Downstairs, upstairs: Council member storms out, board member quits

Claiming she was the victim of a political attack, lame-duck Councilwoman Alison Deeb exits meeting--as Council President Toshiba Foster tells her: 'Take your meds.' Image via Morristown webcast.
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Maybe it was the full moon.

On Tuesday, a Morristown councilwoman stormed out of a town meeting. Then she marched upstairs and testified at a zoning board hearing–where a board member had just resigned on the spot.

Let’s start downstairs.

Councilwoman Alison Deeb arrived a few minutes late–smack in the middle of public comments by resident Richard Ray, lambasting Deeb for a “street fight” last month. Ray claimed the councilwoman grabbed his wrist and disrupted a town cleanup of an empty lot in his neighborhood.

“This is a personal attack,” Deeb protested.

Council President Toshiba Foster told Deeb she could respond after Ray finished.

Lame duck Councilwoman Alison Deeb poses question at Morristown zoning board, after storming out of council meeting, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Okay, I’m leaving then, because in the past, for your friends and Democrats, you said personal attacks were not allowed!” shot back Deeb, the council’s lone Republican and a lame duck.

As she departed the chamber, Deeb continued protesting, off-microphone. Foster spoke over her: “I don’t know what you’re talking about in the past, and I’m so sorry that you can’t stand and accept what’s being heard. Thank you for attending. Have a good night.”

As a parting shot, Foster — who in 2017 seconded the council’s Stigma-Free resolution, endorsing a culture where people with mental health issues “feel supported by their community and neighbors” — added:

“Take your meds.”

BOARD MEMBER THREATENS SUIT, QUITS

Now let’s go upstairs.

The zoning board was in the middle of a special three-and-a-half hour hearing–which, by the way, was not posted on the town’s calendar– about Schuyler Lofts, a five-story, 28-unit apartment building proposed for Schuyler Place.

This project, pending since October 2018, seeks variances to exceed (by four feet) a 65-foot height limit, and to allow off-site parking (in four Morristown Parking Authority garages) and apartments (instead of retail) on the ground floor.

Jeff Stiles, center, resigned on the spot from the zoning board so he could ask questions as a resident, at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

According to Morristown’s affordable housing formula, Claremont Companies also must set aside four of its apartments for low- and moderate income tenants. The developer wants to transfer half of that affordable housing obligation–two units–to Co-home Inc., a new group home for the developmentally disabled in Morristown’s Historic District.

Claremont would pay Co-home $250,000. Co-home would use the money to help underwrite two persons with disabilities who otherwise could not afford the group home’s fees. And the town could count those units towards its affordable housing totals to the state.

Not so fast.

Board member Jeff Stiles, who lives in the Historic District, shares many of his neighbors’ concerns about a 30-year deed restriction that would attach to this transfer.

If Co-home goes belly-up, they fear, the covenant could prevent the stately Victorian on Miller Road from being converted back to a private residence. Other kinds of group facilities could follow, with unpredictable results, they argue.

Chairman James Bednarz, right, confers with board Attorney David Brady at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Stiles has been recused from prior hearings on this application to avoid conflicts of interest. At Tuesday’s meeting, he insisted on commenting as a resident.

Project attorney Peter Wolfson objected. Stiles’ board status could influence fellow members, he said.  Stiles responded that he would quit the board, and threatened to sue his former mates if they attempted to silence him.

“If this is the way we’re going to treat it, then that’s what I’m going to have to do, okay?” Stiles said.

Schuyler Lofts team, from left: Planner Michael Tobia, attorney Peter Wolfson, and civil engineer Tim Aguilar, at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I believe I have the right as a resident to ask questions and to provide comments. If the board doesn’t want me to, you can stop me. And I will guarantee we will be in court over this issue. And the applicant can just wait for that to be resolved. So, whatever the board wants to do.”

“So…are you resigned from the board?” Board Attorney David Brady asked Stiles.

“Yes, effective immediately, I resign from the board,” Stiles said.

Brady allowed Stiles to continue, and the now-ex-board member grilled project Planner Michael Tobia about the affordable units, and whether Co-home’s viability hinges on the affordable housing transaction, and about why the developer determined retail would not work on Schuyler Place.

