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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The seven-member board that controls the city’s Housing Authority was unusually combative during a February 24 public meeting that was captured on video by New Brunswick Today.
Members of the board repeatedly interrupted this reporter during the “public comment” section of the meeting, raising their voice at times, interrogating this newspaper’s videographer, and attempting to pressure this reporter into naming an individual who may be living in public housing illegally.
The New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) is a federal agency that operates several public housing complexes in the city, administers the “Section 8” housing choice voucher program, and plays a key role in real estate and construction, doubling as the city’s “redevelopment agency.”
At their first public meeting of 2016, tensions boiled over between this reporter and the NBHA board, which has struggled to hold regular meetings ever since Luis Gonzalez resigned in July just two weeks after being named Chairman.
Gonzalez had admitted to New Brunswick Today that he lived in Princeton, in a violation of the city’s ordinances.
Another board member was gone by the end of the summer, also due to residency issues, and the board was barely able to hold meetings in September and October.
Five of the board members are supposed to be appointed by the City Council, though Mayor James Cahill appears to have influence over their choices.
Cahill also gets to directly appoint one board member, and the state’s Governor appoints the final member.
A controversial aide to Cahill who has twice been charged with crimes related to electoral campaigns serves on the powerful agency’s board.
On Election Day in the year 2000, Jones was charged with assaulting a Rutgers student campaigning for the other side.
Ten years later, in a different incident, a judge found probable cause to charge Jones with election fraud and assault, after an opposing campaign caught Jones on video with a stack of ballots in a city park.
Jones resigned from the Housing Authority board for “personal reasons” in 2011, only to be re-appointed by Cahill the following year, as we reported.
When New Brunswick Today asked about the NBHA’s hiring of Jones’ nephew at a board meeting in September, the meeting was abruptly adjourned.
City Hall confirmed that Joshua Jones was hired to a NBHA position with a $32,000 salary in July. He was Kevin’s second nephew to be hired by the local government in less than a year.
The volatile February board meeting was also the first since this newspaper exposed a questionable scheme where the NBHA levied extrajudicial parking fines disguised in the form of “work orders,” in violation of the city’s parking ordinances.
As we reported, the fines were tacked on to tenants’ rents in the federally-subsidized housing complex, in what appeared to be an elaborate pattern of extensive and expensive fines against the low-income tenants.
The bizarre parking fines may have overstepped the authority’s jurisdiction, and cost tenants $50 or more, well in excess of what residents pay for parking violations in the rest of the city, and double the rate mentioned in the authority’s rental agreements.
The board confirmed that the bizarre parking fines were under investigation.
“Well, first of all, the $25 and $50, they are looking at it,” said NBHA Board Chairman Yirgu Wolde. “[NBHA Executive Director John Clarke] stopped it because they are investigating.”
NBToday also raised questions about other questionable fines being levied against tenants in the projects, including $14 charges being tacked onto the rent for replacing lightbulbs.
Some board members jumped to defend the agency’s actions at the meeting.
“It’s not that simple of a bulb,” explained Jones. “I believe a Housing Authority employee has to go get in a truck, use gas to go to the store, purchase that bulb, bring that bulb back, so it’s not like a $1.50 fix.”
“There’s costs built into that bulb,” Jones concluded, before suggesting tenants go to the nearby Aldi supermarket, sandwiched between the two housing projects, to buy replacement bulbs themselves.
Board member Frank Simpson, the public housing “resident commissioner,” also chimed in to support the $14 charges, saying that the issue was not worthy of bringing to the board’s attention.
“People can buy a bulb or some people throw their lights on, whatever,” Simpson said. “These are not board questions…You’re kind of insulting me, and I’m trying to be on your side a little bit.”
“If somebody keeps taking your bulbs or breaking your bulbs, it gets a little–I understand what John [Clarke] and them are saying,” Simpson continued. “You know what the real world’s like, man.”
Also at issue during the wild 47-minute meeting was the agency’s broken promises to fulfill this newspaper’s requests for public records.
This reporter filed a lawsuit against the agency two days later, citing the housing authority’s failure to provide copies of “all receipts from professional development events and related travel expenses for the Authority since 2010.”
