Saturday, January 10, 2004
RICHARDS SALIVATING OVER SEARS PROPERTY
But new mayor warned not to usurp Planning Board's role
By Chris Neidenberg
In 2004, new Mayor Thomas Richards has visions of almighty dollar signs - in the form of heightened tax revenues -- dancing in his head through possibly re-developing the currently polluted Sears Distribution Center property.
And big bucks, deep-pocketed developers, likely drooling with Richards over prospects for building spanking new real estate all over the mammoth tract, most assuredly are also seeing big dollar signs dancing all over the site.
Because whoever waiting in the wings wins this massive and lucrative prize stands to rake in mega millions with any new construction. That is, if the federal government allows any development there at all.
At least before Richards' ascendancy to the mayor's chair, the governing body desired to give the appointed Planning/Zoning Board a major role in the process of studying how Sears should be re-developed. The site is located between Maywood Avenue and Route 17 North.
These two former independent bodies were combined as one entity in 1996, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure, at the behest of then-Democratic Mayor Thomas Murphy, The new mayor has since said this was a mistake, and previously floated the idea of re-establishing separate zoning and planning boards.
Last September, then-Councilman Richards sent clear signals that he wanted Maywood's elected politicians - and not the board - to exert its dominance in the matter.
Richards has already gone on record saying he wants an active and huge railroad station - replete with major new commercial developments - eventually put on the current Sears tract. The station would be part of a new light-rail transportation system the state once proposed for the area.
That is, unless Richards has since either been forced to abandon, or voluntarily cast aside, this vision.
Richards' demand last September that the governing body wave a tight fist prompted then-Borough Attorney Andrew Fede to remind him that the council (at least under prior Republican control) already agreed on deferring to the Planning/Zoning Board using a state-authorized statutory process.
Under this procedure, the council must adopt a resolution asserting that the Sears location is "in need of re-development," referring the matter to the board for a final ruling. The board would then hire a council-funded professional planner.
If the board agrees, a formal "re-development declaration" would let the municipality take advantage of state-approved incentives in trying to lure any developer(s) into the Sears reginn.
As an example, the governing body could provide financial incentives such as some kind of initial tax relief, and also decide how future taxes collected on a re-developed tract might be apportioned (to the borough, school district, county).
Four months before becoming mayor, Richards urged the council to firmly take control of all matters related to Sears' future development. In fact, Richards has long been preoccupied with the issue.
"I think we (elected governing body) should have more input, into what we want to develop over there (Sears), than the Planning Board," said Richards.
Now, as mayor, he will essentially decide who gets appointed to the board, as long as the new Democratic majority remains in tact.
Back in mid-September, Fede, the now-former Republican-appointed municipal attorney, who has since been retained as special counsel for handling all unresolved legal matters arising under his tenure, cautioned Richards that the council cannot get fully involved (at least under its original plan) until after the board studies the site and makes a final "re-development" recommendation.
"After a contract (to a planner) is awarded, and the Planning (and Zoning) Board determines the area is in need of re-development, you (governing body) can get more involved at that time," Fede pointed out..
Fede stressed that there was "nothing wrong" with Richards' desire to have the council immerse itself into the Sears question - in due time.
"There are definitive steps in this process," the lawyer pointed out. " But we (governing body) aren't there yet."
Did Richards already have a particular unseen developer - or development concept - in mind?
Depending on if a builder is picked to reap this final and rich reward, and what type of construction is approved (a process which could still be several years from completion), any ultimate development could profoundly effect Maywood - and its quality of life - for many years to come.
The Planning/Zoning Board may make recommendations. Still, any Interested developer(s), lurking in the background, will more than likely be forced to "play ball" with Richards if they want a "piece of the action."
Or, using layman's terms, if they want their particular plan considered
You can bet Richards, who formally took the mayoral reins following the borough's Jan. 5 reorganization, is well aware of this.
But anyone lurking around seeking to "play ball," particularly with a politician like Richards, could indeed be playing "a very dangerous game" with the people of Maywood.
That's because the Sears site, currently owned by Kin Properties of upstate New York, is polluuted with massive amounts of thorium and chemical contamination. It is slated for cleanup under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Phase II thorium remediation program. Mind you, we're not even talking about any separate plan to address chemicals on the same site.
