If you missed the Council Meetings of August 18th and September 3rd, then you have missed some of the strangest and most disturbing events in years unfold. Let us explain.
On August 18th, near the end of an otherwise unremarkable Council Meeting, Councilman Gary Mastrangelo questioned Mayor Budesheim on a $5,000 payment to the Grand Chalet in Wayne that was listed as “Wedding Relocation”.
Mastrangelo: I have nothing to report but I was looking at the bills list and I’d like some clarification on one of the …..Uhm……. on page 4 of this month’s bills list we have Grand Chalet $5,000.00- wedding relocation. What is that?
Mayor: That was something that I had to take care of. I got the borough attorney’s approval on that plus I spoke to 3 council people. This was the result of a double booking at Glenburn for a wedding and we found out about it 3 days before the weddings.
The mayor went on to explain that the parties found out about it just 3 days before the wedding date, Saturday, August 9th, and he felt they had an obligation to make it right.
Mayor: I called our insurance carrier and contracts are an exclusion to our policy. Not to blow my own horn but he did commend me for doing that because he said if he was an attorney for that aggrieved party he would have sued for a lot more than $5,000 and that would not have been covered by insurance. I just feel that it was something that we had to make it right and I got it for the best price I could.
Listening to the discussions of the Mayor and Councilman Mastrangelo, we did not hear a clear explanation on how the double-booking happened. Apparently Council Garrett Astarita didn’t either.
Astarita: Do we know how this double booking happened?
Mayor: No. They were both written in the book. I got copies of the book.
Astarita: So it’s human error?
Mayor: Yeah. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first but it is the worst. It’s something that I’ve been, like I said, working on trying to get something that would be a little bit more less open to mistakes.
Astarita: You mean like a calendar?
Astarita: I don’t want to belabor the point but we do pay somebody a fairly decent salary to keep track of this stuff. If that’s not working out then, if more mistakes were made and this is only the most grievous then we have some form of recourse or just take a look at what’s being done and what we’re paying somebody for.
Mayor: It came out of the facilities o/e and that means there’s about $400 left for the rest of the year. We budget $8,000 for that account.
Revis: I should say that the Mayor did reach out while this was ongoing and from the two perspectives, first of all the potential for legal exposure if the borough could be sued and also from the (indiscernible) I just wanted to say that I agree.
Mastrangelo: Oh, we did the right thing.
Astarita: I totally agree that the Mayor did the right thing. Absolutely, because it would have opened us up to a tremendous …
Revis: I understand what you’re saying.
Astarita: I just think that something has to be said because we pay a person quite a bit of money to keep track of these things.
Revis: And the accountability for it.
Astarita: Yeah, there’s got to be some accountability and I’ll let it lay at that.
Listening to this exchange it was clear that the Mayor was conveying to the Council that the double-booking was a result of human error, and that it was not the first time. But still, no real explanation of how it happened, so when the meeting was opened to the public, we had a few questions for the Mayor.
EOR: A question regarding this mix-up with the weddings. Mayor, you said that both names were written in the book but did we have a written contract with this person?
Mayor: They both signed,contracts, yes.
EOR: Did we receive the deposit from the person?
Mayor: No. The second one didn’t but they were shown the place in May and they were told that that date was available for August. They sent in the check and the contract in the beginning of June. At the end of June when it hadn’t cleared -this is what I’m getting from their email -that they called the facilities director and asked why the check hadn’t cleared. According to the email the response was “let me check it out -it’s just probably a bookkeeping thing -if you don’t hear from me, everything’s okay.” So they never heard and so they assumed everything was okay.
EOR: Did you have a copy of that email?
Mayor: I have the email that was given to me by the party.
EOR: But you don’t have a copy of the email that was sent to her saying “if you don’t hear from me, everything’s okay”?
Mayor: I don’t think it was by email. I think that was by a phone conversation.
EOR: But we found a signed contract in the building?
Mayor: No. That’s what I said. The check and the contract are missing. I don’t know who it was sent to but it was written in the book – the schedule – and the facilities director told me when I read it to her she said she would not deny anything that was in there.
