NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Mitch Karon has returned to the top position at the city’s parking authority, less than two years after he retired from the same post.
On June 2, Matthew Kennedy was quietly supplanted by Karon—the man who he had replaced in 2021—and officials have given conflicting stories about his departure.
“We decided it was time to go a different direction,” said longtime New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) Board Chairman Kevin McTernan, when asked about Karon’s recent return to power.
That direction is back to Karon, who presided over the NBPA for more than two decades, unexpectedly weathering controversies and scandals that shook the organization.
During Karon’s first term as Executive Director, the NBPA saw economic booms and busts, technology changes, financial challenges, and multiple corruption investigations that led to the prosecution of NBPA employees.
The NBPA is New Jersey’s largest parking authority, with an annual budget of over $30 million, more than $199 million in debt, and nine parking garages.
But the NBPA does much more than just manage parking facilities. It’s become a powerful juggernaut when it comes to the construction and real estate businesses, and often plays a key role in the physical expansion of the city’s academic and healthcare sectors.
Karon re-joined the NBPA just in time for the 75th anniversary of the agency’s inception. He has been employed there for more than a third of that time, and its leader for more than two decades.
His contract as Interim Executive Director was ultimately ratified at a four-minute special meeting of the NBPA Board of Commissioners held on June 29, almost four weeks after his quiet return to power.
Inside the conference room at NBPA headquarters on the sixth floor of the city’s tallest building, Karon’s return was formally approved 5-0, with NBPA Vice Chair Anthony Caputo—who doubles as the city’s police director—participating by phone.
Karon is now able to collect a public paycheck and a public pension at the same time, joining a group of “double-dipper” officials that includes Vice Chair Caputo, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, and another ex-cop who spent time on the NBPA Board.
Karon’s contract allows for him to charge the NBPA $125 per hour for up to 24 hours of work per week under an agreement that ends on December 31. He continues to receive the $65,347 annual pension that he started collecting in July 2021, based on 25 years of public service, and a salary figure of $158,854.
Karon has already started making changes of his own, including persuading the City Council to end the tradition of free parking on Sundays at the NBPA meters in downtown.
His predecessor, Kennedy, a newcomer to the area whose tenure lasted 23 months, was paid a $168,000 annual salary that had recently been raised to $178,000, according to public records obtained by New Brunswick Today.
Kennedy was hired at a pivotal moment for the authority, which had struggled to make ends meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, laying off more than half its staff, and failing to make its full annual payment to the city government for the first time in history.
Today, a 53-person staff is responsible for managing and maintaining NBPA lots and garages, enforcing parking ordinances on city streets, issuing parking permits and violations, tidying up certain streets, and collecting coins from hundreds of parking meters.
There was no mention of the change in executive directors from the city’s elected officials, and the city government website still lists Kennedy as the agency’s boss.
The official line is that Kennedy and the NBPA mutually agreed to part ways. New Brunswick Today’s efforts to contact Kennedy have been unsuccessful.
Before New Brunswick Today brought up the move at the August 2 City Council meeting, the Council’s liaison to the NBPA was under the impression that Kennedy had been fired. The personnel change had not been discussed at Council meetings in June or July.
“I know that the gentlemen that was there was, I believe, terminated,” said Council Vice President Kevin Egan, who recently declared his candidacy for State Assembly.
But after this reporter asked Egan why Kennedy had been “terminated,” Egan said he didn’t know, and ultimately changed his position, conceding that Kennedy had mutually agreed to part ways with the NBPA.
“Then I have it wrong then. I apologize,” said Egan, deferring to our recounting of what had been said at the NBPA Board meeting on July 26.
“The decision was mutual between Mr. Kennedy and the Authority,” confirmed NBPA attorney Aaron Rainone of the firm Rainone Coughlin Minchello.
As far as hiring a hiring permanent executive director, McTernan said, “We have some candidates… It’s kind of a niche field, so I expect it will take a little bit of time.”
In the interim, it appears Karon will only be working part-time in the top job, which also includes the responsibility of chairing the New Brunswick Traffic Commission.
Kennedy had been the first new person to lead the NBPA since Karon took over for James “Jim” Zullo in 2000.
For almost two years, it was Kennedy who had to answer to a five-member board led by Police Director Caputo and McTernan, a longtime executive at one of the authority’s biggest customers: Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH).
Kennedy came to the East Coast as a parking professional, far removed from the agency’s past and the notorious political machine in Middlesex County.
A former official in Duluth, Minnesota, and at Northeastern Illinois University, Kennedy also worked for Central Parking System in Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.