The entire program, covering all of Maywood's remaining polluted properties (about 300,000 cubic yards ) is currently estimated to take about six years to complete - though the feds have been known to subtly change these timetables over the many years of its highly questionable involvement with politicians liike Richards.
Maywood's pols seem desperate for new tax ratables. Just how far will they go to try and snare them?
There is indeed pressure upon "ratable hungry" Maywood to develop these large polluted lands, that also encompass the Maywood Interim Storage Site, Stepan Chemical Company, DeSaussure Engineering and Federal Express properties.
Richards has also been recently quoted as desiring to develop the borough's parking lot portion of the huge Bergen Mall property, far away from the Superfund site, in the northern end of Maywood. According to published reports, the longtime mall (with stores just across the border in Paramus) was sold and could itself be re-developed.
The borough, in prior years, has lost large amounts of tax revenues due to the current conditions around Sears. Kin has, in the past, appealed the municipality's prior tax appraisals of this same seriously polluted Superfund site property - and prevailed in litigation.
Kin's victories have required prior borough councils to refund large sums of revenue it previously collected under old assessments. Maywood's other taxpayers, mainly its many homeowners, had to make up this lost revenue.
The successful Sears/Kin tax appeals have happened while these same Maywood taxpayers - and others throughout the country - have also subsidized handling a huge portion of Stepan Chemical Company's original responsibility in the Superfund site
That is, the study and cleanup of massive volumes of buried radiological contamination, the final outcome of which could have a profound effect on any future development at Sears and surrounding properties.. .
This huge and highly questionable subsidy (certainly, in the tens of millions of dollars) resulted under a political agreement negotiated (with the active support of Richards and old/new Borough Attorney William Rupp) by Stepan's one-time campaign cash recipient - now former Senator Robert Torricelli. He acted while still a local congressman.-
A 1995 updated Master Plan, from the Maywood Planning and Zoning Board, declared the issue of resolving the Superfund thorium/chemical cleanup, a "special problem."
The updated plan further stated: "The board is concerned with the thorium issue as it impacts on the early return of those contaminated lands to the tax rolls, and planning for the viable usage of these lands."
That was nine years ago.
Over the many years, Maywood's politicians have sent contradictory messages as to how they have wanted to see Sears and the other polluted properties cleaned up.
Just as bad, federal authorities have essentially colluded with them in delaying any final action leading to a resolution benefitting the community.
Around 2001, ithe governing body commissioned the Bergen County Department of Planning and Economic Development to commence a "brownfields" study of the Sears location. This, as discusion heated up over whether the state would pick the area surrounding Sears to serve as a stop along the route of this proposed light-rail system Richards has favored.
This study was approved locally in conjunction with the county department's separate, ongoing study analyzing the feasibility of the specific light rail proposal. Very preliminary plans had called for running the system on a route from Paterson to Edgewater.
The idea was to provide easier rail access for residents along the route seeking to commute into New York The now-deceased Michael Nolan, then-environmental chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Maywood, which lobbied long and hard for a complete chemical/thorium cleanup of the Superfund sites, complained then that designating the area a "brownfields" location could leave massive amounts of thoriun contamination on the site. Any such designation could qualify Maywood for receiving federal funds dedicated to the future use of such sites.
The question then was, given this desire to fully clean up Maywood, would it be the right thing to do?
Democratic Congressmen Steve Rothman (D-9) and William Pascrell (D-8) promised in 2000 to use the full weight of their offices in securing funding for the Paterson/Maywood light-rai initiative, and then-Borough Administrator John Perkins initiated clandestine discussions with potential developers for the site.
Eventually, the light-rail idea was placed on the back burner in 2002 by the administration of Democratic Gov. James McGreevey for some reason.
Perhaps, quite possibly, it will resurface?
But in Aug. of 2002, then-Councilman Richards told federal authorities that the council planned on acting in a manner that would, at least appear to, contradict its earlier "brownfields" intentions. This idea would even please Nolan (Richards' perpetual adversary and critic).
At the time, Richards and Republican Councilman Thomas Gaffney, advised federal authorities that the council planned to zone at least some of the area near Sears for a recreational use. They vowed this would be done, in part, to try and force a complete excavation of thorium-tainted soil from the area.