Those records, originally requested on October 6, would show how much public money the agency’s employees and board members spent in association with attending various classes, seminars, and conferences across the country.
More than four months later, New Brunswick Today still has not received any of the receipts in question.
The lawsuit, filed with the help of attorney Walter Luers, said it was “like pulling teeth” to obtain records from the agency.
The suit demands that the NBHA produce the travel records, as well as a multitude of other records that they have failed to provide to New Brunswick Today in accordance with state law.
Under the NJ Open Public Records Act (OPRA), a public agency is required to fulfill, or at least respond to, a records request within seven business days.
But NBHA has repeatedly failed to meet its own promises, and state requirements, to provide records requested by NBToday, including the travel reciepts, a variety of records requested on December 23, and surveillance videos requested on February 8.
On December 16, Alberto Camacho, an attorney who represents the NBHA board, wrote to say that travel records would be provided “shortly after the New Year,” a less than concrete timetable that violates the OPRA law.
Camacho explained that, “the Housing Authority is in the process of collecting those documents,” at the board’s meeting later that night. The board defended its slow response to the requests and blamed staffing and budget cuts.
One board member even suggested that the agency expend further resources to calculate the cost of fulfilling New Brunswick Today’s OPRA requests.
“It would be nice if we put together a document that summarizes the cost, the staff cost, of the requests and I think that would be a great thing in your paper,” said Dale Caldwell, a board member who also serves on the New Brunswick Board of Education and works at a charter school in Trenton.
“In a way, you are really preventing us from being efficient,” Caldwell said, lecturing this reporter. “I think it would be great, and I am going to ask the school board to do that, to [calculate] the cost of human time of responding to these OPRA requests.”
“And I would encourage you to write about that your requests have cost $25,000 of money,” said Caldwell pulling the figure out of thin air.
“Because you wrote about overtime. I would probably submit that your costs are more than the overtime that we have. But I think for good government, we should probably do that.”
“Will you promise us you will write about it?” asked Caldwell.
“You bet I will,” responded this reporter.
New Brunswick Today requested additional records under the OPRA law on December 23, including the document Caldwell suggested be created. For more than a month, the authority did not respond at all.
Now, two months into the new year, the NBHA still owes NBToday numerous records including: overtime forms, employee timecards, bills for the agency’s credit cards, records of fees charged to tenants, and internal emails about maintenance issues at the Schwartz-Robeson projects.
On February 1, Camacho’s boss Joseph Manfredi told this reporter that there would be a substantive response to the outstanding OPRA requests “by the end of the week.”
However, no such response came. On February 10, Camacho wrote to this reporter to request an extension through the end of the month.
“Unfortunately, given the current extremely limited staff of the Authority coupled with the extensive nature of the requests, the Authority has no choice but to ask for an additional 20 days (through the end of the month) to respond appropriately,” wrote Camacho.
Before the recent NBHA meeting went off the rails, Camacho refused to say whether he would fulfill a request for videos that could show whether or not a relative of the agency’s property manager is living in public housing illegally.
The authority’s board is also apparently still getting used to having their meetings recorded by journalists.
NBToday’s Kevin Palomo documented the agency’s September meeting without incident. At that meeting, this reporter asked the board if they make audio or video recordings of their meetings.
“No, we’re not required to,” responded Wolde, who works for the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA).
Joseph Manfredi, the board’s attorney, shook his head in opposition to this reporter’s assertion that recording the meetings is “probably a best practice.”
Two months later, Wolde interrupted this reporter’s remarks after he figured out that the December 16 public meeting was being recorded on a cellular phone:
WOLDE: “By the way, are you taping us?”
NBTODAY: “Yeah, can I record this?”
WOLDE: “You should have told us before you started recording us.”
NBTODAY: “Oh, I record all the meetings. Could you ask your attorney if it’s legal for me to make a recording?”
WOLDE: “You should have told us that you are recording us.”
NBTODAY: “Is that the law?”
WOLDE: “I want to be informed if I’m going to be recorded.”
NBTODAY: “I think maybe next year I’ll bring a videocamera and then there won’t be any question.”
WOLDE: “You can pick whatever it is, but at the same time you have to inform us that we are being recorded. That’s my request.”
