Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Record: More tax appeals denied as North Jersey towns reject data on low-priced homes

North Jersey homeowners already squeezed by declining values and high taxes are facing more financial fallout from the housing bust: Towns are making it harder to win a tax appeal, at times with scant justification.
'My takeaway is that I think their intent was to frustrate me and make me go away,' says Bob Traitz of Wyckoff. 'The (tax appeal) process is very unfair.'
'My takeaway is that I think their intent was to frustrate me and make me go away,' says Bob Traitz of Wyckoff. 'The (tax appeal) process is very unfair.'
In growing numbers, municipalities across Bergen and Passaic counties are restricting the pool of “comparable” sales homeowners can cite to contest their property assessments — the key to a successful appeal and the tax relief that comes with it.
Specifically, the evidence suggests that some local tax assessors are overusing a section of the state tax code that allows them to selectively disqualify properties they believe were sold under financial duress.
The assessors say it’s their job to review all sales and exclude those that do not reflect true market value. But lawyers and appraisers contend that some assessors are unfairly eliminating transactions that simply reflect the downward trend in housing prices, and not just those influenced by the threat of foreclosure or some other clear evidence of duress.
The issue has caught the attention of authorities in Trenton. The state reversed 15 percent of these so-called Code 26 exclusions made by assessors in Bergen and Passaic counties from 2009 through mid-2011, after reversing none in 2007 and 2008. Statewide, 11 percent were reversed in the more recent time period, compared with 3 percent in 2007 and 2008.
Beyond that, The Record interviewed a handful of sellers in transactions that had been excluded by local assessors. In most cases, they said that their sales reflected neither duress nor any of the other unusual circumstances that fall under Code 26.
The more aggressive stance by assessors comes as municipalities in Bergen and Passaic battle an appeal caseload that has soared from about 5,400 in 2005, to nearly 18,000 last year in the two counties, and at a time when town and school budgets are getting ever tighter. Close to 14,000 appeals have come in so far this year, a week before the April 2 filing deadline.
Local property taxes are among the highest in the nation. Bergen County’s median residential property tax topped $9,200 last year, while Passaic’s passed $8,600. Under the right circumstances, an appeal can provide some relief — especially for homeowners in towns where assessments have not kept pace with the declining market. But for each appeal a property owner wins, towns must make up the difference elsewhere — usually from other taxpayers.
The assessors tactics have frustrated people like Bob Traitz of Wyckoff who have seen their appeals be dismissed before county tax boards, decisions that have cost them hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars. He appealed the $922,400 assessment on his circa-1950s five-bedroom, split-level house on the grounds that similar homes are selling for $685,000 to $800,000.
“My takeaway is that I think their intent was to frustrate me and make me go away,” said Traitz, who lost in 2010 and 2011 after the Wyckoff assessor ruled out most of his comparable sales under Code 26. “The process is very unfair.”
Wyckoff Assessor Pamela Steele did not return several messages seeking comment on her exclusions, which state officials have reversed about 70 percent of the time in recent years.
Wyckoff Mayor Christopher DePhillips said he knew there were concerns about Steele’s decisions.
“I have certainly heard from residents who have complained about this issue, I would say on and off for about 18 months,” he said. “I do think their complaints are justified.”
He added that officials were considering a townwide update of property assessments to try to head off the need for appeals.
Impact of short sales
Elsewhere, assessors defend the practice as part of their legal obligation to accurately define the real-estate market from town to town.
Property sales are recorded in 34 state-mandated codes that categorize them according to whether they reflect true values or have special conditions. Transactions involving relatives, estate liquidations, bankruptcies, homes under renovation or foreclosed properties are among those most often tagged as not reflecting the market.
But when a sale fails to fit neatly into a specific category, assessors turn to Code 26, which serves as a catch-all for excluding a sale. Many going in that category are short sales — transactions in which banks accept less than the value of the mortgage on a property in exchange for not foreclosing on the owner. State officials say such sales are properly excluded.
Beyond that, assessors have the discretion to eliminate sales for other kinds of duress that could affect the price. And assessors say they research sales before deciding if they represent the market.
“We are doing what the state tells us to do,” said George Reggo, an assessor in 10 Bergen municipalities, a majority of them with relatively high rates of transactions barred from appeals. “I research every sale as I am supposed to do. I am doing my job.”
But lawyers, appraisers and homeowners, with some support from a state monitoring agency, say some assessors go too far — improperly excluding, for instance, sales that stem from divorces or retirements, or those not listed through real estate agencies.
In some towns, “if the assessor gets the slightest whiff” that a home might have been sold under duress, they remove it from contention, said Jim Bogris, a Fair Lawn appraiser. “I don’t know how many times I’m at tax board hearings, and I see people going in to appeal … and the assessors just blow them out of the water. I believe [the code] is overused.”
