Morristown’s council was busy on Tuesday, agreeing to add a public safety director to oversee the police and fire departments, and reimposing last-call curfews in a long-running feud with the Iron Bar.
Council members also introduced an ordinance to update the town’s zoning codes, and gave themselves and the mayor modest raises.
And the governing body officially adopted a $52.4 million municipal budget for 2018, as expected, while scrapping a measure that would have reduced liability insurance for taxi drivers in town.
Officials said the hiring of a public safety director–at a salary of $100,000 to $150,000–is not in response to Police Chief Pete Demnitz losing a lawsuit last month to a whistleblowing officer who successfully argued he was demoted unfairly.
A jury slapped Morristown with $1.7 million in damages in that trial, a verdict the town has not yet decided whether to appeal.
“Our police chief and our fire chief do a great job. But sometimes things fall through the cracks,” Council President Toshiba Foster said after the 6-0 vote to create a public safety department. “Having a public safety director adds another layer of protection, another layer for Morristown residents to feel safe.”
“It’s not a retaliation” for the lawsuit, town Attorney Vij Pawar said of the new position. “I don’t think one has anything to do with the other.”
Demnitz and Fire Chief Robert Flanagan could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
A public safety director is necessary because the chiefs are “inundated” with daily responsibilities that hinder big-picture planning and interdepartmental coordination, town Administrator Jillian Barrick told the council.
She noted Morristown is a magnet for activists; thousands came this year for the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives. President Trump flies regularly from Morristown Airport, and his security requires cooperation between police and the Secret Service. Morris County offices are here, along with a bustling downtown, a large hospital and the Morris School District.
In recent years, the town also has been slammed by powerful storms.
All these things place heavy demands on town cops and firemen, Barrick indicated.
A public safety director, to be hired by Mayor Tim Dougherty, will help the chiefs “leverage the existing resources that we have, so we can do even more for public safety,” she said.
According to the ordinance, scheduled for adoption on June 26, 2018, the public safety director must have 10 years of experience in law enforcement, firefighting or public safety, and five of those years must be in a supervisory role. Those stipulations may be waived with a two-thirds vote by the council.
Reporting to Barrick, the director will be “responsible for the administration, regulation and discipline of the Bureau of Police Protection, the Bureau of Fire Protection, and Emergency Management,” the ordinance states.
Duties will include formulating plans, policies, procedures and staffing recommendations; creating performance criteria and conducting evaluations; conducting public relations and public information programs; serving as liaison to town agencies and officials; assisting in emergency preparedness and seeking disaster recovery grants; and reporting annually to town officials about the state of police, fire and emergency management operations.
Foster said she hopes the administration will hire the director by late summer.
IRON BAR, IRON WILLS
Without discussion, the council voted 5-0 to re-impose early closing times on the Revolution beer hall as a condition of its annual liquor license renewal.
“Wait till you see the suit we’re going to drop on them,” vowed Jimmy Cavanaugh, owner of Revolution and the adjoining Iron Bar, which share a license. He claimed the vote was planned secretly, violating the state’s Sunshine Law.
Cavanaugh’s attorney, Robert C. Williams, had pressed council members to state their reasons for insisting Revolution close at 11 pm Sundays through Thursdays, and at 11:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Other bars on South Street can stay open until 2 am.
“It’s totally unfair to continue this any longer,” Williams said.
He cited an administrative law judge’s decision urging the state to make Morristown rescind the “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and discriminatory” curfews, which have been stayed four times by the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control since Revolution opened in 2014, according to Williams.
Revolution and the Iron Bar have not been cited for any violations, he said. Town officials–including the police- and fire chief and council president at the time–testified last year that they found no specific problems with Revolution, he said. More than 1,000 people, by his count, have signed a petition opposing early closings.
All the legal wrangling has cost Cavanaugh, a former Essex County freeholder, about $100,000 in attorney fees, Williams asserted.
But South Street suffers from an “over-saturation” of bars, Foster told Morristown Green after the meeting.
“The council position is to protect the quality of life for residents of that district,” said the council president.
Pawar, the town attorney, said the judge who issued the opinion was not the same judge who conducted last year’s two-day hearing. Morristown’s appeal is pending before the state ABC commissioner, he said.
The Sunshine Law was not violated on Tuesday, Pawar said. “There was nothing addressed behind closed doors. We didn’t have an executive session today. The vote was a public vote.”
First-year Councilman David Silva abstained, explaining later that he was not familiar enough with the situation. Councilwoman Alison Deeb, mourning the death of her father, was absent.
TREES, TAXIS AND RAISES
An ordinance introduced unanimously aims to simplify town zoning, so fewer property owners will need costly variances before making home improvements.
Some residents actually have moved away rather than endure that onerous process, town Planner Phil Abramson said during his council presentation.
The ordinance is meant to implement goals of the town’s 2014 master plan. It closes zoning loopholes and is sensitive to residents’ concerns about overly dense development, Abramson said.
“What we heard loud and clear is preserve the identity and integrity of neighborhoods,” he said.
The measure draws upon Abramson’s review of variances stretching back a decade.
Among other things, it knocks one story off the present maximum building height of six stories, in most locations.
It also enables shared parking by residential units and office buildings, removes prohibitions against placing apartments above retail establishments, eliminates most conditional uses, and cuts confusing zone designations by half.
Reciting Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees, resident Margret Brady urged the council to create a park in her heavily developed Franklin Corners neighborhood in memory of Kilmer, a onetime Hill Street resident killed in World War I.
Town officials are looking to preserve open space in the First Ward, Councilman Bob Iannaccone assured her.
The zoning ordinance is a work in progress. Two residents who live near Morristown High School came to the council with concerns that fast-food joints now would be allowed in their neighborhood.
Councilman Stefan Armington said he spoke with town planners earlier in the day to remove that piece from the ordinance.
It’s scheduled for a once-over by the planning board on June 21, and a public hearing at the June 26 council meeting.
Another ordinance had attempted to help licensed taxi companies compete with Uber and Lyft, by lowering the taxis’ insurance coverage for passengers to the minimum of $35,000 per accident.
Iannaccone, CEO of a Newark Hospital, spoke against it. “I’ll go on record: $35,000 is irresponsible,” he said.
Councilman Michael Elms agreed, saying he changed his mind since the measure’s introduction. While its intentions were noble, “$35,000 is like a broken arm at the hospital,” he said. The ordinance was rejected unanimously.
Mayor Tim Dougherty proposed 1.75 percent raises for himself and the council, to bring his part-time yearly pay to $26,498 and council members to $9,845, with an extra $1,000 for Foster as council president.
“Since I’ve been elected there has not been any increase over the eight years. It’s minimal, in line with the nonunion employees…and you deserve it,” Dougherty said.
The council concurred, introducing the salary ordinance without dissent.