That has historically been defined as mandating a cleanup of radioactive waste to a level of five picociroes per gram at all soil depths (allowing for the unrestricted use of Sears and other polluted locations, and permanently ridding the area of of any perceived low-level radioactive waste health threat. That is, at least any threat now emanating from the soils.
In the federal government's final - though partial - radiological record of decision for soils and buildings released in late September of 2003 (which avoided discussing any plans for groundwater), the feds have, in fact, apparently promised to fully excavate all soils regardless of future land use.
Problem is, various federal authorities and agencies have previously flat-out lied to Maywood residents. They have acted in collusion,with most of Maywood's current governing body, regarding past goings on throughout the Superfund site.
These officials have included Richards, Gaffney and Democats: Council President Dr. Tim Eustace and Councilwoman Lorraine LaPietra.
Richards on Sears in the past
New Mayor Richards has apparently been tapped by the borough's and county's Democratic political establishment, which nominated him, to essentially serve as Maywood's "white knight" - in trying to solve the community's ratable dilemma.
Much of resolving that dilemma hinges upon how successful Maywood will be in cleaning up the remaining Superfund properties, where vital health and safety issues also must be considered..
Problem is, Richards has previously been commissioned to "captain the ship" in this area in other capacities, as councilman or prior Environmental Legislative Action Committee (ELAC) chairman. He has rather shakily navigated it based on past conduct.
For while Richards has been tasked in 2004 with "carrying the ball" on the Sears issue, his critics could certainly argue that they are armed with a mountain of evidence suggesting he has, in fact, "dropped the ball" in handling the matter many other times.
For example, around the time the Planning/Zoning Board issued its updated Master Plan Report, nine years ago, Richards was appointed to head the second incarnation of the shady and shaky ELAC.
This committee, universally composed of Richards loyalists, made no progress in trying to help resolve Maywood's thorium quagmire over many months - when honest and open leadership might have resolved important issues (such as Sears) years earlier..
Additionally, ELAC never met its charge via ordinance of working with residents in identifying environmental concerns. For instance, Richards, during the (second ELAC) board's earliest meetings in 1995, blocked Nolan from addressing it.
And while on the ELAC, Richards also concurrently served for a time (starting in 1995) on a "national stakeholder group" under the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Environmental Management Advisory Board.
This represented a conflict of sorts - at least in terms of furthering Maywood's interests - because Riichards fully knew then that the DOE had been hiding a final cleanup plan from his fellow residents since at least sometime in 1994 .
The DOE and the corps continued hiding this plan from the community (an absolute and documented fact) for at least more than eight years, maybe even longer.
Despite Nolan's repeated pleas, virtually begging the council to help Maywood via forcing federal authorities to finally release the (thorium cleanup) plan they had long hidden, Richards (whether on the council or ELAC) steadfastly ignored him
In fact, Democratic and Republican council members all during this time - rather chillingly - ignored Nolan's pleas.
Richards and Sears - present and future
The new mayor's clearly checkered past on the contamination issue certainly raises the possibility that he will indeed have "a checkered future" as the whole mess enters a critical stage.
That is, unless he has somehow seen the light - and starts conducting himself "on the straight and narrow.".
For one thing, Richards desire for luring development to the Sears site comes at a time when the cleanup of the tract has not even commenced. Unless he knows something we don't know (always a possibility with Richards), a final Sears site cleanup is still a while away from completion.
One could make the case that no "re-development study or declaration" should even be considered until after the EPA certifies that this massive site is satisfactorily cleaned up of thorium and chemicals (will the final thorium plan indeed be "up and out?")
In an ideal world, the EPA should not even allow pursuing any potential development path until after the site is completely cleaned up. Yet.the impotent EPA has caved in to political pressure too many times.
Richards' "political weather vane" continues spinning furiously and in all directions on this matter, as we've shown: working with the county to perform a "brownfields" study at the location one moment, then vowing to force the complete excavation and disposal of all throium contamination, via re-zoning the same area for recreational use, at another.
Then there is the whole "Stepan wild card."
This could come into play if the corps (barring further political interference or the surprise unveling of some strange new - maybe even "doctored? " - evidence saving Stepan) decides on aggressively pursuing the polluter to try having it shoulder much more of the thorium freight. Presumably, the goal here would be to accelerate Maywood's final radiological (separate from chemical) cleanup.
