NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On the heels of an ethics complaint filed by the author of this article, the city's longtime Planning Board attorney has agreed to sit out an upcoming hearing on a controversial development application.
Filed on August 20, the complaint alleges that Benjamin Bucca has improperly used his position as the Planning Board's attorney to favor his other employer, Rutgers University, where he serves as the womens' tennis coach.
As a result, the hearing on a plan for Constuction Management Associates to build a 52-unit apartment complex at 17 Mine Street will have a different attorney representing the government.
"The Planning Director… has recommended… that Zoning Board attorney Aravind Aithal serve as a replacement for Ben Bucca regarding matters involving 17 Mine St," said Jennifer Bradshaw, spokesperson for Mayor James Cahill.
"There will be a temporary replacement," said William Hamilton, the city's longtime attorney, who also serves as counsel to the ethics board.
"Mr. Kratovil filed an ethics complaint against Mr. Bucca that's not yet been resolved. It seems to be inappropriate for him to sit on it until it's resolved."
The complaint alleged that Bucca inappropriately represented the Planning Board in six different hearings where his other employer, Rutgers, had been putting forth an application for a new development, including three hearings so far on the controversial Mine Street project.
Rutgers University is behind the Mine Street proposal, part of a larger "College Avenue Redevelopment Initiative" and provided the land for it, sparking controversy as neighbors and historic preservationists have fought against the plans, which require special permission to build a 52-unit apartment building without the required amount of parking spaces.
According to Muckgers.com, Bucca earns more than $54,000 a year coaching their women's tennis team. He also earns in excess of $41,000 serving as attorney for New Brunswick's Planning Board and Rent Control Board.
Futher, Bucca has two other public jobs representing the South Brunswick Planning Board and Highland Park Zoning Board. He was recently accused of improperly accumulating credits in the state pension system, as we reported in 2012.
Bucca responded to the ethics complaint for the first time at the September 9 Planning Board meeting, telling the board that he expects to be exonorated in a hearing that will happen just days after the Mine Street proposal has its next hearing on Tuesday October 14.
"I'm fully expecting to be exonerated of the charge," said Bucca.
If the complaint, which has been referred to an unspecified "subcommittee," is scheduled for a hearing, it could be the first in city history.
"I am told that while ethics complaints have been received and reviewed in the past, none of them actually went to a full hearing," said Bradshaw.
The controversial project was made possible by a land swap that involved four entities: Rutgers University, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Rutgers Hillel, and New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO).
According to the property records, Rutgers owned the land in question until recently, and owns at least four other properties within 200 feet of the site.
"On the Mine Street application, there's an allegation that the property was at one time owned by Rutgers University. I always thought it was owned by the Diocese of Metuchen," said Bucca in his explanation to the Planning Board.
In fact, the Diocese did sell the property to Rutgers for $1.85 million in July 2008, but five years later the university sold it for just $1 to College Avenue Redevelopment Associates LLC, a shell corporation controlled by the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO).
However, the land deal approved by the University's Board of Governors and Board of Trustees in 2012 seems to contradict what is now proposed.
In the "Project Summary and Details" approved by both governing boards, the documents say that the development will be "ultimately owned and controlled by the Theological Seminary."
But for now, the shell company owns the property in question, where two dilapidated houses and a small shed stand, and where numerous property maintenance violations were issued this summer in response to complaints from the author of this article.
That company is prepared to hand it over to Construction Management Associates, a political supporter of Mayor James Cahill, for an undisclosed sum. But only if the developer can secure Planning Board approval.
Rutgers University has not responded to inquiries about Bucca's conflict of interest or the fundamental changes to the development proposal.
Still, some board members maintained that they were not convinced of a strong enough connection between Rutgers University and the development plans to cause a conflict for their longtime attorney.
"Can we find out, before we get all excited about it, what Rutgers involvement actually was or if there is any involvement in the project?" asked former New Brunswick Police Director and Planning Board member Joseph Catanese.
"It seems like quite a bit of a stretch at this point until we find out a little bit more about their role."
When another Planning Board member countered that Rutgers owns several properties within 200 feet of the property in question, Catanese dismissed the concern.
"If you're within two hundred feet of the site, you are notified so you can complain about the project… but they [Rutgers] haven't sent anybody here to complain that I know of," Catanese claimed.
In addition to three hearings over the past year on that project, Bucca also represented the Planning Board at three different hearings in the prior year when Rutgers was more directly involved in the application, and another two hearings in 2009 that were not mentioned in the ethics complaint.
Bucca also denied that he raised the idea of calling police to "force the people to leave" at an overcrowded hearing that ended up being cancelled.
In response to an objection by a lawyer representing neighborhood residents who oppose the project, Bucca asked, "Are you suggesting it would be productive to bring the police here and force the people to leave?"
The statement was caught on video by New Brunswick Today's Richard Rabinowitz during an off the record prelude to the May meeting.
But Bucca denies it ever happened.
"I don't recall that, but nevertheless because one man had a perception, we should be concerned about that, because he describes it as an inappropriate use of my public office," said Bucca.
"I don't see a conflict," said Bucca. "A conflict is a very important area for us as attorneys," who added that the Supreme Court had recently lowered the standards from "the appearance of impropriety," to actual impropriety.
"I don't know what role Rutgers has in this," said Bucca.
"That's how I always view everything at Rutgers… My role as tennis coach is so far removed from my role as board attorney that it couldn't, I don't think in a reasonable person's mind, create a substantial risk that I would be unable to function."
Not knowing how things would play out, the board stood by Bucca at the September 9 meeting, before the powers that be forced him to step aside.
"[The ethics complaint] assumes that we're not smart enough or intelligent enough to make our own independent decisions," said Catanese.
Bucca made no mention of recusing himself from the proceedings, before eventually deciding to do so later in the month.