NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–For more than a week, New Brunswick Today has sought information from county officials about a questionable open-space acquisition, and has repeatedly asked the county to state whether a basic environmental report, called a Phase I Environmental Audit, was done on the property.
The issue first came to light at the Freeholders' March 2 Conference meeting, where the board may have run afoul of the state's Open Public Meetings Act by prematurely ending the meeting and entering a closed session.
The land, which sits in North and South Brunswick off Route 1, behind a Hess gas station and surrounded by industrial property, is being purchased by the Freeholders for $360,000, with the stated purpose of being "open space," protected from development.
The land is mostly wetlands, and is practically undevelopable.
The primary beneficiary of the land deal would be Barnett E. Hoffman, Esq., a retired Middlesex County Judge and longtime member of the Middlesex County Democratic Party.
All seven Freeholders in Middlesex County are Democrats and have been for many years.
For over a week now, the county has refused to answer questions posed about the land acquisition.
Despite over a dozen phone calls to county officials – Freeholder Director Rios’ office, Clerk of the Freeholder Board Margaret E. Pemberton, Middlesex County Improvement Authority (MCIA) Chief Operating Officer – Special Projects/Open Space head Paul T. Clark, and Interim Department Head Rick Lear at the Office of Parks and Recreation – New Brunswick Today still has no answer about and environmental due diligence.
Clark, along with MCIA open space counsel John A. Hoffman, Esq., wrote the memo that New Brunswick Today obtained outlining hidden facts about the purchase, including "one environmental concern."
Not including the Freeholders, the combined salaries of the officials New Brunswick Today contacted for an answer to this simple question is over $384,000 per year.
This does not include the salaries of the various secretaries who called New Brunswick Today to say that these senior county officials were unavailable to speak with this reporter for over a week.
The county wants to spend slightly less on the land – $360,000 – although the MCIA's own appraisal valued it at just $343,000.
It is completely unknown why the county negotiated a 5% premium ($17,000 above the appraised value) for potentially contaminated land that has been on the market for some time – and so far unsellable.
Records indicate the land came into the Hoffman family hands around 1932. It has been passed down through the family through a series of $1 deed transfers since.
If the land were purchased and environmental contamination were found and ordered to be cleaned up by state or federal authorities, county taxpayers would be on the hook for the full cost.
Carol Barrett Bellante, the Freeholder Deputy Director and sponsor of the proposed land deal, was the only Freeholder to speak to New Brunswick Today.
Speaking via telephone on March 4, referring to the possibility that there was better bang for the county buck, Bellante admitted that “I’m sure they’re other areas that could be better.”
These facts nor the lack of basic information on the land will not dissuade her support for the purchase. When this matter comes up at the meeting, Bellante happily reported that “I will vote yes.”
The matter is listed for vote on the consent agenda – which is used for routine, uncontroversial items that are considered to require no discussion, and are voted on as a group of sometimes a hundred or more together.
Any Freeholder has the ability to demand an item be removed from the Consent Agenda and be discussed separately and in public session.
The meeting starts at 7 pm at the Middlesex County Administration Building, 75 Bayard Street, New Brunswick.
By law, members of the public have an opportunity at the beginning of the meeting to comment on any item on the main agenda, consent agenda or discussion items.