They further contend that short sales should be allowed in appeals because they do indeed represent the true market in distressed neighborhoods where property values have fallen most and many owners owe more than their homes are worth.
An analysis of property sales data by The Record and interviews with home sellers revealed that assessors use the catch-all category inconsistently and sometimes without apparent cause. The analysis further found that the percentage of home sales declared off limits in appeals ranges widely in communities with similar economics.
Varities by town
For example, in a row of middle- and lower-income Bergen and Passaic towns running from Ridgefield to Paterson, 17 percent to 33 percent of sales were eliminated as Code 26s in 2010 and the first half of 2011. But less than 5 percent were eliminated in East Rutherford, Carlstadt, Lyndhurst and Saddle Brook.
Similar variability was found in more upscale areas, with 38 percent of sales taken out of contention in Wyckoff in that period, compared with less than 5 percent in Franklin Lakes and Midland Park.
Overall in Bergen and Passaic counties, the percentage of home sales kicked out of the mix has risen from about one in 50 in 2005-06 to one in 13 for 2010 and the first half of 2011.
Assessors said the variability could be because of varying levels of short sales, though one, Jack Whiting of Clifton, noted that the figures “should be somewhat consistent. There should be a normal pattern to it.”
Moreover, in interviews with 13 people who sold homes in Wyckoff in 2010-11 that were filed as Code 26 sales, all said they believed they got fair prices for their homes and were not short sales. In a random survey of another six such sellers in other towns, four said their transactions had no special conditions.
“No, no, no. Nothing like that,” declared William Recant of Tuxedo, N.Y., whose sale of a five-bedroom colonial in Wyckoff in 2010 for $820,000 was used in the unsuccessful appeal for a home assessed at $966,700.
“There was nothing unusual, in the sense that it was a willing buyer and willing seller,” he said.
Peter Mortimer of Wyckoff, whose former home was used in the same appeal, said he and his wife got “a fair price” when they sold the five-bedroom contemporary-style house in 2010 for $815,000.
“It was not a fire sale,” he said.
The office in the state Division of Taxation that monitors the sales-recording process is reversing a growing number of decisions after finding that assessors misunderstand or misuse the law, the head of the office said.
When sales are improperly recorded, “we will change it”, said Thomas Reilly, chief of valuation and mapping for the office. “Ninety percent of assessors do the right thing, but sometimes there are gray areas. Assessors sometimes misclassify things.” Staff was added to the office in 2009 partly to address the issue and “educate” officials, he said.
In Wyckoff, where the 70 percent reversal rate for 2009 through the first half of 2011 was among the most severe in North Jersey, Reilly said Steele, the assessor, “may have been a little aggressive” in classifying sales. In some cases, he said, she wrongly eliminated sales simply because they were not marketed sufficiently through real estate agents.
In other cases, investigators talked to home sellers and agents, as The Record did. “We are finding what you are finding, that they were indeed arms-length sales. So we are doing our job and putting them back in.”
At a disadvantage
In trying to determine which transactions represent the market, assessors say they talk to lawyers, realtors and sellers.
“I’ll reach out with whatever means I have,” said Stuart Stolarz, the assessor in five municipalities with relatively low exclusion rates.
Despite the exclusions, Reggo, the assessor for 10 Bergen towns, said that “plenty of sales” remained for owners to use in appeals.
But the increasingly limited pool of comparable sales puts property owners “at a distinct disadvantage,” especially if they proceed without a lawyer who knows legal arguments that can rebut the exclusions, said Richard Hubschman, a real estate attorney based in Palisades Park. Assessors “are very liberal about assigning non-usable to almost anything. It’s a defensive tactic that they need to put forward to try to defeat the appeals.”
Even when a homeowner goes in armed with evidence to get around the problem, he can lose, as Traitz discovered in his appeal. He said he told the tax board that Steele had eliminated comparable sales, even though sellers had told him that their sales had no special conditions.
The board still sided with the town, and Traitz is now taking his case to state tax court.
To Traitz, who became something of a tax-law expert as he researched his case, the long-term answer is more regular municipal property revaluations that keep assessments up to date, maintain equity in the system and eliminate the need for many appeals.
Beyond his own appeal, he said, “I’m interested in seeing a more fair system.”
John Lloyd, a lawyer who advises Wyckoff on tax issues, noted that property owners are permitted to challenge an assessor's decision to exclude a sale before the county tax board and in state Tax Court.
A growing limitation
Selected municipalities are making greater use of a discretionary element of state tax law to eliminate property sales from a potential pool that can be used in property tax appeals. Data represent percentage of all residential sales excluded under this provision of the law.
MunicipalityPercent 2005-2006Percent 2010 - 1st half of 2011
Bergenfield 116
Englewood Cliffs116
Little Ferry133
LodiLess than 124
New Milford616
South Hackensack724
PassaicLess than 113
Source: New Jersey Division of Taxation
Staff analysis by Dave Sheingold