“We live in challenging times, and yet thoughtful stewardship of parking resources can be a powerful tool for community revitalization and growth,” Kennedy told New Brunswick Today when he was first hired. “The New Brunswick Parking Authority, together with its partners, seeks to journey into this future.”
The authority’s revenues slowly returned during Kennedy’s term in office, and it’s been paying back the city for the missed payments on time.
However, it was also counting on collecting millions of dollars from a major lease agreement with the county government, one that Karon negotiated before leaving. The deal didn’t work out well for Kennedy.
The authority appears much different today than it did when Karon’s retirement was announced on May 26, 2021, at a meeting held with only him and this reporter in the sixth-floor conference room. The board’s members all participated through a telephone speaker.
“It’s with a great deal of gratitude that I announce that retirement,” McTernan said at the time, adding that Karon brought “a lot of knowledge, a lot of integrity, and good humor during good times, and bad times.”
“If someone had told me when I was in college that I would make parking my career, I would have laughed at them,” said Karon. “But it turned out to be a career that I enjoyed doing.”
Karon presided over the installation of electric vehicle charging stations and solar panels at NBPA facilities, as well as the implementation of license plate reader technology, meters that accept credit cards, and a pay-by-phone mobile application.
Now back at the helm, Karon noted that the mobile application, Parkmobile, now accounts for “a little more than half” of the NBPA’s metered parking revenue.
“I know throughout the country, it’s grown by leaps and bounds,” said Karon. “Sometimes cities just took away the meters and made it Parkmobile, so that’s probably the wave of the future.”
But not everything Karon tried worked. Car-share programs were largely a passing fad, a bus route the authority funded didn’t survive the pandemic, and many of the businesses the NBPA enticed to open up here failed, often owing significant back rent to the authority.
And while new parking decks rose up in new places, Karon’s NBPA faced criticism for the suicides that had occurred at the authority’s garages, and the impact that its extensive borrowing had on the city’s credit rating.
After reports in New Brunswick Today about the suicides, the NBPA installed fencing on several parking garages as a preventative measure.
Borrowing to build garage after garage took its toll on the NBPA’s finances, with its total debt reaching nearly $400 million at one point, and rampant employee thefts didn’t help.
With an ugly spotlight shined on the agency, news coverage raised questions about the fairness and justice of the prosecutions, and the practices of the agency.
NBPA supervisors allegedly trained lower level employees on how to disable security cameras while they stole money, pocketing cash payments and sharing the stolen money with the bosses for years on end.
“The investigation… determined that parking fees paid by motorists to park in the Ferren and Lower Church Street decks in New Brunswick were being stolen by the security officers, who paid various amounts to supervisors to overlook the thefts, which occurred between July 2007 and June 2010,” read a statement issued by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.
Once a criminal investigation commenced, some NBPA systems mysteriously crashed in what was feared to be an effort to obstruct the investigation.
NBPA Security Director Lawrence Sorbino ultimately admitted to accepting more than $3,000 from security guards to ignore their repeated thefts of cash, but then unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw his guilty plea.
“It was like a den of thieves,” said one former police official familiar with the case. “How did Mitch keep his job with all that happening?”
Karon survived the scandal, kept his job, and the authority would go on to have another theft scandal in 2016, when NBPA valets allegedly started parking customer cars in an abandoned garage, and pocketing the cash.
Meanwhile, Sorbino and others, including a dispatch supervisor and several security officers, were sentenced to jail or prison for their conduct in the first scandal.
Operations Manager Michael Lapidus, however, was able to avoid incarceration and enter a pre-trial intervention (PTI) program, but was required to pay back $24,000 to the NBPA.
Lapidus soon ended up on the payroll of a NBPA vendor. Karon said he signed off on Lapidus’ PTI arrangement, in part, because his wife Holly Lapidus-Williams continued to work for the agency, which “created an uncomfortable situation in the office.”
Two low-level NBPA employees also faced serious prison time in the first scandal. They endured a prolonged criminal case that would be continually argued and appealed for the next decade, and ultimately did time in state prison for official misconduct.
After the two men were found not guilty on ten out of eleven charges, the case hinged on the duty to report misconduct that they were aware of, not their own alleged thefts.
The judge in the case wondered out loud if Karon should have been indicted, too, given the prosecution’s argument that NBPA employees failing to report the misconduct of their colleagues was a crime.
The handling of the case raised questions about then-Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan, who is now a Superior Court Judge.
While Kaplan’s Judge nomination was being considered, a Home News Tribune editorial highlighting ties between Kaplan and former Mayor and State Senator, John Lynch, Jr., considered one of the state’s all-time most corrupt politicians.