(The side street never has supported retail, Tobia answered, adding it’s ringed by Morris County buildings, so no retail clusters can form.)

SO YOU WANT TO BE A LAWYER?

Deeb, whose Fourth Ward includes the Historic District, also stepped up to question the project’s experts.

This raised more interesting scenarios for the lawyers.

Wolfson voiced concerns about a Councilwoman weighing in a matter before another town board. Brady, the board’s lawyer, acknowledged this normally would be a problem, because the developer could appeal a zoning board denial to the council.

But voters denied Deeb a fourth term in last week’s election. As a lame duck, she will be gone in a few weeks, Brady said. Her questions were permitted.  (If you’re keeping score at home, Deeb plans to seek appointment to the vacated seat of state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco.)

Councilwoman Alison Deeb asks question at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As the night grinded on, another unusual exchange involved Co-home’s attorney, Andrew Camelotto, and board Chairman James Bednarz.

Addressing the group home’s viability, Camelotto, representing the venture pro bono, contended the future is solid because state and federal funding sources are available. Some of those programs, he noted, could impose deed restrictions of their own.

Co-home partner Nate Diskint, left, and the nonprofit’s lawyer, Andrew Camelotto, at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“That’s something my client would absolutely explore if this [affordable housing transfer] is not approved as part of the application. That’s just something to be aware of,” Camelotto said.

The board chairman jumped in:

“What does that mean? It’s almost like a threat,” Bednarz said.

Camelotto backpedaled, and when he could not provide details on what such restrictions might entail, Bednarz admonished: “Let’s stay away from postulating on that.”

Board Chairman James Bednarz at Morristown zoning board, Nov. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At the suggestion of town Planner Phil Abramson, Brady, the board attorney, said he would research whether state affordable housing regulations would allow a flexible deed restriction. One that might enable Co-home to revert to a private residence, and the town to transfer Co-home’s affordable units elsewhere, if the venture folds.

The hearing is scheduled to resume on Dec. 4, 2019.

In other business…

Back downstairs, the council re-introduced an ordinance to regulate Airbnb-style short-term rentals of homes. A final vote is set for Dec. 3.  And the council adopted a measure allowing up to four bed-and-breakfasts in town.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. T. Washington, well said. These idiots take direction from the Mayor, he doesn’t want an Independant council, it’s obvious.

  2. I’ll admit that I haven’t attended many council meetings but in the past couple years every meeting I’ve attended Councilwoman Deeb has made a complete fool of herself. Ive been present when she stormed out of a meeting before so to me it’s funny that nobody has called her on it officially…and I’m guessing nobody is paying attention to the fact that these couple of people that have come after Councilwoman Hillary Davis are the same people that are connected to the girl tawana cotten that will be taking her place I’m January. To me it’s stupid. Anyone can get detailed information about each council persons attendance and I have! As it turns out councilwomen Deeb, Davis and Foster have missed the same number of meetings over the last 4 years (5 meetings each) the new guy councilman Silva has missed 4 meetings in less than a year, Armongton has missed 7 or 8 meetings, councilman Elms has the record with 17 absenses in 4 years! The only councilperson that has perfect attendance is councilman Iannaccone… As far as Foster making jest of Deeb for her obvious mental illness, it’s deplorable and she should be made to make a public apology. I see her and that other woman that drives the town truck together all the time publicly intoxicated so maybe she has her own illness she should address. I’m just saying…

  3. Dear residents of the town of Morristown, Please attend council meetings, board of adjustment meetings, planning board meetings and redevelopment meetings. Your presence would mean a lot to those who sit at the dais. I look forward to seeing you on December 4th at 7:30 p.m. The board of adjustment will have a full agenda. Be prepared to stay late. REMINDER: If you would like to serve on a board or a commission, now is the time to apply as terms expire at the end of the year.

  4. Jeff,
    Agreed, unfortunately the town continues to hide and suppress information. Take the last few months for example, missing council tape (which was found weeks later), sitting council woman living in another state while collecting a tax-payer funded salary and missing schedule post for this past Tuesday’s board or adjustment meeting.

