Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to School

Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. We do the best to enjoy the time we have left knowing it is about to end. It’s also a time to make a school year’s resolution. Time to resolve that this year will be better than the last. Time to make goals and set standards. Time to set the stage for a great academic year.

Below are some of the best ideas I’ve heard, most of them from community leaders.

Student/Parent Surveys
At the end of the academic year, send each student home with two surveys, one to be completed by the student and the other to be completed by a parent/guardian. Ideally, most surveys would be completed online to avoid the time and expense of data entry.

The surveys, covering all aspects of the school experience, would provide valuable feedback and direction for the administration and faculty.

Raising Graduation Requirements
Each school district has the discretion to determine its own graduation requirements. Matawan-Aberdeen uses the statutory minimum. Different ideas for graduation requirements range from requiring students to take a minimum number of advanced classes to developing a masterpiece. The state’s minimalist standards should not be our standards.

Developing Special Education Programs
Each year, we send scores of children to other districts at a cost of millions of dollars per year. All these children would be better served closer to home but we lack the capability.

We should develop a special education center that not only allows us to educate our own children but also attracts students from other areas. Such a center would not only save us money but could generate revenue as well. We would start the program by selecting a single specialty and slowly expand from there.

Maximizing Data Capture
With nearly 4,000 students, we have a tremendous opportunity to collect wide-ranging data and identify trends over a substantial timeline. What’s the impact of tutoring programs? Which instructors consistently outperform their peers? What’s the relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement?

Creating such an application would be remarkably easy. Simply build a database that matches each student to his grades, his classes, his extra curricular, and his surveys. Then, over time, create a series of reports that can be reviewed by the administration.

Partner with the Chamber of Commerce
Last year, Dana Egreczky of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce gave a shocking presentation on the correlation between high school academics and later success (such as students who only take Algebra I and Geometry have a 23% chance of getting a bachelor’s degree). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has provided much of its research and recommendations online at By working closely with the Chamber of Commerce, we can better prepare our students for the challenges ahead.

Community Involvement
This has been a perennial problem and there’s no easy solution. The powers that be have both the organization and the incentive to maintain the status quo. Most people have long stopped believing their votes matter. The schools have not improved. Spending keeps rising. And we haven’t had candidates offering a vision and roadmap for a better future.

Several people have already contacted me to offer their support. I believe far more people are out there, ready to answer a call to arms. Later this year, I hope to initiate a grassroots campaign. We will be organized, we will have a message, and we will have candidates prepared to fight and win on our behalf.

The school year is about to begin. May each year be better than the last.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

High Hopes, Low Bar

Superintendent O’Malley has launched an ambitious and exemplary initiative to “produce high achieving students.” The program covers all aspects of the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District from education, to staff training and retention, to financial controls and facility maintenance. The best news of all is that the program is already a success. Already, you ask? How can that be? You see, in our school district, success is measured by effort, not outcome. As far as our school district is concerned, the program is already a success simply because we tried.

The superintendent’s initiative includes six goals, supported by an array of “action steps” to accomplish its objectives. The six goals are:

  1. To improve student achievement for all students through high expectations, frequent monitoring of student progress and staff development activities with specific focus on standardized tests
  2. To provide a vigorous comprehensive and fully articulated preK-12 curriculum designed to produce high achieving students, who are both responsible citizens and life-long learners that challenge and engages all students to reach academic excellence
  3. To obtain, retain and support a superior staff that values creativity, innovation, professional growth and development, and the individuality of students
  4. To continue to examine the provision of special education services within the least restrictive environment, seek to improve the communication with parents, the quality of the instructional delivery systems to students with special needs and providing consistent procedures that are in compliance with IDEA
  5. To ensure quality management, financial integrity, meaningful accountability and an effective operating infrastructure
  6. To provide safe, clean and efficient facilities to successfully implement our instructional programs
The goals sound terrific but haven’t these been our goals all along? Look at the first goal – to improve student achievement for all students through high expectations. Is this a new goal? Were we previously using low expectations?

