Berkeley Aquatics: Township Has Failed to Comply with Court-Ordered Deadline to Schedule Special Election
Thursday, March 14, 2013 • 5:40pm
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - A judge has denied the township's request for an issuance of a preliminary injunction against the Berkeley Acquatic Center in the ongoing dispute over sewer usage, and the township has failed to schedule a special election within 10 days of that order, petitioners said today. Berkeley Heights Mayor Joe Bruno told TheAlternativePress.com that the Township Attorney is working with the County to schedule the special election, that the election is tentatively scheduled for May 7 and that he did not receive any notice that the Township was in violation of any order.
In an order filed by the Superior Court of Union County on February 25, Judge Karen M. Cassidy denied the township's request for an issuance of a preliminary injunction against the BAC. The judge also ordered that the township schedule a special election within 10 days of the order, in compliance with conditions set forth in the Faulkner Act.
In a statement released from the BAC petitioners, they contend that as of March 14, the Township of Berkeley Heights has failed to announce a date for a special election and is violation of the court order.
"This court decision was the latest in a series of failed attempt by Mayor Bruno and the Township Council to deny Berkeley Heights' residents the vote on a sewer agreement allowing the BAC to connect to the Berkley Heights Sewer Plant and to block a new BAC facility from being built in Warren Township," said Jim Wood of the BAC.
At the council meeting on Dec. 5, 2012, several weeks after a committee of petitioners on behalf of the BAC submitted more than the requisite amount of signatures required by law to set a special election, the township voted down an ordinance that would have allowed Berkeley Aquatics to connect to the township’s sewage plant. The council questioned, and requested a legal opinion on, whether a public referendum - thought to be the next step - is proper.
"Mayor Bruno and the Township Council continue to try to stop or delay this special election," Wood said. "Under his direction the township failed to follow the law and set an election date back in December. Then they filed an attempt to get an injunction - which failed. Now, even under a clear and direct order from the court, they choose to remain defiant."
Bruno told TheAlternativePress.com, "Our attorney is working with the county to schedule the special election. The date is tentatively set for May 7th. Once this confirmed by the county, everyone will get the official notification. The council has to pass a resolution on the special election which is on next Tuesday's agenda. I have no notice from the court that we are in violation of the court order."
Bruno continued, "The election will be held in accordance with the judge's order. We will not deny the residents of Berkeley Heights their right to vote on an ordinance on whether to allow an out of town recreational facility to have the right to send their wastewater to a facility paid for and maintained by the tax dollars of residents of Berkeley Heights."
The ordinance voted down in December would have allowed Berkeley Aquatic to amend a sewer use agreement with the township’s wastewater treatment system for a 51,000 square foot aquatic facility to be located in Warren. Berkeley Aquatic is currently located in Berkeley Heights. Most of the township committee members have said they believe the facility doesn’t belong in a residential area, however, as the agreement stands the facility would be located among properties in Warren Township that are supposed to be served by the Berkeley Heights wastewater system.
Many residents have spoken out against the proposal during different township meetings. Councilman Ed Delia has been the sole dissenting vote on the issue, noting that the township "has the capacity" and that something bigger will eventually be built in that spot.
Bruno, who doesn't get a vote, has said his job is to protect Berkeley Heights residents and the sewer plant.
"It is our number one revenue producer," Bruno said during the Dec. 5 meeting. "It is an ecosystem that is delicately balanced. The water has to be clean. It is our sewer plant. We pay the taxes for it. It has to stand in perpetuity. We have two hotels on the books. We also have an office building that has been approved. My responsibility is to protect that plant. It is in the Municipal Utilities Law."
At the same meeting, Council President Kevin Hall said, “This is not a moral judgment on Berkeley Aquatics and its contribution to our town. This is about whether Berkeley Heights wants to modify commercial contracts… This defines how we would continue working regionally… Contracts in place do not accommodate commercial throughput.”
Petitioners for the BAC, however, say they have repeatedly asked to sit down with the township to discuss the issue.
"Keep in mind that throughout this entire process we've been asking the Mayor and Township Council for an opportunity to sit down and discuss this issue so that maybe we can come to an agreement that would put an end to this costly litigation and forgo the need for a costly special election," Wood said. "Every one of those requests, even one as recently as last week, were denied."
Bruno told TheAlternativePress.com, "Keep in mind that through this whole process Mr. Wood has proposed meetings with me and several members of the council, to discuss the situation and try to come to an agreement, but when asked for a proposal, none was ever offered. I am always ready and available to listen to a new proposal but not a new twist to the same proposal."
"I think what Mr. Wood fails to realize is that I represent the residents and taxpayers of Berkeley Heights not the concerns of an out of town recreational facility. My job is to protect the interests and assets of Berkeley Heights not Berkeley Aquatics. I fully understand it is his job to protect his investors and their bottom line. Soon all of the voters of Berkeley Heights will get a chance to choose, not just the slightly over 500 who signed the petition out of over 13,100 residents, and that will be it," Bruno concluded.
Today, attorneys on behalf of the BAC filed a motion to force Berkeley Heights to comply with the court's order and set a date for the special election.