development.

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.”

Beginning in 2018 and even to this day, the BetterBelleville ticket has used a carefully-crafted image — bolstered by social media, first-rate public relations, and copious amounts of campaign cash — to position itself as something different, something new. Yet after almost four years of Melham and BetterBelleville, residents are still subjected to nasty politics and shadiness. BetterBelleville has sung songs of “progress” and “positivity,” and certainly there have been improvements in Belleville, but in light of the many examples of what we believe are shady, unethical, and possibly unlawful actions and behavior by Melham, those words and improvements seem badly tainted.

This isn’t to say Melham and BetterBelleville did things entirely on their own. For roughly the first two years of the Melham administration, few if any of the ward councilpersons uttered a word in protest to anything Melham did. In two years, when those councilpersons’ seats are up, voters will have their say. But at least “better late than never” can be said of those councilmembers who have found the courage to speak up.

We believe Belleville’s best days aren’t behind her, and her last chapters have not yet been written. We also understand that some residents approve of the few improvements Melham and BetterBelleville have brought forth. Belleville’s future may still be open to debate, but Belleville citizens must demand that their elected officials behave and act ethically and transparently, and must hold them accountable if they don’t. Voting, speaking out at meetings, sending letters to the editors of local media, and posting on social media are excellent ways to do so.

Belleville’s future is undoubtedly fraught with challenges; we believe those challenges are only made worse when politicians would seemingly rather take to social media with photo ops and high praise for themselves than make personal humility and public ethics their highest priority.

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.