I tried to pigeonhole Dr. O’Malley into defining high expectations. His initial response was to see each child reach his potential. Not good enough. I wanted to know what we, as a district, expected of our students as a group. I wanted numbers. Just like we grade our students, I wanted to grade our district.

Dr. O’Malley finally conceded that our district’s goal, at least in the short term, is to see our students score 50% on the state assessment exams. In fairness, even that modest goal may prove difficult. A third of our seniors are enrolled in remedial courses because they failed the HSPA exams.

Still, is this the vision we’re communicating to our staff and students? Is this how we define “high expectations”? Scoring 50% on a state exam?

Bear in mind, Dr. O’Malley only confessed this goal after repeated questioning; it is not part of the program being distributed among the staff. In fact, the initiative only has two measurable “action steps” – reducing both out-of-district placement and energy consumption by 10%.

Goals without measurable objectives are nothing more than good intentions. Every prior administration could have presented the same goals and claimed success. Seven of our nine BOE members have been re-elected at least once on a platform of “look what I’ve done.” This may be the first time our goals are fully articulated but they’re certainly not new.

I questioned Dr. O’Malley regarding out-of-district placement for special needs students. From the board agenda, it appears that, without exception, every special needs student is being reassigned to the same school he attended last year. Does the administration monitor their progress? Yes, he answered. Could he cite a single instance of a student whose progress was unsatisfactory and was therefore assigned to a different school this year? No. Over 70 students are being placed out-of-district at an annual cost around $4 million and not one child was advised he may do better in a different institution.

Is this what they mean by helping our children reach their potential? Dump them out-of-district and pay the bills on time?

I argued with a member of the high school guidance department that our students weren’t being sufficiently challenged. Fewer than 10% of juniors and seniors passed an AP exam last year. The school staff member responded that it was perfectly reasonable to assume only a minority of students could handle an AP course. After overcoming my shock and dismay, I asked how our students could be expected to handle a college course after they graduated if they couldn’t handle a single AP course during their senior year. The response – AP courses are more difficult than courses at Brookdale Community College.

Is this what we mean by “[engaging] all students to reach academic excellence”?

Will our school district ever have the courage to design a standard whereby we can measure ourselves? My definition of excellence for our school district is a 90% SAT participation rate with an average 1700 score and 80% of graduates have passed at least one AP course.

Matthew Bratsch, the new student representative on the school board (and an active student advocate) reported to the board he recently read Tuesday’s With Morrie as part of Matawan-Aberdeen’s summer reading list for seniors. His friends from New Brunswick read the same book four years ago as part of their 8th grade reading list.

High expectations, indeed. >>> Read more!

Friday, August 22, 2008

More Senseless Legal Fees

As reported by the Independent, Aberdeen Township has decided to once again pursue a frivolous lawsuit against the proposed cell tower in the I- Section of Strathmore. Residents of I-Section had demanded action and the town council responded by throwing money at a political donor. These legal proceedings are a farce and everyone on the town council knows it.

In April, 2006, in blatant violation of federal law, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the zoning board denied Sprint’s application for a variance to establish nine wireless antennas on a 145-foot water tower.

The law is clear. Aberdeen Township plainly violated four provisions of the Telecommunications Act. 1) The municipality must not “unreasonably discriminate” against cell towers. 2) We can’t act in a fashion that has the effect of prohibiting the provision of wireless service. 3) Any decision denying a request must be supported by substantial evidence. 4) Health and environmental concerns are not grounds for denying a request so long as the cell tower operates within FCC guidelines. (A good summary of the law can be found here.)

Marc Leckstein, the Zoning Board Attorney, knows this. I am absolutely certain he advised the zoning board and the town council that denying Sprint’s variance petition would violate federal law. But our elected representatives saw a twofer they couldn’t refuse – the opportunity to score political points and enrich a party contributor at the same time.