For we have shown that Richards, and his fellow "pro-Stepan obstructionist" Rupp, have long desired to save the chemical plant as much money as possible in any final Maywood thorium cleanup. And Stepan must still unveil its own long-delayed plan for chemicals.
Twenty years after the two began working together in initially helping get Stepan off the hook for thorium, Rupp again stands by Richards' side.
Possibilities that could come into play in the final thorium drama, affecting sites such as Sears
1. Richards pulls some "mea culpa." That is, he actually demands that Stepan contribute far more for cleaning up the thorium (in addition to chemicals) - so he can carry out his "up and out" pledge. Rothman joins him in this call. The feds commence enforcement action, and Stepan submits without a fight. Will Richards ever admit his earlier assessment was wrong? Highly doubtful.
2. State and/or Bergen County Democratic political bosses - someone like Rothman - simply tell Richards to "shut up," if he tries continuing to kick and scream in Stepan's defense as enforcement is carried out. Thus, Richards - and Rupp for that matter - are finally muted even if it is against their will. Perhaps Richards has already been told to shut up?
3. The feds somehow miraculously come up with a huge boatload of taxpayer money enabling it to finance the estimated $253 million thorium initative on its own (keeping Stepan off the hook, as Torricelli originally intended}. The feds' action allows it to entirely skirt the Stepan liability issue. This would indeed please Richards.
4. Or perhaps the corps provides full federal funding after coming up with some conveniently new, or even false, evidence suggesting that Stepan was never liable for paying to clean up thorium. This, despite the EPA's earlier claims and the overwhelmingly clear evidence. This scenario would indeed also cause the new mayor - and Rupp - to gloat..
5. Worst case scenarios: A.) Rothman and the feds (the EPA, corps), working in concert with Maywood officials, including Richards, simply pull off another "big lie" by either brazenly or clandestinely cleaning up thorium to far less than "up and out." This, as they continue relying on annual Congressional appropriations. B.) Richards, Rupp and Rothman, acting nefariously out of some kind of blind political loyalty to Stepan and in an unchecked political environment, try finding new ways to block further thorium enforcement efforts against the plant - even if the corps objects. C.) Stepan taps into its bottomless legal pockets and tries prolonging the issue of its thorium liability with a lengthy lawsuit so it can buy time. D.) Finally, the "industry-friendly" Republican administration of President George W. Bush steps in at the last minute to block a massive Stepan-funded thorium cleanup, perhaps fearing national ramifications, and despite strong community objections.
Given this Maywood Superfund site's clearly sordid and nefarious history, can anything really be ruled out?
Some other articles deal with development issues facing Maywood. The Planning/Zoning Board was originally tasked with studying Sears in 2002, as part of a planned Master Plan re-examination. Please see, "PB to study toxic Sears tract." For more on Richards' idea to restore separate planning and zoning boards, read, "PB fills posts, one vacancy remains." On the council's facing apparent redevelopment pressures in the Superfund region, check, "Councilman: 'Charge feds fees for hosting thorium site.]"
Monday, January 05, 2004
Move gives Richards chance to name his successor
Patrick Reynolds has officially "wrapped" up his tenure as police chief following an almost seven-year run in the capacity, and nearly 30 years with the department.
Reynolds announced his intentions during a Dec. 3 work session. The decision, which took effect New Year's Day, means incoming Mayor Tom Richards will appoint an immediate (acting) and then permanent, successor. Both will almost assuredly be ratfieid by the new Democratic council majority.
During his final appearance before the governing body as chief, Reynolds asked it to appoint two new police officers in replacing two retirements (including his).. Reynolds is reportedly leaving to pursue a career teaching law enforcement at the college level..
Reynolds joined the force in 1974, and, after a long tenure in the patrol and detective divisions, was named chief in 1997 by then-Democratic Mayor Thomas Murphy. He was serving in the detective bureau at the time, and replaced Andrew Costa.
Though the course of his run, he tried promoting neighborhood crime prevention programs, having patrol officers serve the needs of residents in roles beyond those of traditional law enforcement (under the concept of community policing), and developed a Citizens Police Academy.