No longer comparable?

These homes in Wyckoff were sold in 2010 and the transactions were cited as "comparable" sales in a subsequent tax appeal filed by a third party. The assessor recorded them as not reflecting the true market value; both sellers told The Record there was nothing unusual about the transactions.
Two-story, five-bedroom colonial sold August 2010 for $820,000

Two-story, five-bedroom contemporary sold July 2010 for $815,000

Friday, March 16, 2012

OPMA suit filed against Englewood Cliffs school board

On March 12, 2012, I filed a four-count lawsuit against the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education alleging violations of New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act. The lawsuit, which is on-line here, concerns the school board's nonpublic (closed or executive) meeting minutes and resolutions. While I still need to formally serve the Board with the lawsuit, I already e-mailed the Board an advance copy of it. John Paff

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Englewood Cliffs school board pays $20,000 to settle wrongful termination suit

On October 3, 2011, the Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) Board of Education agreed to pay $20,000 to a former school custodian who had sued the school board for allegedly firing him because he became injured and sought workers compensation benefits.

More details on this matter are available on my "New Jersey Civil Settlements" blog here. No sign up or information is required to view the information at the above link.


I chair the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project which seeks to increase governmental transparency and accountability, particularly at a local level. For more information on the Libertarian Party, go to

As part of my work, I routinely check civil court cases where at least one of the parties is a government agency or official. Most often, these settlement agreements are never revealed to the public. I post them on the Libertarian Party's blog at and other public forums because I believe that civil settlements, regardless of amount, may be of interest to citizens and taxpayers.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

Links to Information About Englewood Cliffs

Bergen Beat   

Articles on Englewood Cliffs that were printed in The Record and stories by Record reporters that weren’t printed in the Record can be found here.
New Jersey Press Association

This site allows you to search the public notices in The Record by municipality.  It allows you to see what notices Englewood Cliffs, its boards and commissions, and the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education have published without searching through the newspaper. 
New Jersey Association of County Tax

Click on “Record Search” to access the search function, which allows you to find the property tax data on any property and any property owner in New Jersey.  This site also allows you to download information, including all the data on Englewood Cliffs property values, as an Excel spreadsheet.   

Asbury Park Press’ Data Universe

Scroll down to “Public Payroll”. 

Click on “N.J. Public Employees and Police” to search municipal employees’ salaries.  If you click on the arrow to the right of “Agency/Town,” select “Englewood Cliffs Borough” from the pull down menu, and leave everything else blank, you will get a complete list of Englewood Cliffs’ employees and their salaries, albeit as of 2010.  Additionally, you will be able to see how many government positions Englewood Cliffs employees who also work in other municipalities have. 

Click on “Public School Teachers” to search school district employees’ salaries.  If you click on the arrow to the right of “County” and then select “Bergen” from the pull down menu, then click on the arrow to the right of “District” and select “Englewood Cliffs” from the pull down menu, you will get a complete list of the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education’s employees, their educational level, and years of experience, albeit for 2010-2011. 

Scroll down to “Retirees & Other Records” and click on “to search former municipal and school district employees’ pensions. 

Some Background Information

On Conflicts of Interest in Englewood Cliffs

From the New York Times, A Town Where the Neighbors are in Everybody's Business,


On Hiring Practices in Englewood Cliffs
From the Record:  Police chief favored son, friends

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS - Aspiring police officers lined up outside the police station here in October for an application to work in this affluent, quiet borough. Many were turned away.

But the son and friends of Police Chief Lawrence Whiting appear to have gotten special treatment during the ongoing hiring process, an investigation by The Record has found.

The chief's son, a councilwoman's two sons and the chief's friend's son received applications through unusual circumstances, according to phone records and officers in the department.

The borough had advertised in The Record and the Herald News that candidates must appear in person Oct. 4 to apply and pay a $75 fee. Only 100 applications were given out, and all were gone by 11 o'clock that morning, according to police officers and a sign posted on the door.

"I got down there, they were out," said Brendan Phillips of Norwood. "I was kind of disappointed."

"I get the feeling that they know who they're going to hire before they start the process," said Phillips, speaking of small-town police departments in general. "So they just go through the formality of it."

Chief Whiting's son Chris, a patrolman in Ridgefield Park, received an application. But Chris Whiting was working Oct. 4 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., said Ridgefield Park Police Chief Dieter Ahrlich.

Two Englewood Cliffs police officers who asked to remain anonymous said that Chris Whiting has passed the physical and written tests and is among the finalists being considered for the position.

"You can't advertise that there will be 100 applications and then hold some back for your friends," said one of the police officers.

After seeing the job opening, Councilwoman Pat Drimones called Chief Whiting in late September to get applications for her two sons, Christian, 25, and Nick, 20.

"I said, Nicky's going back to school, and he said, don't worry, I'll hold them for you," Drimones told The Record later. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with that."

Christian Drimones stood in line on Oct. 4, but the applications ran out before he got one, his mother said. Police tapes then show that his mother called the station at 11:31 a.m., and told Patrolmen Keith Wicker that Whiting was holding two applications for her. Wicker had just told two previous callers the applications were all gone.

Wicker put Drimones on hold and then returned to the phone and told her to send her son back to the station.

Drimones, who has a brother on the force, said later that neither of her sons had become finalists.

About 185 of the New Jersey's 480 local police departments participate in the civil service system, which has strict rules for testing and hiring prospective cops.

For the other departments, such as Englewood Cliffs, municipal officials can pass laws guiding the hiring and promoting of police officers, said Ed Kologi, a Linden-based lawyer who specializes in municipal and police issues.

Englewood Cliffs' hiring ordinance does not address how applications should be given out, but it does say the borough "may" require physical, mental or psychological exams. The mayor and council give final approval to the police committee's candidate recommendations.