So, with great fanfare, they denied the request. Sprint filed suit in state court and won. The township appealed and Sprint won again. Now, the town plans to appeal again, and will continue appealing as long as they can. This is a gravy train with no end in sight.

We are literally paying Marc Leckstein thousands of dollars for dreaming of bogus legal theories while sitting on the toilet. His latest challenge is to be considered by the New Jersey State Supreme Court. It won’t be easy. In Smart SMR v. Borough of Fair Lawn (1998) the court ruled as follows:

To guide local land use agencies and the lower courts in deciding cases involving the location of such facilities, we offer the following further guidelines. Generally, the issuance of an FCC license should suffice for a carrier to establish that the use serves the general welfare. Nonetheless, if a telecommunications facility requires construction of a tower or monopole, the applicant must prove that the site is particularly suited for that use. Concerning the negative criteria, the Radiation Act and the Telecommunications Act have virtually preempted local consideration of radiation emissions. Proof of an adverse effect on adjacent properties and on the municipal land use plan, moreover, generally will require qualified expert testimony. Bare allegations that the construction of a tower or monopole will cause a decline in property values rarely will suffice.
I empathize with my neighbors in the I-Section (I, too, am “technically” in the I-section). Cell towers can be scary things. Anxiety over radiation could certainly affect health, student performance, and property values. (My compliments to the web designer for But this case has no legal basis. A 145-foot water tower on an elevated area is ideal for wireless antennas. The court will not consider any health or environmental impact. Nor did the zoning board follow the court’s guidelines and produce expert testimony demonstrating the cell tower will create a substantial and adverse impact to the community.

Had the township really wanted to block the antennas, it would have enlisted the aid of county and state officials to petition the New Jersey American Water Company to not lease the water tower to Sprint. Instead, our town council decided to hire some friends and put on a show.

Next time our councilmen are interested in courtroom antics, they should consider submitting the case to Judge Judy. At least then we’d get some entertainment value for our taxpayer dollars. >>> Read more!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Republicans Not Welcome

On May 15th, 2007, the Township of Aberdeen passed Ordinance 10-2007, cryptically entitled the Ordinance Amending the Revised General Ordinances of the Township of Aberdeen to Implement a Public Contracting Reform Ordinance. A more apt name would have been the Ordinance Amending All Welcome Signs to Include the Following Statement – Republicans Keep Out!

The ordinance is our town’s version of a pay-to-play statute. You won’t find the ordinance included on our state’s list of local pay-to-play statutes because, in truth, it’s not. The ordinance was specifically drawn to exclude one businessman from even thinking about doing business in Aberdeen. His name is Jack Morris, the developer our neighbor, Matawan, chose for the transit village project.

The new law specifically states the Township of Aberdeen “shall not enter into any agreement or otherwise contract with any private party for the planning, re-planning, construction or undertaking of any project or redevelopment work . . . if that redeveloper has solicited or made any contribution of money or pledge of a contribution” to any political group within the township or county.

That’s right. The ordinance is only against developers seeking to do business with the township. Unsurprisingly, not one of the Aberdeen Democrat’s large contributors happens to be a developer. So, CME Associates, their largest contributor, is still welcome to collect $1.2 million a year and oversee over 20% of the township’s annual budget through the road improvement program. Coppola & Coppola, another big contributor, is welcome to receive over $100,000 in fees. And nearly every professional contract can still go to financial contributors or those with political connections.

Meanwhile, Jack Morris, the head of the Columbia Group, a consortium selected by Matawan to be its lead developer for the transit village project, is effectively blocked from doing business with Aberdeen and Matawan. As detailed by Jackie Corley, a reporter for the Courier, Jack Morris is a major contributor to local Republicans, including Matawan’s former mayor, Freeholder Rob Clifton. It’s inconceivable that Morris will be able to develop 40 acres straddling Aberdeen’s border in conjunction with Aberdeen’s developer on a joint transit village project without making some “agreement” with the township.