NBTODAY: “It’s a request. Okay, well yeah, I’m going to record some of the meeting–“
WOLDE: “And then we’ll find out whether you can record us or not.”
NBTODAY: “I’m sure he could tell you right now. Through the chair, am I allowed to record the meeting?”
WOLDE (to attorney): “Is he allowed to record the meeting?”
CAMACHO: “You are allowed to record the meeting. However, I do agree with the Chairman that, you know, let us know when you’re recording the meeting, that’s all.”
WOLDE: “I request that you should inform us when you record the meetings.”
NBTODAY: “OK, I’ll be recording every meeting from now on.”
The January 26 meeting of the New Brunswick Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners was cancelled at the last-minute due to lack of a “quorum,” meaning not enough members could show up to conduct business.
Four of the seven members must be present to conduct business, according to NBHA bylaws.
The following month, board members again demonstrated their lack of knowledge about laws governing the recording of public meetings, interrogating a filmmaker about his connection to this newspaper.
With a videocamera rolling, the tables were turned, with NBHA board members pressing this reporter to find out how they could obtain a copy of NBToday’s video of the board meeting to use for “[the board’s] own purposes.”
Immediately after this reporter mentioned that the surveillance videos NBToday requested on February 8 might show that someone is illegally living in the Schwartz Homes, board member Anthony Giorgianni interrupted to ask about a different video.
“Excuse me one second, this is being recorded, right? What you’re talking about right now?” asked Giorgianni before comparing NBToday’s OPRA request for the surveillance videos to his own request for the board meeting video.
“I just want to make sure to go on record that you are being recorded, and that could be for us, that recording there, just as like the recordings that you would like from us, that if we need that, because if you have stated something incorrectly,” Giorgianni rambled on before saying, “I’m asking you a question.”
“What is the question?” asked this reporter.
“Can we have that video if you stated something wrong about someone else’s apartment and things that were going on?” Giorgianni said, before interrupting this reporter’s answer to press for a yes or a no.
This reporter said he could not speak for the “gentleman,” and Giorgianni said he would follow up with the filmmaker after the meeting.
Wolde then interrupted this reporter again to ask about the filmmaker’s connection to this reporter.
“That individual, did he come with you? Or is he independent from you?” Wolde asked.
“Is he recording this on his own or you asked him to come and record this? Yes or no?” pressed Giorgianni, again interrupting the answer to say, “Excuse me, yes or no?”
“Listen, I’m not here to answer questions,” responded this reporter.
“Oh no, you’re not. Right, that’s what I thought,” snapped Giorgianni.
“You can ask ’em but you can’t answer ’em,” Caldwell chimed in with a chuckle.
“If you want to record your meetings, you can record ’em,” countered this reporter. “If New Brunswick Today wants to record, then you can watch ’em on NewBrunswickToday.com, and that includes you.”
“You can go to NewBrunswickToday.com like everyone else in this city…I don’t know why you’re so concerned with who is recording you.”
Wolde continued to press for a copy of the recording, hinting that he might use it as “evidence,” but declining to explain his reasoning.
“The question is: If someone comes back to us and says ‘I was accused by such-and-such person that I parked my car illegally,’ can we get that as evid–can we get the recording?” asked Wolde.
“I’m not going to promise to give anything to the Housing Authority,” this reporter said, drawing an angry response from Caldwell.
“But this is public information! We should have as much right to your recording as you have,” said Caldwell, shortly before Giorgianni and Wolde began interrogating the filmmaker, Jason Liebman.
For his part, Caldwell voted in 2014 against recording Board of Education meetings at his other position in New Brunswick.
Giorgianni said he was going to approach the filmmaker after the meeting, and ask him for a copy of the video.
“I’m going to ask him personally for it. So I hope he doesn’t run out before you’re done,” said Giorgianni.
“What do you have to hide guys?” asked this reporter rhetorically, before the board began to question the filmmaker.
“Sir, did you come with [Charlie Kratovil] or are you working independently?” asked Wolde.
This reporter objected: “He has not asked to speak publicly. This is my time to speak. I’m making my public comments and you guys are flipping out because you’re being recorded.”