Joseph DelGreco, a retired Passaic cop, also called the station Oct. 4 and asked to speak to the chief. He mentioned that his son Joseph wanted an application but couldn't get one that morning.

"Chief, Joseph worked EMS last night, he got off late," he said on the tape. "He missed the uh, one of the times, uh, for getting the applications. I thought it was an |all-day thing."

"Is it totally cut off or you think you could get one?" he asked the chief.

"Hold on one second," Whiting replied. "Oh, okay, good. Yeah, I think we can. Believe it or not, I have, 'cause you know what? I just held back, just in case."

"Okay, can I send him down now?" DelGreco said.

"Yeah, send him down and tell him when he comes to the desk to see me," Whiting said.

Whiting, a past president of the Bergen County chief's association, did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by phone, letter, and visits to his home and workplace.

Kologi said he has never heard of a police department handing out applications on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"This isn't like a quest for Yankees tickets," he said. "I don't think the person who gets up earliest and decides to wait in line puts the municipality in the best position of finding qualifying candidates."

If favoritism was also a factor in Englewood Cliffs, then "it just diminishes credibility and confidence in the hiring system," added Kologi, an associate counsel with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

"We're in a situation where public confidence in government appears to be eroding more and more. If things like this occur, if they are in fact occurring, it contributes to that."

Phillips, from Norwood, said he would not give up on his goal of becoming a police officer. "I'm going to put myself through the academy to get around all this politics that's involved," he said.

The Suburbanite: Englewood Cliffs mayor wants to revamp 5th Street area in borough

Englewood Cliffs mayor wants to revamp 5th Street area in borough

Thursday, March 15, 2012
Northern Valley Suburbanite

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — Mayor Joseph Parisi, Jr. wants to hire a planner to determine the best way for the borough to utilize 5th Street, from Bayview Avenue to the edge of Fort Lee.
"There's a bunch of different things I'd love to do on that property," said Parisi. "It would be great for the town and ratables."
The area includes about 17 different properties, approximately 50 percent of which are owned by the same person.
In order for any plans to be made, the borough would have to make changes to the zoning of the area, known as the B-3 Zone.
"The zoning of that area is prohibitive to develop in a way that benefits Englewood Cliffs," said Parisi.
Like Parisi, Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow believes changes should be made to the zoning of the B-3 Zone.
"I believe that the B-3 Zone is underutilized due to outdated zoning regulations and should be examined and appropriate revisions implemented," said McMorrow.
Parisi wants to hire a planner to look at the different zoning issues, consider the borough's master plan and determine what would be most feasible use of the area. Parisi has an artist's rendition of what can be done to the area.
"It is my understanding that the mayor has already attended a preliminary meeting and that drawings of ideas that encompass a combination of 42 condos and retail space were discussed," said McMorrow. "I do have concerns about the extent of preliminary activity, which did not include the property owners and residents."
She said she is concerned that the Planning Board will meet in subcommittees – these meetings do not need to be advertised to the public.
Parisi said although he has the drawings, the Planning Board has not yet had the opportunity to look at the plan.
"Our biggest concern right now is how much it would cost for the planning end of it," said Parisi.
Parisi said he would like to lay out the plans for the people developing the area, so they understand what the borough's vision is.
"If we show them, they will build, so to speak," said Parisi.
He added the developers could always make modifications to the plans, but the details would already be ironed out so the borough gets exactly what it is looking for.
While plans for 5th Street are only in the conceptual stages, Parisi has a few ideas for what he would like to see done in the area.
"What we are looking at is maybe having a mixed use with retail, condos, co-ops or apartments," said Parisi.
Parisi is interested in adding residential units in the area so the "mature" residents of Englewood Cliffs do not move out of town.
"If they sell their homes, where would they move?" said Parisi. "The residential units down there would provide the opportunity for those residents to stay in Englewood Cliffs."
The residential units would most likely be one-bedroom, instead of two-bedroom, units. Parisi said the borough would have to look into the effect having residential units would have on school taxes.
Parisi also envisions outdoor cafes where people can sit and relax. The area is zoned for about 1,600 square feet of retail.
Before any work is done to the area, property owners would have to agree to develop the area.
"We're not going to do anything like eminent domain," said Parisi. "We really wouldn't be involved in any other extent than setting up our ideas."
Parisi said there are a number of different ways to develop the area. A developer could take a land lease and pay to develop the property, one of the property owners could pay to keep the property and develop it or someone could buy up all the property and develop it. The developer or property owner would have to determine if it is cost effective to develop the property.
"If the landowner doesn't agree [to the plans], we would have to go in for a variance," said Parisi.
Before any action is taken, Parisi wants to hold public hearings and hear everyone's thoughts and comments about redeveloping the B-3 Zone.
Like Parisi, McMorrow also believes the public should be involved in the process.
"I strongly believe the process, which includes the involvement of both the Planning Board and the Governing Body, should be open and transparent from start to finish and should allow the property owners and residents ample opportunity to express their opinions from the rezoning's infancy," said McMorrow.