This in no way suggests that Matawan and Morris are free of any taint of pay-to-play but it’s extraordinary that the Aberdeen Town Council would craft an ordinance that blocks Matawan’s developer but allows the Democrats to continue handing contracts to their contributors.

Nor is the timing any coincidence. Aberdeen’s developer, Silver Oaks (who seemingly made an indirect contribution in 2001), launched a baseless lawsuit against Matawan after they selected the Columbia Group. The borough, already in financial dire straits, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending their selection. At the end of January, 2007, Matawan won the case. Three months later, Aberdeen passed Ordinance 10-2007, effectively barring Matawan’s developer from the project.

The ordinance was also passed just prior to the election season. The Aberdeen Democrats had effectively positioned themselves to defend against any claim of pay-to-play while simultaneously attacking both the Aberdeen and Matawan Republicans with the same charge. (Some have speculated that Silver Oaks appealed the case simply to keep the issue alive through the elections; the owner's son, Bill Bocra, graduated at the top of his class from Columbia Law School so legal costs were minimal.)

How interesting that our town council has finally found a political contributor with whom they won’t do business – a developer who gives money to local republicans. Makes you wonder if Vic Scudiery had his hand in this. Tellingly, and contrary to the documented ordinance, Councilman Perry voted against the statute.

As an aside, I’d like to thank the town council for selecting my birthday as Aberdeen Day. The honor is flattering, unwarranted, and wholly unintended, I'm sure.
>>> Read more!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Different Perspective

Finally. At Monday’s BOE Committee of the Whole meeting, Board Member Larry O’Connell stated for the record that “Proficiency” on the HSPA exam was a low bar. He made the comment when asking about the high school’s educational goals. Ms. Ruscavage, the newly appointed principal for the Matawan Regional High School, stated that, for the short term, she’s focused on ensuring that the 30% of seniors who failed the HSPA exams last year are on course to graduate. As for long term goals, she doesn’t have any.

An earlier comment to the blog suggested that school officials and parents may be setting their expectation levels according to their personal classroom experience. If so, that would go a long way towards explaining the chasm between my expectations and the school district’s objectives.

I attended a private Hebrew day school. Most of my teachers were not certified; they were primarily Rabbis and local parents. Nor were they well paid, earning about twenty percent less than public school teachers, not to mention a lack of benefits. As for socio-economic diversity, everybody was white and Jewish with household earnings ranging from low-middle income to fabulously wealthy. I only had one friend whose parents were divorced.

I’m consistently surprised by expectations that students from Matawan-Aberdeen will do worse than their counterparts from Holmdel. In my class, the brighter students usually came from the poorer families because they knew they’d have to work harder for success. Everyone was expected to go to college and did. Community colleges weren’t considered “real schools” so many of my friends went to Queens College to save money.

We didn’t have teenage pregnancies, hard core violence, or widespread drug abuse. We didn’t need an onsite police officer, drug counselor, or full-time psychologist; nor would the parents ever send their children to a school that did.

We were required to take the New York Regents exams but no one took them very seriously. The only time we ever discussed the regents exams was during the last week of class when students could ask questions from the Barron’s review books.

In fact, my school had a philosophy that our focus should always be on education. We never studied test-taking strategies or took practice exams except at home. The school allowed Kaplan to give SAT courses on premises but not Princeton Review because Kaplan taught substance and Princeton Review taught strategy.

Being a Jewish school, we were never proud of our athletics department. To be honest, we didn’t have much school pride. Our pride came from individual achievement.

Compared to my alma mater, the Matawan Regional High School resembles Club Med. We didn’t have artificial turf, just a paved-over yard. No air conditioning, showers, weight room, TV studio, lunch program, or music room. We were happy the toilets flushed.