No contract, no check, nothing in writing except a name in a book. Seems odd but, after confirming that we got a release from the alleged renter, I left it at that.
After the meeting someone asked me, who were the “3 council people” that the Mayor spoke to? One was Councilman Steve Revis as he mentioned it in the above discussion, but who were the other two? This lingering question along with other missing pieces inspired us to investigate further. Here’s where the unusual becomes bizzare.
Through an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request, we acquired the documents and communications surrounding the “wedding relocation”. Included was the Mayor’s Materials Requisition, dated August 7th, that states that he conferred with Councilmen Mastrangelo, Astarita and Revis. So the questions is, if the Mayor conferred with Councilmen Mastrangelo and Astarita, why did Mastrangelo act as if he had no idea what the payment was for and why did Astarita act like he had no idea how the double-booking occurred?
During the public session of the September 3rd Council Meeting, resident and EOR correspondent, Keith Hamilton asked just that. At first, both Councilmen Mastrangelo and Astarita denied that they were trying to hide the fact that they had previous knowledge, but when confronted with dialogue from the transcript above, Mastrangelo finally said that his intent was to bring the matter into public record. But why not just bring it up? Why the charade? And when the Mayor was posed the question by Mastrangelo, would not a normal reaction be “What do you mean Gary, we discussed this last week”? Again, why the charade? This was what was puzzling me ever since receiving a copy of the Mayor’s Material Requisition, as a result, I had a question of my own. However, my question was for Borough Attorney Robert Oostdyk.
Desai: Mr. Oostdyk, the actions of Mayor Budesheim and Councilmen Mastrangelo and Astarita could easily be construed as a ploy to defame a borough employee. In your opinion, has their ruse exposed the borough to a potential lawsuit?
You see, there is a law in the State of NJ that protects public employees from having issues surrounding their employment discussed in an open forum without their approval. If the Mayor or Council want to discuss the performance or actions of a borough employee, whether in a public or closed session, they have to serve this person with something called a Rice Notice at least 48 hours prior. The individual has the right to be present and the right to decide whether these discussions are to be in public or private session. A careful analysis of the law and the transcripts to determine for sure. From what we heard, especially in the September 3rd meeting, the comments from the Mayor were exceptionally damaging and, to the best of our knowledge, no Rice Notice was served and the employee they were speaking of was definitely not present. At best this was an egregious breakdown of procedure, at worst it was a deliberate attempt to side-step the law, with legal and ethical ramifications and believe it or not, it gets worse.
Additional questions were raised by both residents and council members on how the Mayor, and the councilmen he conferred with, arrived at the conclusion that the borough was liable. Was there a contract? Did they show you receipts for rentals that they claim to have made? Did they produce any written communication to substantiate their claims? Did any borough employees corroborate their story or even remember them dropping off a check or contract? Finally, Councilwoman Elaine Wetzel asked, “Did they show you a wedding invitation?”. Of course, how obvious, a wedding invitation would have to show the location and date. To all questions the answer was a resounding NO. All the Mayor had was that the person’s name was “written in the book”. If you have ever rented either the Community Center or Glenburn you might recall that “the book” is the notebook where the Facilities Director pencil’s in your name for a specific date while awaiting your signed contract and checks to be delivered to Town Hall. The policy is, as it is always explained, if the check and contract do not arrive within 3 days, the date becomes available to other renters.
We are not accusing the alleged renter of anything, things may have very well have happened just as they claimed. The point is why didn’t the Mayor attempt to acquire anything that would substantiate their claims? Why would he be so quick to believe the alleged renter over his own employees? Why, when the borough’s liability was for a property rental, did he agree to pay for dinner and 5-hours of open bar at the Grand Chalet for 50 people? Does the Mayor and Councilmen Mastrangelo and Astarita have a hidden agenda that would make them want to believe the alleged renter’s story, and would be willing to spend $5,000 of tax payers money to achieve it? Will Facilities Management be the next service that we outsource to the Mayor’s other employer, the Borough of Butler? Perhaps we should ask Riverdale’s ex-Tax Collector and ex-Water & Sewer Billing Clerk.