The Record: Ethics filing aimed at mayor

Ethics filing aimed at mayor

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — A crusader for open government has filed an ethics complaint against the mayor questioning whether he had a conflict when he participated in school budget negotiations.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, has filed a complaint with the state Local Finance Board alleging Mayor Joseph Parisi violated the local government ethics law in 2010.
"If the mayor did this he should be held accountable for it," Paff said Thursday.
The ethics complaint is the latest in a series of steps Paff has taken to shine a light on Englewood Cliffs. Paff randomly began filing requests under the Open Public Records Act in January, something he has done in other municipalities across the state to make sure governing bodies and school boards are complying with state laws.
In his complaint, Paff notes that Parisi is chairman and CEO of Otterstedt Insurance Agency and is on the board of directors of North Jersey Community Bank.
Although the Englewood Cliffs Board of Education contracts with Parisi's insurance company and uses the bank as an official depository, the mayor participated in discussions when the defeated school budget was sent to the council for cuts, Paff's complaint states.
Parisi questioned why Paff, who lives in Somerset, nowhere near the borough, is raising a two-year-old issue.
"I don't understand his motivation," Parisi said. "This is an old item, already addressed, already spoken to. I have not violated anything again."
Parisi, a Democrat, said the borough attorney at the time, Fred Semrau, told him afterward that he should not have participated in the discussions and he has avoided school issues since that time. Parisi also noted that the Republicans controlled the council and he didn't vote on the budget, but only stated his opinion.
"He said that I should not have participated and I won't be doing in the future," Parisi said.
Paff includes meeting minutes that quote Parisi saying he recommends no cuts to the school budget. Paff said Parisi should have recused himself from the budget deliberations.
"Mayor Parisi had a divided interested," Paff wrote in the complaint. "He could not realistically support a cut to the school district's budget without imperiling his bank's and insurance agency's financial arrangement with the school board."
Parisi said he though Paff's complaint was politically motivated.
"I just pick towns, there's nothing scientific about it really," Paff said. "You look at the website, it sort of gives you a clue. Especially their website. There's nothing on their website."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Record: Council considers hiring 4 officers

Council considers hiring 4 officers

Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Record

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – After painting a dire budget picture just last month, the Borough Council is considering hiring four police officers and a dispatcher.
Mayor Joseph Parisi, who has long advocated the hiring of more police, said the additional officers and creation of a civilian dispatcher position would help eliminate overtime. The borough spent about $500,000 last year on overtime, well over the $300,000 that was budgeted.
Parisi said he thinks overtime could be cut to $275,000 with the additional hires and plans to work with the police chief to change the organizational structure of the department to further reduce costs.
"It makes sense," he said. "You have to look at both ends of the spectrum."
Parisi also said adding a dispatcher would take an officer from behind the desk and put him on the street.
Although the council discussed the preliminary budget Monday it did not present any documents to the public. The council plans to introduce the 2012 spending plan at its next meeting on Tuesday.
Police Chief Michael Cioffi brought four police officer candidates and introduced his nephew, Christian Drimones, as the dispatcher candidate.
Resident Mary O'Shea questioned how the council could be hiring police without advertising for the positions.
"If the council hasn't discussed hiring police officers why would the police committee interview candidates if they don't know that the council wants to hire candidates?" she said.
Council President Joseph Favaro said Cioffi did advertise the positions and Parisi said even without advertising the borough had received hundreds of résumés in recent years.
Parisi asked the candidates to briefly introduce themselves during public comment.
All four police officer candidates are working for other agencies and have already been through the police academy. One of the candidates speaks fluent Korean, something Parisi said would be an asset in the borough.
Several residents remarked on the qualification of the men, but took issue with Drimones becoming a police dispatcher.
Drimones, a lifelong resident and longtime volunteer firefighter is the son of fire Chief George Drimones and former Democratic Councilwoman Patricia Drimones, the police chief's sister.
When Parisi asked if he had any experience as a dispatcher, Drimones said he had obtained the necessary certification and taken online courses.
Cioffi said many of the men would be taking pay cuts to work for the Englewood Cliffs Police Department because they want to serve the community.
"They are very well qualified, good gentlemen and any one of them would be an asset to the community," he said.
Starting salary for police officers is $34,999.
Councilman Ilan Plawker, the police commissioner, was not at Monday's meeting but said Wednesday that he hopes to have the hires on next week's council agenda for a vote.

The Suburbanite: Englewood Cliffs official files complaint against Mayor Parisi, Jr. and borough