I don’t know how we compared to the other schools. Like I said, it didn’t matter how other people did, only how you did. Each student was required to take 4 years of math, 3 years of science, and 2 years of a foreign language (not including Hebrew, which we began learning in kindergarten).

We did okay. I still remember my 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Samuels, who was crazy like a fox (and tragically died young). I never had a more demanding teacher. Half the 8th grade was in honors math and I still remember him reprimanding a classmate who had only gotten a 90 on her algebra regents exam, the lowest score in the grade. I had gotten a 96, one and a half points below the class average. 10% of my senior class later graduated from Ivy League universities.

Ms. Ruscavage and our school board see a socio-economically diverse student body. I see bright-eyed students with vast potential. They’ve set proficiency (50%) on a state exam as our district’s goal. I view scoring 50% on a state exam as a failure. At the prior school board meeting, Athletic Director Martucci commented that our athletic team’s failures were attributable to our students. I hold all wins and losses are attributable to the teams, both students and coaches.

Granted, I come from a very different community. My classroom experience is quite distinct from what we see in Matawan-Aberdeen. I view our students and schools very differently from the school board. My question isn’t whose view is closer to reality but which view is more beneficial to our students. Personally, I never want my children to have a teacher, coach, or administrator, who does not have high expectations.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tales of Avalon

Driving along the Garden State Parkway, you can appreciate the natural feel of the highway. Trees are planted along both sides of the highway with a wide meridian designed to mitigate the glare of oncoming traffic. Nearby development is mostly hidden from view by trees and grassy knolls. You can almost forget you’re driving in “The Soprano State” until there’s a sudden break in the scenery and you’re struck by the Avalon at Aberdeen Station apartment complex overlooking the parkway. How did that get there?

In July, 1998, longtime local, Joe Rettagliata, was in danger of losing a thirteen-acre parcel of land in a property tax foreclosure proceeding. (The actual size of the property is up for debate. Discounting the parcel later sold by the New Jersey Highway Authority, the CME tax maps list the property at 16 acres while the T&M survey only shows 13 acres. Go figure.) He had owned the land for fourteen years but was never able to develop the property despite its proximity to the train station and highway. Sadly, his was a familiar story. Three years later, the township seized several properties that had been “abandoned” by their owners, including the Ernest Zobel property that is now part of the transit village development project.

But Joe Rettagliata had a sudden change of heart and, with it, a change of fortune. The following year, he settled his tax lien. Four months later, Aberdeen Township declared the area part of a redevelopment zone. The following year, after nearly forfeiting the property over $8,500 in annual property taxes, Rettagliata sold the land for $4 million. Nobody has suggested that Rettagliata benefited from being the chairman of the Monmouth County Planning Board but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Developer’s Agreement for the property (then known as Jefferson at Aberdeen) included three payments unique to the development (pages 9 and 11) – “$39,000 for the construction of the Henry Hudson Trail”, “$100,000 towards the traffic signalization of the intersection of Lower Main Street and Gerard Avenue”, and “$75,000 to the Township’s fire company which will service the development to enable the fire company to purchase appropriate equipment to better serve the safety needs of the development and the Township.”

The $39,000 for the Henry Hudson Trail and the $100,000 for the traffic signal are sitting quietly in the bank; the trail is entirely owned by the county and the township never contributed anything towards the traffic signal. As for the $75,000, it’s interesting that there’s no formal fire department review anywhere in the file pertaining to the development. Even more interesting is how the money was used to “better serve the safety needs of the development and the Township.” Nearly the entire wad was blown on two red Ford Expeditions.

Another interesting facet of the file is that it only records a single engineering fee. It seems inconceivable that during the entire development, CME only issued one letter pertaining to payments. More disturbing is the letter on file. When SC Aberdeen (one of the owners) sought to have a maintenance property bond released in 2006, CME demanded a “cash contribution of $39,750” (page 1). The following week, SC Aberdeen sent a check for $37,300 (page 2). What happened to other $2,450? Undoubtedly, this is a pittance compared to the scale of the project but it is also the only payment on file that involves CME Associates.

