Morristown boots ‘cooperating witness,’ mayor slams developers in separate matters

Mayor Tim Dougherty delivers his 'State of the Town' address, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown’s council voted unanimously Tuesday to replace tax appeals lawyer Matt O’Donnell, the “cooperating witness” in a state bribery sting that has charged the mayor’s wife, among others.

Mayor Tim Dougherty did not address the case in his annual “state of the town” address–he previously stated he recused himself from all matters related to the tax appeal appointment –though he shot back at developers who are suing him over separate matters.

Morristown Council President Stefan Armington, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At its first meeting of 2020–and its first since the bribery scandal erupted–the council formed a committee to study whether to beef up a 2008 “pay-to-play” law curbing political contributions from municipal contractors.

In other business…Dougherty proclaimed Friday as “Alison Deeb Day” to honor the council’s lone Republican, who got voted out in November after a dozen years serving the Fourth Ward.

The woman who ousted Deeb, Sandi Mayer, was sworn in with fellow newcomer Tawanna Cotten (Second Ward). Stefan Armington (Third Ward) began his third term and Robert Iannaccone (First Ward) took the oath of office for his second term.

Council members chose Armington as their president, a role he’s held twice before. Councilwoman Toshiba Foster moved from president to vice president. Both selections were unanimous.

Video: Pay-to-Play, revisited:

NEW TAX TEAM

Without discussion, the council voted to accept the mayor’s annual recommendations for professional services. The list included Martin Allen of former Gov. Donald DiFrancesco’s law firm, to handle tax appeals that had gone to O’Donnell.

Last week, the mayor stated he has recused himself from all matters pertaining to the tax appeal appointment, per advice of town Attorney Vij Pawar.

Although O’Donnell is not identified by name in the bribery charges, the state has indicated he is the cooperating witness who in 2018 allegedly bribed then-Morris Freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty to support him for a county counsel job.

Morristown Attorney Vij Pawar, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The decision to replace O’Donnell was “not directly related to that,” Pawar, the town attorney, said after Tuesday’s meeting.

“I just think that we have someone who will have the time for Morristown issues, while somebody else would not,” Pawar said, praising Martin Allen for representing the town in a landmark 2015 tax settlement with Atlantic Health.

Mary Dougherty, who did not attend the meeting, has said she will be vindicated at trial. O’Donnell has not commented.

The Morristown lawyer has lost a slew of municipal jobs since the state Attorney General dropped his bombshell before Christmas.

On Monday, O’Donnell withdrew as East Hanover’s attorney, a gig that reportedly paid his firm nearly $1 million in 2018.

PAY-TO-PLAY?

Stefan Armington, the new council president, said it’s time to revisit pay-to-play.

Enacted 12 years ago by public referendum, the measure essentially prohibits political donations by town contractors. But it does not impose similar restrictions on developers, he said.

“Irrespective of charges against elected officials around the country or around the state, the effectiveness of elected officials to do their job, and to run a town like Morristown, is dependent upon the ability of the public to trust us that we’re not we’re not adversely affected or influenced by outside money,” Armington said after the meeting.

He appointed himself, Iannaccone and Foster to the committee.

Video: The State of the Town:

‘NOT IN OUR TOWN’

In a 17-minute speech extolling quality-of-life issues, Mayor Dougherty praised police for stepped-up enforcement of the downtown bar scene, noting that  some 243 tickets have been issued since last June.

Dougherty also made a veiled reference to the Silverman Group, which is suing him for opposing a corporate headquarters on South Street.

Mayor Tim Dougherty presents proclamation to former Councilwoman Alison Deeb, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“There are property owners in town who thought they could shoehorn giant buildings in the middle of our quaint downtown shopping area without a fight. Not in our town,” Dougherty said.

“What we do, we welcome projects that add vibrancy and life to our community and add value to our neighborhoods… We cannot allow the wrong project to overburden our streetscape to make property owners a quick buck at the expense of our town’s culture, identity and future,” he said.

The mayor cited a pedestrian safety campaign, the acquisition of 11 acres near Foote’s Pond, Cauldwell Playground upgrades, and renovations to the Marion Sally Residence Center among his 2019 accomplishments.