Englewood Cliffs official files complaint against Mayor Parisi, Jr. and borough

Thursday, March 8, 2012
Northern Valley Suburbanite

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS — Zoning Board of Adjustment Chairman Russell Porrino filed a civil complaint with the Bergen County Superior Court against the Borough of Englewood Cliffs and Mayor Joseph Parisi, Jr. to void all of the actions taken by the governing body at the Jan. 7 reorganization meeting, because Parisi failed to open the meeting for public comment.
In addition to asking for the voiding of all actions taken by the governing body at the Jan. 7 reorganization meeting, Porrino wants it declared that Parisi and the Borough of Englewood Cliffs violated the Open Public Meetings Act, an issuance of injunctive order to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act, an order to make sure Parisi and the governing body do not conduct public meetings without a public session and the fining of Parisi if he knowingly violated the Open Public Meetings Act.
One of the actions taken at this meeting was the council approving the first reading of an ordinance calling for dissolving the Zoning Board of Adjustment and shifting its powers to the Planning Board, in a 5-1 party-line vote.
Parisi instructed Borough Attorney Carter Corriston to draft this ordinance before he was sworn in as the borough attorney and that this ordinance was not listed on the meeting agenda.
Municipal governing bodies are required by law to set aside a portion of every meeting for public comment. At this time, the public has the opportunity to comment on issues or concerns or ask questions.
At the Feb. 8 mayor and council meeting, Borough Attorney Carter Corriston said Parisi was in violation of the law by not opening the meeting for public comment, but believes it was an oversight.
Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow asked Corriston to look into this matter at the Jan. 18 mayor and council meeting.
"I believe it was an inadvertence," said Corriston. "An innocent inadvertence."
Parisi apologized for not opening for public comment at the reorganization meeting and said it would not happen again.
"As for the reorganization meeting and not opening to the public, I as I said, I admit I should have requested the council to open the meeting to the public, but in fact none of the council members requested to open the meeting," said Parisi. He added that he is going to ask the council to withdraw the motion to hear the ordinance regarding dissolving the board at the next council meeting. Instead, he is going to ask the council to reintroduce an ordinance, however, the public will not be able to comment on it until the next scheduled meeting.
Porrino does not see the apology as an adequate solution.
"I cannot in good conscience remain silent and witness the dissolving of our independent Board of Adjustment while Mayor Parisi violates the Open Public Meetings Act in the process," said Porrino. "There must be consequences to stifling the rights of the public to speak at a public meeting and the residents of Englewood Cliffs deserve to know the details of what is happening behind the scenes."
Porrino said Parisi knowingly adjourned the reorganization meeting without opening for public comment and that the public was restrained from speaking at the meeting "as to stifle any negative comments from the public regarding the proposed dissolving of the Board of Adjustment."
Porrino also alleged that Parisi violated the Municipal Land Use Law by swearing in Steve Duffy and Vincent Surace as alternate members of the Planning Board on Jan. 12. Both Duffy and Surace were members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment and did not submit resignations to the Board of Adjustment.
"This lawsuit is frivolous and a political ploy because the consequences would be to redo what was done and I pay the one hundred dollar fine, which I'm willing to do," said Parisi.
However Porrino said there is nothing political about this lawsuit. "What it is all about, is an elected official violating the law and expecting no resident to speak out," said Porrino.

Bergen Beat: Englewood Cliffs council calls special meeting on budget

Englewood Cliffs council calls special meeting on budget

The Englewood Cliffs mayor and council will hold a special meeting Monday night to discuss the 2012 budget.
The council held its first public budget session Feb. 18.
The Democrats, who now control the council, have accused the Republicans of leaving them with a budget deficit, but borough officials have yet to release detailed budget documents to show how that deficit accrued.
During a work session meeting last month, Democratic Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. had auditor Steve Wilcox give a brief presentation, during which he said the borough is facing a $1.4 million tax levy increase, which would translate into a $550 tax hike for the owner of a home assessed at the borough average of $1.25 million.
The 2011 budget carried a $10.47 million tax levy. But with revenue down and spending up, Wilcox said the borough is looking at an $11.87 million levy this year, which exceeds the state-mandated cap on property taxes and would need to be reduced.
The 2011 budget used $955,000 in surplus, compared to $604,000 in 2010.
Wilcox’s preliminary report notes that the municipal court is operating at a $21,300 deficit and that the borough will receive $65,000 less in commercial sewer fees this year. His report says salary and wages are up $77,151, a figure that does not appear to include retroactive raises an arbitrator awarded the police.
Since the Democrats took over, they have reinstated a deputy clerk position, which the GOP cut, and rehired the former zoning officer, also naming him building sub-code official, at double the rate two part-time people were being paid in those roles.
The meeting will be held in the Municipal Building, 482 Hudson terrace, at 7 p.m. The council will also discuss pending tax appeals and proposed tax settlements.