From the township’s perspective, the development made financial sense. The 290 1-2 bedroom luxury apartments attract empty nesters and generate about $950,000 in annual tax revenue. On the downside are the COAH obligations – 38 affordable housing units, about half of which would go to the elderly. Of the remaining 19 units (including regional contribution agreements if they’re still permitted), plus the handful of kids from the apartment complex, we could expect about 25 children. At $16,000 a kid, it would cost $400,000 a year to educate them. That still leaves over half a million dollars in added tax revenue (not to mention the COAH units were never built).

On a final note, it was fun to review the Jefferson’s request to display a large rental sign overlooking the parkway. The parkway authority and township planner both objected to the sign, citing aesthetics, safety, and statute. The town planning board noted the objections but awarded the variance out of concern for the developer’s ability to rent apartments. Good to know the planning board knows who butters their bagel.
>>> Read more!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Elephant in the Classroom

Quick – Name a dynamic industry that is union dominated. Can’t think of one? How about a highly regarded monopoly? No? Does anybody think it’s a coincidence that the most successful and enterprising companies in America have little to no labor union presence? Or that our ailing industries (i.e. manufacturing, steel, and transportation) are union dominated? In fact, the only industries that have thriving unions are the ones immune to competition – government licensed monopolies. It’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the classroom. We will never achieve a stellar educational system so long as we’re crippled by unions and monopolies.

I cannot understand how teachers, dedicated to their students’ welfare, would support a union that regularly puts children in harm’s way. Our teachers love our children. How can they force our kids into a classroom with a teacher who will rob our children of their opportunities to learn? Teachers are quick to respond that bad teachers often simply need more training but what of our children in the meantime? Are they to be sacrificed for the “greater good” while a failing teacher receives remedial training?

The two most promising industries, technology and finance, are also the two fields our children are least prepared to enter. We have no ability to compete for the best teachers because the best and worst are all paid the same. Nor can we make space for great teachers because the terrible ones have tenure. Our school district will always be handicapped so long as we’re beholden to labor unions.

Our only hope for salvation is a charter school that needs to compete for students. No public school in New Jersey has ever become a charter school but it can be done. All we need is the political will and leadership to make it happen.

According to the Charter School Program Act of 1995 (N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-4), a currently existing public school is eligible to become a charter school if the following criteria are met:

  • At least 51% of the teaching staff in the school shall have signed a petition in support of the school becoming a charter school; and
  • At least 51% of the parents or guardians of pupils attending that public school shall have signed a petition in support of the school becoming a charter school
In contrast to a secret ballot, petitions are a far simpler method to garner a majority. People can be approached individually, over time, and pressured to take a public position. Still, attracting a majority of teachers and parents would pose an immense hurdle.

The only way to get a majority of teachers to sign a petition is to throw buckets of money at them. At the very least, we would need to offer them a bonus equal to one-year’s salary and guarantee all existing benefits and job protections for three years. In exchange, the teachers would accept a non-unionized charter school. (Such an offer would also result in a high turnover rate among teachers near retirement since they could use the bonus to inflate their pensions.)

For the parents, we would need to conduct an ongoing informational campaign touting the benefits of a charter school that needs to compete for students.

At the same time, the teachers union, at the local, county, state, and national levels, will strongly oppose any measure that would diminish their power. No matter how hard we try or how much we invest, the teachers union will always be more organized and better funded.

Still, let’s say we successfully petition the teachers and parents, we would still need to submit an application to the State Superintendent who then passes the application to the Commissioner of Education for approval. We can only imagine the political array of characters doing their utmost to stop the first New Jersey school district that ever applied to become a charter school.