    I think it’s time for all who still believe this is an ethically run town, to take a deeper, more objective look at the current reality.

  5. Why even have Ordinances…the big pockets just propose what they want, disguised as ‘what they NEED’ to be profitable…aka, make as much money as possible. What happened to the basis of validating variances based on need vs greed? A premise that is obviously thrown out the window in Morristown, its who you know vs what you know.
    Every town in NJ is forced to build additional housing for the COAH mandate. Other towns make the developers provide sufficient parking, nope, not in Morristown. Other towns require a 20%+ afforadable set aside…nope, not in Morristown
    Foster & Armington should be run off the Boards for their comments

  6. William Needham, you’re still saying “transparency?”
    That was an overused buzzword three years ago. Time to catch up.

  7. Morristown needs fundamental change and it starts with the elected officials.

    I grew up around Morristown politics in the 90’s and I always remember it being very aggressive, but there was a certain level of decency, camaraderie and respect the elected officials had for each other and for the residents of the town.

    This allowed the council and administration to be highly effective
    which was paramount, because the council of the 90’s had navigate through the sewer moratorium and dozens of blighted properties.

    Those councils were able to bring the community together and get volunteer lead projects completed; such as the Community Theatre and the Morristown Partnership to name a few. The public was encouraged to engage and supported with all the resources the town could afford.

    We as residents, need to hold our elected officials accountable and force transparency in all areas. Morristown was a stronger community when the town looked to residents for assistance and input, instead of shut them out and take the burden solely upon their shoulders.

    Based on what transpired this past Tuesday and what has transpired over the last handful of years, the current group needs to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are here to serve the residents of the town or serve their own agendas.

  8. My family has resided in Morristown since 1960, the behavior of Morristowns politicians in general is a real embarrassment to its residents and should be well remembered by all at election time. Morristown was a great family oriented town, now it has become a town of greedy politicians all looking to get something for themselves, so very sad that the town has continued on this slippery slope straight down hill.

  9. Charles, this behavior is Morristown today, I’ve developed and built infrastructure projects all over the State, nowhere have I encountered this type of behavior from other mayors or councils. We are dealing with total incompetent, greed, jealousy and nasty people.

  10. This is the New Jersey I have come to know:

    – The person who introduces what is apparently a resolution that has no actual impact (“Stigma Free”) uses mental health problems as an insult to another council member
    – The board that has been approving any project and variance that comes before them has a member flip out when something actually might impact his own area of town
    – Same member resigns on the spot so his Very Important Views can be heard
    – Board “forgets” to post notice of meeting, lest any residents might complain about yet another project that requires variances (are these zoning regulations not published? can a developer not see them and design a project to spec? can we get one architect that is capable of designing something with at least a tiny bit of character rather than brick facade boxes?)
    – Council member also decides that her input is needed and storms up to share her views (perhaps these antics are to impress the Morris GOP?)

    And people wonder why there’s so little engagement in local government and politics – it’s not wanted, and it’s by design. And both parties, FWIW.

  11. And council Vice President Davis’ seat should have been deemed vacant pursuant to NJSA Title 40A:16-3(c)(g) because she moved to Florida and has not attended council meetings for 14 weeks. The only reason she’s been back for Sept 24 and Nov 12 meeting is because Deeb started to ask questions. Now the mayor may not have flown her back on his private jet, but she flew back from Tampa nonetheless. This personal attack on Deeb committed by a member of the public that was allowed by president Foster and not called to order appears to be political revenge and retaliation for bringing to light the misconduct of VP Davis. Did anyone see Oct 8 council meeting? Probably not because it mysteriously failed to record after one of VP Davis’ constituents questioned her whereabouts for the past 3 months. Davis called her constituents request for transparency and accountability harassment and without provocation Foster went on a tirade of her own against that same constituent that night. Neither the President or the Vice President were ever fit to serve in the first place. Their unprofessional behavior is unethical and proves our current council plays by its own rules. It worries me that none of the other members besides Deeb and the lone independent, holds each other accountable. It’s like their a bunch of robots programmed to do one job, say yes to everything that comes their way. It’s a sad state of affairs in Morristown Government

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