By PETE WALTON
Bradley Beach officials held a closed-door meeting last fall with a private developer to discuss the possible sale of the borough-owned property at 705 Evergreen Ave., the current borough public works yard.
The Nov. 9 meeting came to light when resident Thomas J. Coan amended a lawsuit against the borough on Dec. 22. The suit alleges that borough officials violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.
In an email to The Coaster Mayor Larry Fox wrote that two items on the October and November agendas lacked technical labels under the Open Public Meetings Act.
“Mr. Coan is a welcome and active participant at all of our Council meetings and astutely identified two items on our October and November agendas that lacked technical labels under the Open Public Meetings Act,” the mayor said in an email. “Unfortunately, instead of just letting us know, Mr. Coan is wasting our tax dollars with a form-over-substance lawsuit for political reasons. It’s unfortunate, but it didn’t stop us from correcting our agendas, and it won’t stop us from continuing to serve our residents on the important and substantive issues that they care about.”
According to redacted minutes of the Nov. 9 executive session compiled by Municipal Clerk Erica Kostyz, Patrick Ward of InSite Engineering and Mark Sangiorgi of Highwood Development and Holdings gave a presentation/proposal for the possible purchase of 705 Evergreen Ave.
Sangiorgi is the current developer of the Main Street property where Giamano’s restaurant was once located.
Listed in the minutes as being present at the meeting with Sangiorgi and Ward were Mayor Larry Fox, Borough Council members Randy Bonnell, Tim Sexsmith, and John Weber, Borough Administrator Kim Humphrey, alternate borough attorney Andrew Sobel, Borough Engineer Gerald Freda, and Kostyz. The session lasted 27 minutes and no action was taken.
The minutes of the meeting were four pages long, mostly filled with large black boxes.
Another amendment to the suit filed earlier this week says the minutes of the Nov. 9 closed session and another meeting Oct. 12 should not have been redacted because the subjects under discussion did not fall under the exemptions provided for under state law.
According to the minutes, they were “redacted as redevelopment contractual negotiations,” citing two sections of state law regarding “trade secrets and proprietary commercial or financial information obtained from any source” and “information which, if disclosed, would give an advantage to competitors or bidders.”
A review by The Coaster of minutes from council meetings in 2021 and legal advertisements placed by the borough showed no public notification that the governing body was considering the sale of the Evergreen Avenue property or soliciting competitive proposals from developers.
The amendment to Coan’s suit filed on Dec. 22 names as defendants the borough, the council, and Fox in his capacity as mayor.
“As the mayor, Fox is responsible for placing items on the agenda of the governing body,” according to the suit filed in state Superior Court in Freehold on Coan’s behalf by attorney Walter M. Luers of Saddle Brook.
The suit says that state law requires public bodies to provide “written advance notice of at least 48 hours, giving the time, date, location and, to the extent known, the agenda of any regular, special or rescheduled meeting.” An exhibit attached to the suit, the agenda for the council’s Nov. 9 regular meeting, includes an item listed as “Executive Session to discuss an Attorney/Client Privilege Matter.”
“Unknown to the public, at that time, defendants [had] been considering initiating the possible sale of Bradley Beach borough-owned property located at 705 Evergreen Avenue, which is the current Bradley Beach Public Works Yard,” the suit says. “On information and belief, defendants knew they intended to meet with representatives of InSite Engineering and Highwood Development at the time that the agenda was distributed to the public.”
According to the suit, the meeting with Sangiorgi and Ward “did not fall under any of the recognized exceptions … that authorizes a public body to exclude the public from a meeting.”
State law provides nine categories of exceptions to public attendance at official meetings, including collective bargaining, individual privacy, negotiations with or termination of public employees, the “acquisition of real property with public funds,” public safety tactics and techniques, and “pending or anticipated litigation.”
Coan, a former councilman in Manasquan, says Bradley Beach officials also failed to provide proper notice of plans to discuss the possible transfer of the local sewer utility to New Jersey American Water Co.
The suit says the subject was discussed during an executive session on Oct. 12, 2021. According to the suit, the subject matter of that meeting also did not meet the standards in state law which allow the exclusion of the public.
Coan says he supports the idea of selling the borough’s sewer utility to New Jersey American Water but that the meeting about the concept should have been open to the public.
He said he is a supporter of Kostyz, the borough clerk, and is “very pleased” with Sangiorgi’s work on the former Giamano’s site.