Another concern is that, even if successful, it could all be for naught. The national Democratic Party has been pushing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Under present law, a workplace can only be unionized following an election using secret ballot. The EFCA enables workers to unionize a workplace using the same petition process we’d be using to get a charter school. Barack Obama has endorsed the bill.

If the EFCA becomes law, the teachers union would be able to go into a charter school and strong-arm the teachers into forming a union, thereby defeating the whole purpose of creating a charter school. Even without the law, the Commissioner of Education has the right to withdraw or not renew a school’s charter.

Once we get our charter approved, we would then need to negotiate with neighboring school districts to give our children a choice of schools. Labor unions and bureaucracy are only part of the problem. The other part is a monopoly that’s not allowed to fail. Our district has to be forced to compete with other schools and the only way to create competition is to allow our children to choose among all the nearby schools.

Throw into the mix all the frivolous lawsuits we would be forced to defend, the concessions to gain teacher approval, the increased cost of busing, and we could be looking at 5 years and $30 million. Bonded over a twenty year period, we’d be looking at annual payments of $3 million or just under $300 per household. (Government funding would drop by 10% but that would likely be balanced by cost savings as charter schools have lower operating expenses per pupil.)

That’s a lot of time, money, and effort for something that Congress or a government bureaucrat could undo with the stroke of a pen. Is a charter school in a competitive environment worth it? I say yes.

That we need to debate whether bad teachers should be removed from the classroom or whether good teachers should be rewarded is sheer insanity. Despite the costs and all the attendant risks of creating a charter school, our community will never achieve academic excellence as long as our schools cater to the whims of labor unions. Our teachers are the first to argue that our children’s futures depend on a sound education. I agree. Let's start a petition and see what the community thinks. >>> Read more!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Budgeting CME Associates Style

Six weeks ago, we discussed how Aberdeen Township appeared hell-bent on spending as much as they could before the next election cycle (see “Aberdeen Township Goes for Broke”). Among the flurry of expenditures was $237,071.25 in no-bid contracts to the township engineer and the council's largest patron, CME Associates. Our town council has chosen to begin August by rewarding CME Associates with another $625,006 in no-bid contracts. Everybody knows these no-bid contracts enable monstrous overcharges. The only question is “How much?”

For one example, let’s review the Aberdeen (Strathmore) Pump Station. On April 14, 2004, CME submitted two proposals for rehabilitating the pump station at a total cost of $249,500. Eight months later, “[b]ased on the latest data, and based on anticipated material cost increases (i.e. steel and concrete)”, CME raised the combined cost to $320,000. During those eight months, the prices of steel and concrete increased about 15% and 8% respectively. Let’s assume that material costs accounted for 30% of the original estimate. A 15% price increase in materials would have been under $12,000. Yet, CME raised their prices by $70,500.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the revised proposals, CME listed their combined engineering fees as $30,000. Nearly two years later, they raised their fees by 125% to $67,750. To justify the exorbitant increase, the cited the following:

  • Cost to separate the proposal into two bids
  • Cost to oversee a utility pole’s relocation
Never mind the proposals were always separated into two bids, that relocating the pole was part of the original project, or that the extra billings were bogus any way you looked at it, Aberdeen Township approved the additional charges.

Another example is the grant application for Fireman’s Field (Oakshades Park). Grant applications nearly always exaggerate the costs to cover any possible exigencies but look at CME’s forecasts. Lighting - $241,500 ($210,000 plus 15% contingency costs) and $78,681.33 for engineering and administrative costs (read “CME fees”). The actual cost for the lighting was nearly half that amount at $127,429 and the engineering component for the lighting was zero. CME Associates did not get one penny towards the field lighting despite their budget claims.

(So far, by my count, CME Associates lost over $150,000 during Stuart Brown’s tenure once you count the lighting at Fireman’s Field, cost reductions for the tax map revision, and the Aberdeen Recreation Master Plan. Makes you wonder why Brown got fired.)