“Some have questioned that Kaplan continues to lunch with Lynch, saying that it is inappropriate for an officer of the court to associate so closely with a federally convicted felon,” wrote the newspaper during Kaplan’s final days as prosecutor.
“Despite a ban from public office, Lynch’s influence on, control over and manipulation of the New Brunswick Parking Authority, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s and other government agencies remains evident.”
The NBPA can be and has been a tool for the powerful to quietly but drastically shape transportation and development decisions to fit their needs, a fact that few have understood as well as New Brunswick’s convicted felon former Mayor.
After being released from federal prison where he served time for mail fraud and tax evasion, Lynch admitted in an interview that the NBPA was “probably the best-kept secret in this whole process,” referring to the redevelopment machine that he was known for orchestrating in the Hub City.
“The least publicized part of the redevelopment process throughout has been the ability to utilize the parking authority… because they have enormous power under the law,” said Lynch in an oral history interview with Rutgers University officials.
“Under the parking authority law in New Jersey, they have a broad base of power that’s even broader than redevelopment powers. They can buy and sell. They can acquire in futuro by saying, ‘It’s going for parking,'” said Lynch.
While most parking authorities stick to the parking business, the NBPA has become a major commercial landlord and a key player in some mega-development projects that secured millions of dollars from federal, state, and county governments.
During Karon’s tenure, the NBPA frequently partnered with the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), building and operating four different parking decks attached to their buildings, saving the corporation tens of millions of dollars. Another pair of NBPA garages largely serve the needs of RWJUH, a private hospital campus.
In perhaps the biggest and most costly NBPA boondoggle, Karon worked out a deal with DEVCO that made the NBPA borrow big to become the owners of the “Wellness Plaza” parking project. The NBPA would be paid rent from the tenants of customized spaces on the first and second floors of the parking garage, and use both parking and rental revenue to pay off the debt.
The NBPA was in charge of managing relationships with the tenants—including a supermarket and a fitness center affiliated with RWJUH—and collecting the rent from them.
While the fitness center has been a success, two different operators selected by NBPA to run the supermarket space spectacularly failed, racking up over $1 million each in unpaid rent and fees to the NBPA before closing down. More than a decade after it opened with great fanfare, the ground-floor space has been vacant about as long as it has been occupied.
NBPA, DEVCO, and Mayor Cahill tried to find other replacement tenants, but no operator wanted to take a chance on the twice-failed space with its few windows, lone entrance, and lack of ground-level parking. Efforts to subdivide the 49,000 square foot space to attract smaller tenants were also fruitless.
But, shortly before Karon left the NBPA in 2021, he secured a five-year deal for Middlesex County to rent the former supermarket for $784,000 per year, ostensibly to use it for expansion of offices for the county’s prosecutor and courts.
“The county will be paying for the cost to fit up the space,” Karon told New Brunswick Today at the time.
The lease was signed on June 23, 2021, and was supposed to start on July 1, 2021, Kennedy’s first day on the job. The deal stood to bring in $3.92 million to the authority over the first five years, and there were options for the county to renew the lease further.
But the county’s move-in date was quietly postponed to January 2022, supposedly through a mutual agreement between both landlord and tenant.
Even though they claimed not to have keys to access the space, county officials still issued more than $750,000 in payments to the NBPA in the first two months of 2022.
The relationship between NBPA and the county appeared to sour under Kennedy, and the NBPA was soon receiving letters from county government attorneys.
“County representatives have advised that the premises have not been delivered in the manner prescribed in the lease agreement,” wrote a Middlesex County’s First Deputy County Counsel Niki Athanasopoulos in a March 24, 2022 letter to Kennedy.
“Specifically, the premises contains trash, old equipment, and other items unrelated to the use of the premises by the County. Most importantly, the keys to the premises have not been provided.”
The county government started to back out of the plan, while the NBPA Board seemed to purposely avoid addressing the topic in public.
For much of 2022 and 2023, there was great dissonance between the explanations given by NBPA officials, who insisted the deal was still on, and the backtracking county officials.
On June 28, 2022, the county again requested in writing that NBPA remove the supermarket junk occupying the former space, and said they “will withhold any future rental payments.”
One month later, when questioned by this report during a public meeting, McTernan admitted that the county wasn’t paying the rent but appeared flummoxed by the question.
“I don’t know [if they’re paying the rent], have they? No, no, I think there’s a postponement,” said McTernan at the July 2022 meeting.
“There was a postponement of rent. There’s somebody’s on vacation now. I don’t know, we’ll have to follow [up],” continued McTernan, who then suggested that the authority would have to undertake significant expenses to revamp the space.
But not only had Karon promised the county would pay for the costs of the “fit up,” it was clearly written into the lease: “The parties acknowledge and agree that Tenant shall pay the costs and expenses associated with preparing the Tenant improvements, known as ‘Fit-Up’ construction costs.”