An ordinance regulating sales of e-cigarettes led to dramatic drops in “vaping” incidents at Morristown High School and the Frelinghuysen Middle School, he said.

This year, Dougherty said, Morristown will add three cops. Improvements finally will come to Pioneer Park at Headquarters Plaza. And a new parking deck will rise behind the post office.

M Station, an office redevelopment approved for the Midtown Shopping Center, soon will bring “world-class jobs,” said Dougherty, now in his third term.

Thirty businesses have opened in Morristown; the next ones, according to the mayor, are the Millburn Deli and Clean Juice. The latter is owned by former New York Giant David Tyree, whose miraculous “helmet catch” beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Video: So long, it’s been good to know ya:

‘ALISON DEEB DAY’

Their relationship could be tempestuous. But former Councilwoman Alison Deeb left Tuesday’s meeting with a plaque from the mayor and a special birthday gift.

Mayor Tim Dougherty gives hug to former Councilwoman Alison Deeb, a past mayoral challenger, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I think you served this town admirably, with respect and dignity, and you brought a lot to the table … and you will be sorely missed,” said Mayor Dougherty, who defeated Deeb in the 2017 mayoral race.

Proclaiming Deeb’s Jan. 10 birthday as Alison Deeb Day in Morristown, the Democrat predicted the Republican’s political career is not over.

Deeb plans to run for Morris County Freeholder.

Serving Morristown, Deeb said, was the most incredible honor of her life, “next to getting married 16 years ago.” She wished the new council a Happy New Year with “2020 vision.”

SETTLING IN: New Morristown Councilwomen Tawanna Cotten and Sandi Mayer, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Councilman Robert Iannaccone is sworn in for his second term by Morristown Clerk Margot Kaye. Iannaccone’s wife Karen holds the state Constitution, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Councilwoman Sandi Mayer is sworn in by Morristown Clerk Margot Kaye and Council President Stefan Armington, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Councilwoman Tawanna Cotten is sworn in by Morristown Clerk Margot Kaye, as Cotten’s mother, Elizabeth Cotten, holds the state Constitution, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Morristown Clerk Margot Kaye swears in Councilman Stefan Armington, as his son Garran, wife Margarita and son Sean watch, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier
The Morristown Council applauds former Councilwoman Alison Deeb, Jan. 7, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I sure hope the recent charges hit close enough to home that some of these development projects that feel so outside the scope of the spaces their proposed for and require so many overrides to whatever tiny amount of town “planning” there is will see some additionally scrutiny, even if it’s just a CYA to make sure the AG doesn’t keep knocking on doors.

  2. It’s great that we have existing ordinances regarding campaign contributions from developers. But in the current environment one can’t help but wonder why certain developers have completed multiple projects around town while others, who are eager to invest in Morristown, are repeatedly shot down.

  3. ‘“What we do, we welcome projects that add vibrancy and life to our community and add value to our neighborhoods… We cannot allow the wrong project to overburden our streetscape to make property owners a quick buck at the expense of our town’s culture, identity and future,” he said.
    Let me translate..unless you are buddies with him, then you get carte blanche. BK Shopping Center over-redevelopment with a traffic circle nightmare, OK. Corporate space on South St with retail, BAD. Tashmoo expansion to a separate building, OK. Cavanaugh decreasing occupancy in one bar to use next door, BAD.

  4. The Town of Morristown enacted a Developer Disclosure ordinance, O-42-98, in December, 1998. This ordinance requires disclosure of campaign contributions in major zoning variance applications. The contributors include property owners, developers, and the professionals whose services they use in the preparation of the major zoning variance application. This ordinance does not deny the applicant any rights to pursue the development.
    As for the Local Public Contracting Reform Ordinance adopted by voter referendum in 2008, this law includes, among other provisions, (a) limitations on contributions to Morris County and local political parties from firms receiving professional, banking, insurance, and other consultant contracts in the Town of Morristown; (b) prohibitions on political contributions by firms receiving professional, banking, insurance, and other consultant contracts during the negotiation and performance of such contracts, and (c) limitations on political contributions by partners and certain owners of firms receiving professional, banking, insurance, and other consultant contracts and certain persons affiliated with it to $300 each per year to local candidates, $500 each per year to local and county political parties, and $2500 per year in aggregate from a firm and its affiliates.

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