To be fair, CME Associates is generally considered a competent firm but, as recent blog comments have noted, the road work on Gerard Avenue has demonstrated an astounding level of negligence. We know from prior experience that CME has trouble conducting a land survey but how did they miss the giant parcel of county land adjacent to the field (Block 169 Lot 9)? The lot isn’t listed on Aberdeen’s tax rolls and has never belonged to Aberdeen Tonwship. Hence, the work stoppage on Gerard Avenue – the township never received permission to work on county land. The cruel irony is that, not only had CME already reviewed the tax map for the Fireman’s Field project, CME was the company responsible for updating the tax map prior to the property revaluations.

From January 1st, 2005 through March 25th, 2008, CME received $3,692,445.72 from the township. (The total vendor payment sheet is 105 pages so I only uploaded the first and last pages.) Between no-bid contracts, a cozy relationship with the town council, and massively inflated billings, CME Associates is quite fortunate to never have to compete for any township work. Pumping money into the Aberdeen Democratic Party’s coffers is sufficient qualification. >>> Read more!

Friday, August 1, 2008

What’s the Charge?

Based upon recent comments to this blog, there appears to be a swelling interest to have the County Prosecutor’s Office investigate Aberdeen Township. The frustration is certainly understandable. Even if an opposition party swept next year’s township elections, former Township Attorney Norman Kauff would still control the council majority, most likely through Councilman Drapkin. Absent the opportunity to change an arguably corrupt government through democratic means, some people would like to force change by indicting council members.

If crimes are being committed, the perpetrators should be charged regardless of the political impact. Though I have always maintained there is no evidence of criminal action, the truth is, technically, there are sufficient grounds to suggest that some people could be charged with U.S.C. § 1346, a "scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right to honest services." Yet, I maintain this statute is unconstitutionally vague and should never be used.

First, let’s be clear what the issues are –

Yes, it’s quite a list. Congress specifically enacted U.S.C. § 1346 in 1988 to allow prosecutors to use the Mail and Wire Fraud statutes against corrupt politicians. Prosecutors have used the statute against Jack Abramoff and his clients (2006), officers of the San Diego Pension Retirement System who inflated their benefits by underfunding the system (2002), and the City Treasurer of Philadelphia who conditioned city business upon political contributions (2005). (For a detailed review of U.S.C. § 1346, please read "Honest Services" Fraud – Strong Medicine for "Pay to Play".)

Given the strong likelihood that we’ve only revealed a fraction of the township’s underbelly, we have certainly been deprived of our “intangible right to honest services”. I, too, have heard the rumors of shakedowns, inside deals, violations of the sunshine law, and even an attempt to influence Matawan’s recent mayoral election.

Still, I fear prosecutors far more than corrupt officials. We’ve all witnessed the damage crusading prosecutors can do, from Arthur Andersen (a company destroyed despite having the conviction overturned) to Martha Stewart (convicted of hiding a crime she was never accused of committing) to the bullying tactics of Eliot Spitzer against Wall Street corporations and financiers. (Does anybody remember the guy who ran against Spitzer for New York Governor? He couldn’t raise campaign cash on Wall Street because potential contributors feared retaliation from Spitzer.)

Prosecutors have the power to destroy life and liberty. Do we really want them determining whether someone has been deprived of the “intangible right to honest services”? Does anybody even know what that means? Who's to judge whether a person has acted impartially or not? How can we redraw the line between legal and illegal on a case-by-case basis?

The United States Constitution (Article 1, Section 9) states “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed”. We have the constitutional right to know whether an action may be criminal before we act. How could any politician be secure from a vindictive or self-serving prosecutor when every budget, zoning, and contractual decision involves picking winners and losers?

I believe crimes have been committed. I believe honest people have witnessed these crimes but have been afraid to speak. Let’s be careful to investigate actual malfeasance and not use the power of the state to settle vendettas. I’m prepared to wait for change through the democratic process of elections. >>> Read more!