Inexplicably, Kennedy and the NBPA Board opted to hire an architecture firm and a demolition firm to prepare the space for a different kind of tenant, authorizing more than $700,000 in expenses, all while pausing the county’s rent obligation.
But the county would eventually confirm they were pulling out, in response to questions from this reporter at the May 4 Board of County Commissioners meeting.
“At this point in time, that space will not be used by the county,” said County Administrator John Pulomena, marking a sharp reversal. “I know that they’re working on a potential use of that facility that I’m not privileged to share at this point. It’s in negotiations.”
Pulomena said the county was not involved in the negotiations and declined to say who was.
There was no obvious indication at the May 24 NBPA Board meeting that there might be a change in leadership coming, but Karon quietly took over just eight days later.
McTernan insisted the county was still on the hook for its obligations under the lease: “We have a contract with the county… Right now, the current condition is that there’s a lease with the County of Middlesex,” adding that the obligation for the county to pay rent had been paused because of the work being done.
“There’s a lease in effect. There’s no rent due while the demolition is in effect.”
Two months later, with the new boss in charge, the NBPA board appears to have dropped any delusions that the county might actually still rent the space.
“There’s not [any potential tenant],” acknowledged McTernan on July 26.
Just across Kirkpatrick Street from the Wellness Plaza lies another longstanding NBPA disaster: the ruins of the John E. Ferren Mall and Parking Garage.
The mall and 1,228-space parking deck was once home to the authority’s headquarters, the Rutgers University bookstore, along with restaurants, salons, medical offices and other retail destinations.
Towards the end of its life, the mall also housed a diner, the campaign headquarters of Governor candidate Barbara Buono, and a hiring center for the first of the two failed supermarkets in Wellness Plaza.
The redevelopment machine, now led by Lynch’s cousin and successor, Mayor James Cahill, wanted the structure to be demolished and replaced by a larger, more modern project.
Cahill started discussing the possibilities as early as 2003, as part of his “CORE Vision Plan.” At various times, it was considered as a possible site for a new sports arena, high-density housing, or offices for a large corporation like BlackRock or Amazon.
It was seen as a foregone conclusion when the NBPA selected DEVCO develop it, in an exclusive deal that began in 2014. But details are still sketchy on exactly what is planned.
It’s been six years since the mall and parking garage were demolished, leaving behind a massive crater in the middle of downtown New Brunswick.
The NBPA still owns most of the ruins, which until recently amounted to an enormous wasteland that occupies nearly two full city blocks in the heart of downtown.
Though NBPA has already inked a deal with DEVCO to build on the Ferren Mall ruins, Karon and the NBPA Board are in a unique position to impact the future of that development.
DEVCO is only now preparing to move forward construction of a single building that will take up about one-third of the property yet provide no housing or parking.
Even after the demolition of the mall in late 2016, the authority remained a commercial real estate juggernaut, owning the supermarket space, the fitness center above and pool below, plus a series of storefronts along Easton Avenue, and six floors of office space, including its headquarters.
The NBPA also entered an agreement to manage stores owned by the New Brunswick Housing Authority and Redevelopment Agency.
But the pandemic caused many tenants to fall behind on the rent or close up shop for good.
One of Kennedy’s main projects was cleaning up the rent rolls at the NBPA, negotiating settlements to resolve the outstanding debts with at least five tenants in 2022.
Karon has already brought at least one new tenant to the authority’s properties. A failed restaurant near the train station is now being rented by Joseph Jingoli & Son, Inc., the builder DEVCO has hired to develop at least one building at the innovation hub project, now dubbed “Helix NJ.”
Jingoli started renting the space on June 15, and will pay $468,000 to the NBPA over the three-year lease.
The previous tenants were Brother Jimmy’s Restaurant and Redd’s Biergarten.
Redd’s left and settled their debt to the authority in December 2022 by agreeing to pay $120,400 and let the NBPA keep a security deposit of $33,174. But the company behind Brother Jimmy’s still owes the NBPA $140,597, according to a court database.
Karon will be working with a board that is somewhat different than before. Two longtime board members have been replaced in recent months.
Louis Garlatti, the husband of former City Councilwoman Elizabeth “Betsy” Garlatti, said he told Mayor Cahill not to re-appoint him for another five-year term on the NBPA Board as his term was about to expire.
Maria Soto, wife of former New Brunswick Police Director Joseph Catanese, was appointed to replace Garlatti.
After Edward Keefe passed away earlier this year, Zoning Board member John Zimmerman was appointed to the fifth seat on the board.
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.