Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Record editorial: Silence in Englewood Cliffs

January 21, 2015 Last updated: Wednesday, January 21, 2015, 8:11 AM
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. seems determined to make sure everyone in town knows he's the one in charge.
So he recently promulgated an executive order requiring council members who want information from borough employees to clear the requests with him first. Parisi's order also mandates that the mayor must approve all official borough communications to the public and media.
Such power grabs by mayors are hardly unique and are generally in response to political change, which apparently is the case here. Parisi, a Democrat, issued his order soon after Republican Lauren Eastwood was appointed to fill a council vacancy. Prior to joining the council, Eastwood frequently sought borough information through the Open Public Records Act.
Republicans suggest the mayor's order was a preemptive strike to keep Eastwood from continuing to make OPRA requests of borough employees. Parisi denies that, saying his order simply reinforces the way communication should be done.
We disagree. Council members, like the mayor, are elected by the people. If a council member has a pertinent question for the police chief or the head of the public works department, he or she should be able to ask the official directly. In a small town such as Englewood Cliffs, forcing council members to go through the mayor before they can get answers to simple questions introduces a bureaucratic regimen that is counterproductive.
Parisi's order also calls for all official borough communications to go through the mayor. That provision has the potential to curtail the ability, and the right, of council members to speak out.
While the mayor remains a municipality's chief spokesperson, council members have as much right as the mayor does to speak publicly on any issue they want. For example, if they don't like the proposed budget, they should say so. Elected officials can speak out at council meetings, at informal gatherings around town, in press releases or through social media. The mayor is not the only officeholder with a platform.
E. Carter Corriston Sr., the borough attorney, tellingly told The Record that there would be no legal sanctions against council members who violate the mayor's executive order.
That's not surprising, given the fact it's not against the law for an elected official to speak publicly or to ask borough employees questions. Nor should it be against borough policy.

The Record: Mayor's executive order stirs conflict in Englewood Cliffs

January 18, 2015, 7:52 PM Last updated: Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 8:41 AM
ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – A month after a community activist and frequent filer of requests under the Open Public Records Act was appointed to the Borough Council, the mayor issued an executive order requiring that all council members’ requests for information from borough employees go through him.

“It’s just the way of communication that should be done,” Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. said at a council meeting Wednesday, adding, “It’s not a gag order.”

But borough Republicans cried foul, questioning whether Parisi had the legal authority to control the council’s communications and alleging that the order was targeted at Lauren Eastwood, who was appointed to the council last month, after Ramon Ferro resigned.

Eastwood is a Republican. Parisi is a Democrat.

Parisi denied the accusation.

“There is no connection,” Parisi said. The order is “preventive,” he said, adding, “It’s not meant for any individual.” The order applies only to requests made by council members in relation to their official duties, Parisi said. In an email, Eastwood said she was disappointed in Parisi’s actions.

The borough GOP chairwoman, former Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow, echoed those sentiments: “I am disappointed to see that the mayor took such an action that clearly will be impeding the flow of information,” she said. “Being faced with a difficult budget year, all council people should have the ability to hold government accountable and scrutinize how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Parisi said his order, which was issued Wednesday, came after he said he observed some “hiccups” in how the council communicated with borough employees – for example, multiple requests being made for the same information. The order is also a way to control costs, as most of the borough’s professional employees charge for their time, Parisi said.

“All of this is so we communicate better. … I’m trying to free up not only Lisette, but all of the professionals,” Parisi said, referring to the borough clerk and administrator, Lisette Duffy.

He pledged to respond to council requests in a “very timely” manner.

Parisi’s order calls for all requests for information to be directed to him for approval and forwarding to the appropriate departments and/or professionals, except in emergency situations. It also includes provisions that:

— Communication between department heads and council committees should only be performed by committee heads.

— Council members cannot intervene with municipal employees, volunteers and professionals unless they receive mayoral approval.

— All official borough communications to the public and media must be approved by Parisi.

Borough Attorney E. Carter Corriston Sr. said council members cannot be legally sanctioned if they violate the order. Parisi said that if someone disregards the directive, he might first address the action with them privately. If it continues, he said, he would bring the matter to the council.

Though noting he did not need their approval, Parisi called for a vote of confidence from the council Wednesday.

The three Democrats – Joseph Favaro, Gloria Oh and Ed Aversa – all voted in favor of the order. Eastwood voted against it. Her fellow Republican, Zhi Liang, voted that he favored the order “in general,” though he also called it “very strict” and voiced concern over some of the language.

Nunzio Consalvo, also a Republican, attended the meeting via telephone but had hung up by the time Parisi called for the vote.

The Borough Council adopted a similar resolution in 2012, when McMorrow was on the council. Parisi said his executive order overrides this resolution.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Record editorial: Rocky Political Road

October 12, 2014 Last updated: Sunday, October 12, 2014, 1:21 AM

WHILE it's great that Englewood Cliffs residents will enjoy freshly paved streets, the letter Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr. sent out crediting the Borough Council's Democrats with making that possible at a good price was clearly a political stunt.

This is the epitome of small-town politics, and the public deserves better.

The mayor, a Democrat, sent residents in parts of the borough a letter approximately two weeks ago notifying them that their streets will be paved and there could potentially be road closures.

It also said the borough saved money with the project thanks to Borough Council members Gloria Oh, Edward Aversa and Joseph Favaro, who are all Democrats, with two of them up for reelection next month. Parisi told Staff Writer Kim Lueddeke that he only listed the Democrats because they are on the council's public works committee.

The letter didn't come from the public works committee — it was on borough letterhead and signed by the mayor.

The campaign treasurer for two Republican council candidates asked the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission to investigate whether the Democrats violated campaign finance law by not reporting the letter as a political communication.

Regulations on a "political communication" include whether the candidate was involved in any way and it's within 90 days of the candidate's election, sent to an audience "substantially comprised" of voters and references the candidate's governmental or political achievements.

The exception is if the communication informs citizens about a public emergency. And that is Parisi's argument. Raising the possibility of road closures can make this exception apply to the letter, he says.
Lueddeke reports that the Englewood Cliffs Republican chairwoman, Carrol McMorrow, is demanding that Parisi, Aversa and Oh admit that they were wrong and "immediately" reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the mailing.

Parisi estimated the cost of the mailing to be $90 and said, "If ELEC feels that I've done something wrong, I'll be more than willing to pay them back."

He should save everyone's time and reimburse the borough now. It's not about the relatively small amount of money, but the principle of this action. To argue that it wasn't a political mailing is an insult to the public's intelligence.

Borough councils should be working to find cost-effective ways to provide services like street paving. But when a mayor uses borough stationery and funds to applaud his preferred candidates a month before an election, he crosses a line.

There will always be small-town politics, but local officials don't need to embrace it quite so passionately.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Englewood Cliffs Borough Council closed meeting minutes now on line.

In response to my OPRA request, the Borough provided me with minutes from some council executive sessions held in 2010 and 2013.  I've put them on-line here.