During the early part of his tenure, Reynolds' department was involved in one of Bergen County's higher-profile criminal investigations in recent years: the catastrophic 1997 fire at National Wholesale Liquidators in Lodi.
That's because two juveniles suspected of taking part at the time lived in Maywood. The investigation was somewhat controversial because at least some of the convictions were originally thrown out on appeal, and the Bergen County Prosecutor Office came under fire for its handling of the matter.
Perhaps coincidentally, Reynolds' exit also comes following a mayoral election where his position (though not himself) became a lightning rod.
It started Sept. 17 when Republican candidate, Councilman Tom Gaffney, proposed abolishing the chief's position and replacing it with a civilian police director as a cost-cutting move (see story and analysis following this article).
"Thirty years have come and gone, and I'm winding up my career at the end of the month," simply explained Reynolds, a borough resident.
He added that coming up with two new officers, who, pending successful training at the Bergen County Police and Fire Acadeny, would not join the force until June, will bring the department back to the strength it enjoyed before the retirements of Reynolds and now-former Capt. Thomas Carius. He left with Reynolds.
"If, in fact, there are two new officers, and taking into account my retirement and Carius' retirement, we'll be down to 22 sworn officers," Reynolds explained. "With two rookies, there would be a savings."
Reynolds was referring to the fact that the junior officers coming in would, of course, start earning much less than himself and Carius.
He deemed the proposed new hires "the right thing to do to meet the effectiveness of the agency."
Yet Democratic Councilman Dr. Tim Eustace. alluding to budgetary concerns, was cautiously non-committal.
"The discussion tonight is just on the retirements," said Eustace, who has since informally launched his second consecutive term (and tird overall). "This council will be encumbered (burdened) with the decision next year."
Richards, previewing one of his first major executive acts, promised to keep the chain of command flowing uninterrupted..
"I intend to appoint an acting chief and an acting captain on the first of the year," promised the current mayor, still speaking only as a councilman on Dec. 3.
The appointments of "acting" officials will give the incoming Democratic governing body majority time to review options, before designating any of the interim assignments "permanent."
Reynolds received warm kudos from both sides of the aisle, including Gaffney, as he obviously tried conveying the feeling that his push to abolish the chief's slot was not meant as a personal slight.
"For the many years I've lived in town, you were very kind to me, always helped me and I thank you very much," Gaffney said.
"I want to thank you for 30 years of service, Eustace.told the retired chief.
"Congratulations on your retirement. Enjoy yourself. It's been a pleasure," said then-Mayor Wayne Kuss, the Republican who himself retired - after declining to seek re-election - on Dec. 31.
NOTE: In fairness to former Police Chief Patrick Reynolds, in running this separate item under his retirement story, we are not trying to suggest that the two situations are definitely linked.
Perhaps he made up his mind beforehand.
At the very least, we can say it (retirement) was "an interesting coincidence."
AN ADDENDUM - ANALYZING THE STRANGE CIVILIAN DIRECTOR DEBATE
By Chris Neidenberg
It added some spice to a mayoral campaign supposedly staged by two good friends on opposite sides of the aisle, who, only a year earlier, agreed that there were "no Democratic or Republican issues, only Maywood issues."
Call it Maywood's, "Political theater of the absurd?"
Seemingly out of the blue, on Sept. 17, "a Demcratic v Republican issue" suddenly developed.
And it led to a "partisan polarization" that galvanized both men until the end of the election.
To honestly gauge roughly how many votes the fuss might have affected, one would need to take a scientific opinion poll. Yet it certainly mobilized a group of disgruntled police officers into "partisan" action on behalf of one candidate, even as they pleaded during their action, "Keep politics out of the police department." .
On Sept. 17 (with only six weeks left in the mayor's contest), losing Republican candidate, Councilman Tom Gaffney, proposed abolishing the chief's position and replacing it with a civilian police director. He cited the proposal as a cost-cutting move
Gaffney said he wanted Borough Administrator Jack Terhune to take on the task. Terhune is no law enforcement novice. He is former Bergen County sheriff, (elected as a Republican), former state corrections commissioner and a one-time Teaneck police officer and detective.
The proposed move triggered a wave of protest in the department, as the Maywood Police Officers Association ripped the idea. In doing so, the group silemtly aligned itself with incoming Democratic Mayor Tom Richards, who lambasted the proposal - and possibly - benefitted from the chaos.