Bergen Beat: More allegations of Sunshine Law violations in Englewood Cliffs

More allegations of Sunshine Law violations in Englewood Cliffs

The sole Republican on Englewood Cliffs Borough Council argued with Democrats over whether or not Police Department candidates could be interviewed during a special meeting Tuesday night.
“You’re in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act,” Republican Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow said. “It was not advertised properly and you’re in violation.”
The advertisement said the special meeting was being held to discuss the 2012 budget and tax appeals. The advertisement also did not say there would be a closed session, which is normally where legal matters like pending tax appeals and personnel matters (like police interviews) would be held.
While Mayor Joseph Parisi and others agreed to not go into closed session and to instead discuss what they could in the open, they disagreed with McMorrow on the police matter because the law is vague.
The Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the “Sunshine Law” because it aims to shed light on government, requires 48 hours advance notice of meetings and a list of agenda items, “to the extent known.”
Council president Joseph Favaro pointed out that that clause would allow police issue to be added to the agenda and Mayor Joseph Parisi noted that no official action was being taken.
But airing on the side of caution, Parisi instead opened the meeting to the public and had the three police officer candidates and police dispatcher candidate briefly introduce themselves during public comment.
“Normally we would have interviews in private that would be closed, but we wanted to give the chief the opportunity to have the council meet some of the candidates that the police committee suggested,” he said.
The council did not discuss the officers or whether there was room for the additional salaries in the budget.
This is not the first time McMorrow has accused the Democrats of violating the law. In January she alleged that the Open Public Meetings Act was violated at two council meetings.
She said Parisi failed to open for public comment at the reorganization meeting in January, something Borough Attorney Carter Corriston confirmed was a violation. Parisi has repeatedly apologized saying it was an oversight.
She also alleged the law was violated during a special meeting in December, during which the council met to discuss the police contract.
McMorrow, whose husband is deputy police chief, did not attend the meeting, but she said was later notified that the council discussed the resignation of Building Subcode Official Brian Ribarro. Corriston investigated and found that was mentioned by the borough administrator to only two council members in passing prior to the start of the meeting and therefore the law was not violated.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, has also been keeping tabs on Englewood Cliffs, particularly the council’s lack of meeting meetings and has launched a blog about his efforts.

Englewood Cliffs News in Bergen Beat

Bergen Beat, The Record's blog, has two stories on Englewood Cliffs which did not appear in The Record.  Bergen Beat is at

The first story, which was posted on March 4, 2012, is Englewood Cliffs Calls Special Meeting on Budget.  It can be accessed directly at

The second story, which was posted on March 6, 2012, is More Allegations of Sunshine Law Violations in Englewood Cliffs.  It can be accessed directly at

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Was Englewood Cliffs Mayor conflicted from school budget discussion?

Question: If a Mayor serves as CEO of an insurance agency and on the board of directors of a bank, both of which do business with the local school board, is he permitted to participate in the Borough Council's deliberations regarding a defeated school budget?

This is a question I presented to the Local Finance Board (LFB), the agency which enforces the Local Government Ethics Law, in a March 7, 2012 letter of complaint which I've placed on-line here. Unfortunately, it takes the LFB approximately two years to adjudicate a complaint.

Monday, March 5, 2012

OPRA request misunderstood--lawsuit averted

March 5, 2012

Ms. Spohn:

Please accept this e-mail as my request for government records in accordance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access. Please respond and send all responsive documents to me via e-mail at If e-mail is not possible, please fax responses and responsive records to me at 908-325-0129. Also, I would appreciate it if you would acknowledge your receipt of this e-mail.


I am in receipt of your March 5, 2012 response to my January 27, 2012 records request. I have posted my request, your response and fifty-four pages of records you sent me on the Internet here.

Unfortunately, you have misapprehended at least part of my January 27, 2012 records request. Paragraph 1 of that request was for "[t]he minutes of three most recently held nonpublic (i.e. "closed" or "executive") municipal governing body meetings for which minutes are available for public disclosure in either full or redacted form." Suppose that the Borough Council has not prepared minutes of any of the closed meetings held during 2011 and that the the most recent closed meetings for which minutes exist occurred on December 8, 2010, November 10, 2010 and October 13, 2010. Suppose further that the Borough attorney has determined that the minutes of the December 8, 2010 and November 10, 2010 closed meetings could be disclosed in full but that the minutes of the October 13, 2010 closed meeting needed redaction. Then, the records that would be properly responsive to paragraph 1 of my request would be the minutes of those three closed meetings, redacted as necessary.

I recognize that the Borough Council is behind in production and disclosure of its minutes. The main object of paragraph 1 of my request was to gauge the extent of the problem. At this point, I am not sure whether Borough's closed session minutes are six months behind, two years behind or perhaps even further behind. Below I have repeated paragraph 1 of my request and ask that you respond to it within seven business days.

Paragraph 2 of my request is simple and is repeated below. It merely asks for the resolutions that were passed authorizing the three closed meetings for which minutes were provided in response to paragraph 1. I want to compare the matters that the Council said that it was going to discuss in closed session to the matters that it actually discussed in private to see if there is a one to one correspondence.

Paragraph 3 of my request was similar to paragraph 1, in that it attempted to find out how far behind the Borough is in production of its public meeting minutes. Note that the version of paragraph 3 set forth below differs a bit from the previous version. Finally, note that I have also added a new paragraph 4.

Records Requested:

1. The minutes of the three most recently held nonpublic (i.e. "closed" or "executive") municipal governing body meetings for which minutes are available for public disclosure in either full or redacted form.

2. The resolutions, as required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-13, that authorized the three nonpublic meetings for which minutes were provided in response to #1 above. (If the resolutions are spread out in full in the public meeting minutes (as opposed to "free standing" resolutions), please furnish only those pages of the public meeting minutes that contain the resolutions.)

3. The minutes of three most recently held public municipal governing body meetings that have been approved by the Borough Council.

4. The "2012 bylaws" that were unanimously approved at the most recent reorganization meeting.

Thank you.

John Paff

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Some Borough Council minutes on-line

On Saturday, May 3, 2012, I obtained some Englewood Cliffs Borough Council agendas and minutes from Borough Clerk Susan Spohn in response to my February 23, 2012 Open Public Records Act request. My request, Spohn's answer and the agendas and minutes are on-line here.