Wolde maintained he had “the right to ask questions” before asking Liebman again about his connection to this reporter.
“I am a local filmmaker and I will be providing this film to Charlie and New Brunswick Today to put on their YouTube channel and it will be publicly available,” responded Liebman.
Wolde had another probing question for the filmmaker: “Were you invited by [Kratovil] or you just came by yourself?”
“I’m a local filmmaker,” Liebman began, eliciting laughter from Jones. “I know Charlie and I came to this meeting. It’s public and I’d like to film this.”
After further embarrassing verbal combat between Wolde and this reporter, multiple board members began asking for this reporter to name the person who might be living in the Schwartz Homes “off the books.”
This reporter explained that the surveillance videos that this newspaper had requested copies of could be a “big clue” if the board really wanted to determine who it was and whether they were living there illegally.
Then NBToday asked if the agency’s property manager, Andrea Eato-White, was questioned about the issue, because it has been alleged that it was a member of her family that was living in the complex without a lease and parking a vehicle out front of the agency’s offices for several months.
“Who is this person, Charlie?” asked Jones. “And who do you think that’s living here? And what’s that person’s name since you know the car?”
This reporter said he had already provided the name to Executive Director John Clarke.
Caldwell jumped in, asking this reporter to “name names” before going on another diatribe against New Brunswick Today.
“No, actually I prefer to use some discretion,” countered this reporter, taking a page out of the board’s playbook and referring the question to the agency’s top employee. “Mr. Clarke has the information and he can look into it.”
“Some things on camera. And other things not?” said Caldwell. “Why don’t you hold yourself to the same level of accountability that you hold other people to?”
This reporter repeated his explanation, and offered to provide the information after the meeting, but Caldwell only got angrier.
“See you come here, and accusing people behind the scenes, and the innuendo, and saying that someone’s doing something,” Caldwell said. “Why don’t you be public so this is on public TV that Charlie Kratovil is accusing particular people of certain things? You hide behind this all the time.”
“But you’re too scared to do it on camera. Enough said,” Caldwell said, before continuing to vent. “You want other people to be on camera, but Charlie Kratovil doesn’t want to be on camera.”
“You make a lot of accuations behind the scenes, my friend. You ask a lot of people to do a lot of work that impacts the quality of public service to people,” said Caldwell, raising his voice. “When you require hours of documentation for people to come up… you are doing a disservice to the public!”
“You are doing a disservice to the public, and right now I’m asking you to be public about some of your accusations and you’re not willing to do that on camera,” Caldwell said as he calmed down.
“If the Housing Authority provides the surveillance…video, then I will tell you my findings,” responded this reporter. “But the Housing Authority is not in a position to question me, or yell at me, or bully me around because I am trying to provide information.”
Then Caldwell fired back, accusing this reporter of being the bully, and giving a clue as to the real reason for his anger.
“You think that you can come and bully people. You’ve put stuff on the internet about me that really is just inappropriate, and incorrect and wrong, and you should be held accountable about that,” said Caldwell.
After the meeting, Caldwell clarified that he was referring to a 2012 NBToday article that described the efforts of a disgraced ex-Mayor of Trenton to influence that city’s school board to hire Caldwell as its Superintendent.
After getting a hand signal from Clarke and Camacho, Wolde then declared the “public session is over,” banging the gavel and entertaining a motion to end the meeting.
But the back-and-forth continued.
“Charlie, you’re saying the same thing now, and you don’t want to be on camera,” said Wolde. “You don’t want to say the name… but you’re putting somebody’s name without clarifying, without putting any clarification.”
“No, actually, that’s what you’re trying to get me to do. You’re trying to get me to say the name,” said Kratovil. “And I’m saying I want to confirm it first. I’m concerned with accuracy.”
“Mr. Kratovil, thank you for your time,” said Camacho, interrupting the back-and-forth, and effectively ending the discussion.
“Also because I don’t trust you,” this reporter added, in an unsuccessful attempt to get the last word before the board voted to adjourn.
“We don’t trust you either,” retorted one board member.
“That’s why you’re here: distrust” said another.
Another board member can be heard calling this reporter a “jackass” before the final vote to end the meeting.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.