Richards argued in September that not giving anyone among the rank-and-file a chance to move up the ladder, and into the top job, would decrease morale and lower incentive.
Gaffney, of course, was aiming his "partisan" message to the taxpayers.
Gaffney maintained his logic was simple: abolish one body (Reynolds, who was earning in the low six figures at the time of his departure) and grant police administrative duties to Terhune. He would head the department, according to a state statute allowing the alternative arrangement.
Geffney's plan would have added the director's job to Terhune's current duties, just as his predecessor, John Perkins, did in taking on both the jobs of borough
administrator and director of public works - before leaving in 2001..
A civilian police director has a somewhat different level of responsibility than a uniformed chief, even though both are chief administrators within a department.
For instance, directors cannot carry handguns, while chiefs can. Bringing in a civilian police director can stir trouble among the rank-and-file (as has happened in other towns), since the director is usually hired from the outside. In contrast, a chief may very well have moved up the ladder among the rank and file. In neighboring Lodi, for example, a civilian director was once brought in after that department was the target of a number of high-profile criminal investigations that led to the arrest of a high-ranking official and some other officers.
"We have a borough administrator capable of being the director," Gaffney insisted at the time. "If we can add another $40,000 to his salary, we're saving money."
Assuming Reynolds had no intention of retiring, the council would have had to negotiate some kind of retirement or buyout package with him - assuming it had taken the director route.
But for a fleeting moment, Gaffney's proposal caused two supposedly good friends to become bitter political rivals.
And it turned Richards into a focal point for support among those officers who would not be happy with Gaffney's idea, turning Richards - in fact - into some sort of folk hero.
Hey guys, what happened to your pledge of "non partisanship?"
:"I will have absolutely nothing to do with it," vowed Richards. "I am absolutely opposed to not having a police chief in the community."
He called Gaffney's pitch "a political ploy." Richards further maintained that efforts to run departments with directors have "fallen apart" in other towns where it was tried.
"Every time I open my mouth, it's a political ploy," said a disgusted Gaffney, who basically professed his love and admiration for Richards only one year earlier.
"This is a savings to the taxpayers of the people of this town," Gaffney said.
ANALYZING THE WHOLE POLICE DIRECTOR SQUABBLE
^ Why didn't Gaffney and Richards, who professed their love and mutual admiration for each other only one year earlier, use 2003 to build on the "non-partisan" theme during their council campaign of 2002?
Why did they, instead, seemingly and suddenly agree to conduct a "partisan" mayoral campaign where they started attacking each other?
* Why did Gaffney wait until Sept. 17, 2003, with six weeks left in his "partisan" mayoral campaign, to raise this issue on the council floor?
Terhune joined the council in the spring of 2002. Couldn't Gaffney have broached his colleagues on the council - and politely informed Reynolds - about this possibility during the borough's search for a new administrator?
* Did not Gaffney realize his "civilian director" pitch might make Terhune feel somewhat awkward - that is, assuming he did not inform Terhune in advance?
Did Gaffney indeed alert Terhune, who must work neutrally with council members from both parties, of his intentions to make this proposal?
< A cynic, taking into account all of these facts, might certainly conclude the whole director episode was, indeed, willingly "staged" by Gaffney - with the collusion and approval of Maywood's shadowy "Republicrat" leadership (maybe to help Richards?).
Of course, we have no evidence to conclusively prove this.
* The whole episode, including the subsequent action of the Maywood Police Officers Association, exposes the frightening level of control politicians can wield over supposedly neutral and objective law enforcement officers. Clearly, the association mobilized on behalf of Richards' election, even as they were trying to plead with the community, "Keep politics out of law enforcement."
Was not their act, in lobbying on behalf of Richards, indeed "political?"
For more on the constant "partisan v non-partisan" contradictions plaguing Maywood's dysfunctional "Republicrat" political family, please read, "Dem, GOP hopefuls admit, 'Parties not different,'" "An addendum - Do the pols really want 'non-partisan' government?" "An opinion - In the end, does it really matter?" and, "The 'two faces of 'partisan' Mayor-elect Tom Richards."
(A LARGE AMOUNT OF BLANK SPACE FOLLOWS. JUST KEEP SCROLLING DOWN.)