John Paff

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Taxpayer to Auditor: Budget Deficits Have EVERYTHING To Do With Spending

The Northern Valley Suburbanite's February 23, 2012 article on Englewood Cliffs’ budget, entitled “Auditor warns of large tax increases,” reports that Englewood Cliffs' auditor Steve Wielkotz said “the borough's issues have nothing to do with spending."  In fact, Englewood Cliffs’ budget problem has everything to do with its current spending, both for (1) current expenses and (2) current payments for past deferrals of pension expenses and property tax refunds. 

There are three ways to address Englewood Cliffs’ budget shortfall, just as there are three ways to address a household’s budget shortfall.  One is to cut spending.  Another is to increase revenues by, for example, imposing a “gargantuan tax increase this year.” Unfortunately, Englewood Cliffs taxpayers cannot increase their household revenues to pay the increased property taxes as easily as the Borough can increase its revenues.  The third is to issue debt to pay for current expenses, as Englewood Cliffs has done in the past to fund current pension expenses and refunds for successful property tax appeals. The Borough’s past failure to reduce spending in response to lower property tax collections and past deferral of current pension obligations is one reason Englewood Cliffs’ expenses and taxes are as high as they are today. 

Englewood Cliffs faces a “gargantuan tax increase this year” only if the Mayor and Council choose to address that budget problem by increasing taxes instead of cutting spending.  If Englewood Cliffs’ pre-2010 fiscal practices and the Mayor and Council majority’s recent actions, including the hiring of a full-time deputy clerk and a full-time tax clerk, are any guide, Englewood Cliffs’ property taxes will increase substantially more than the inflation rate this year and the Mayor and Council majority will issue bonds in order to push the revenue loss from successful tax appeals into future years.  

Friday, March 2, 2012

Englewood Cliffs threatened with lawsuit over tardy minutes

UPDATE: On March 6, 2012, I received the following e-mail from E. Carter Corriston Sr. Esq., the Borough Attorney:
In response to your fax of March 2, 2012, please be advised of the following.

It is my understanding that you have been furnished with your request for records as set forth in #1 and #2. Please see attached e-mail of Susan Spohn to me dated March 5, 2012.

In addition, she is furnishing you after our meeting of March 14, 2012, the minutes of the three most recently held nonpublic executive meetings. These are available and she has advised me that she has them in her possession.

As to #3, we will approve the minutes of the three most recently held meetings by the governing body and furnish them to you as soon as they are approved on March 14th.

I would ask that you refrain from taking further action in regard to this matter and if you have any objections to this letter you can contact me directly at 201-342-4014.

I faxed the following letter today to Borough Attorney Corriston.

John Paff
March 2, 2012

E. Carter Corriston, Esq.
Breslin & Breslin
41 Main St
Hackensack, NJ 07601 (via fax only to 201-342-3077)

Dear Mr. Corriston:

On January 27, 2012, I e-mailed the following records request to Englewood Cliffs Borough Clerk Susan Spohn:

Subject: OPRA Request

Please accept this e-mail/fax as my request for government records in accordance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access. Please respond and send all responsive documents to me via e-mail at If e-mail is not possible, please fax responses and responsive records to me at 908-325-0129. Also, I would appreciate it if you would acknowledge your receipt of this e-mail/fax.

Records requested:

1. The minutes of three most recently held nonpublic (i.e. "closed" or "executive") municipal governing body meetings for which minutes are available for public disclosure in either full or redacted form.

2. The resolutions, as required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-13, that authorized the three nonpublic meetings for which minutes were provided in response to #1 above. (If the resolutions are spread out in full in the public meeting minutes (as opposed to "free standing" resolutions), please furnish only those pages of the public meeting minutes that contain the resolutions.)

3. The minutes of three most recently held public municipal governing body meetings for which minutes are available for public disclosure.

On February 8, 2012, I spoke with Clerk Spohn regarding the fact that I had not yet received a response to my January 27, 2012 request. As you are aware, citizens are entitled to some sort of written response within seven business days of the Borough's receipt of a request.

Clerk Spohn conceded that she should have responded earlier and indicated that she was intending to respond today. She indicated that production of the Borough Council's meeting minutes was delayed, but she didn't advise me of the length of the delay. She said that there would several sets of meeting minutes up for approval at the February 8, 2012 meeting. I agreed to extend the time within which she could respond to my request until February 22, 2012. This is more time than she wanted, but I offered it since I would be on vacation the week of February 13th and wouldn't be able to review the minutes until February 22nd in any event.

Unfortunately, despite the extension, I have yet to hear anything further from Clerk Spohn regarding my January 27, 2012 request. Unfortunately, my only option at this point is to file a lawsuit or a Government Records Council complaint against the Borough. Please be advised that I plan to file an action on Tuesday, March 6, 2012. If you would like to speak with me about this matter, please contact me on Monday, March 5, 2012.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


/s/ John Paff

P.S. I also submitted another OPRA request to Clerk Spohn via e-mail on February 23, 2012. According to my calculations, the last day for Clerk Spohn to timely respond to that request is on Monday, March 5, 2012.

cc. Clerk Susan Spohn (via Fax only to 201-569-4356)