While attendance was down nearly 50 percent from the on July 10, the third and final hearing last night in the Scotch Plains Town Council Chambers saw an onslaught of questions and concerns about the proposed .
According to the Local Option Municipal Consolidation Law of 2007, three public hearings were mandated before Courage to Re-connect, the organization in favor of consolidating Scotch Plains and Fanwood, could move forward with a consolidation study.
Among residents’ main concerns were questions about funding the $50,000 to $75,000 report, whether the municipalities should be subject to such a new and untested initiative, and the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Municipal Consolidation Application petitioners’ representation–or misrepresentation–of Fanwood residents.
The meeting was led by Gina Genovese, executive director of N.J. Courage to Connect, and Fred Lange, founder of Courage to Re-connect, with Assistant Director of Local Government Services Christopher Vaz mediating the hearing.
“…We have really considered what the public has said the last couple of public hearings, and we would potentially like to amend the application to reflect what people have been sharing,” Genovese said.
Under the Financial & Logistical Support section of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Municipal Consolidation Application, Genovese said Courage to Re-connect would exclude the following excerpt:
“The Commission plans to seek contributions from the participating municipalities…”
This would allow the group the ability only to seek contributions from “relevant non-profits, philanthropies, foundations, and research centers.”
In the same section, the application states the group is hopeful that Scotch Plains or Fanwood would agree to serve as the fiscal agent for the Study Commission, providing a vehicle for managing the Commission’s finances.
However, the group has amended the application to exclude the following excerpt:
“If that is not possible, CTR-SPF proposes that the Department of Community Affairs (“DCA”) create a special purpose account available for the Study Commission to deposit contributions and charge expenses.”
According to the application, the consolidation study commission would consist of five residents of Scotch Plains and five residents of Fanwood, 10 commissioners in total. Two commissioners from each municipality would be selected by the committee of representative voters, and two commissioners from each municipality would be selected by each municipal governing body.
The group amended the application last night so that these four commissioners from each municipality would jointly select their fifth and last commissioner. The application would previously allow the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public School District board to appoint these commissioners.
“And I think that that would be pretty reasonable so that, you know, again, everybody could start working together,” said Genovese.
Once the application was amended, the hearing was opened for public discussion.
Several residents expressed concern regarding the cost and funding of the consolidation study.
While Lange said about 80 percent of study is complete based on previous shared services studies, that would still leave funding for the consolidation portions of the study up in the air.
“At this point we don’t know the finances and we don’t know who will help us, but we’re looking into it,” said Lange.
Once formed, the study commission would write a request for proposal to allow outside consulting firms, academic institutions, or other contributors to place bids. According to the amended application, contributions would not come from tax-payers, but rather only an outside institution.
“Maybe we’re using the excuse that money is so tight and we’re going to save money–I don’t know how much money we’re really going to save,” said Grace Alina, from Scotch Plains.
Alina said the municipalities should take a “wait-and-see” approach.
“I want to see what happens to Princeton,” she said. “It’s an experiment. I don’t want to be part of it.”
Several attending Fanwood residents, including Fanwood Councilman Michael Szuch, were concerned that they had yet to see any petitioners from Fanwood attend the public hearings. Szuch called these petitioners a “phantom group.”
“I think that we’re really misrepresenting the citizens here by continually saying that this is a 'representative group,'” he said. “I think the reality here is that it is not a representative group, but that it’s merely the will of some absentee citizens who have merely signed their names to a petition, and have presented it, and it is taking a life of its own without truly representing what I would consider the will of the citizens here.”
Other Fanwood residents said they did not feel represented because they never saw the petitions, nor did they see any postings about Courage to Re-connect's meetings.
Answering Fanwood resident Jason Benedict’s request for a reaction from Lange in regards to the Fanwood petitioners’ no-show, Lange said, “Yes, I was disappointed.”
The few residents who spoke in favor of the commission study last night said it was important to get all the facts before any decisions were made regarding consolidation.
Dean Leistikow, a resident of Scotch Plains, said, “Once we do the study, then we will have the information we need to make a decision."
"It would be a reasonable thing to go ahead with the study; we can then look at the data and make an informed decision,” he said.
In accordance with the Local Option Municipal Consolidation Law, Vaz will prepare a report summarizing the public hearings and community comments. The report will be presented to the Finance Committee in Trenton on August 8.
Vaz said anyone who wishes to e-mail their comments and concerns can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Scotch Plains/Fanwood Consolidation Study’ in the subject line.