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South Orange Trustees Appoint Interim Village Clerk in Contentious Meeting

David Lackey

Thursday, August 29, 2013 • 9:34pm

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – In a contentious meeting of the Board of Trustees on Thursday night, a resolution appointing current Deputy Village Clerk, Shinell Smith, as acting village clerk was passed by a vote of 3-2--but not before a number of pre-emptive resolutions were raised by Trustees Sheena Collum and Steve Schnall and then rejected by Trustees Walter Clarke, Deborah Davis Ford and Walter Levison.

Trustee Mark Rosner arrived late to the meeting due to NJ Transit train delays and missed the vote.

The outcome leaves the question of whether Village Clerk Robin Kline will remain in her position until the end of September as she had been asked to do, or if she will be asked to leave sooner.  Village attorney Steven Rother advised Kline to speak with Village Administrator Barry Lewis about that after the meeting.

The meeting began with a procedural motion by Schnall to “reconsider the reappointment of the current Municipal Clerk at a future meeting and table the resolution at hand.”  Collum seconded the motion.  Schnall cited additional information that has come to light since the Board’s last Executive Session, as well as rising public concern about the resolution and a written request from Kline to discuss the matter further before a decision is made.  The motion was denied by Clarke, Davis Ford and Levison.

The floor was opened to public comment, and resident Bob Landau asked the board to “reconsider what you are doing.” He called Kline an excellent public employee and to let her go over the issue of tenure is “an egregious form of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Landau went on to question how the village job posting asks for candidates with five years of experience, meaning they probably have tenure, so to ask them to come here, knowing they will be out of a job in three years, “is crazy,” according to Landau.

Resident and business owner Ben Salmon spoke of his “dozens of experiences with Robin Kline over the last three years," and said he "would rate every one of them an A-plus.”  He said he has "never heard a single word of negative feedback” about Kline and asked, “Why would we be willing to lose an exceptional employee because all of a sudden we don’t believe in tenure, and we have never heard this before?”

Sixty-year resident, and former president of the League of Women Voters of South Orange, Edith Oxfeld, decided to attend the meeting after reading the story about the clerk situation in the News Record, and was surprised to learn the meeting was being held on this night when she called Village Hall to ask when it would be.

She criticized the board for not providing adequate notice about the meeting, and terming the board “cruel” for choosing to let Kline go with no cause other the tenure issue.

Attorney Rother elaborated on the tenure process and claimed that despite the rules on paper appearing to give municipalities the right to fire tenured employees for good cause, state case law precedents shows it is actually extremely difficult to do so.

At that point the resolution appointing Smith as acting clerk was read, but before another trustee could move to vote on it, Collum interjected a motion to recess until such time as Trustee Rosner could arrive to participate in the vote.  It was seconded by Schnall, who elaborated that in a “hotly debated” issue, the board should want to consider the votes of all the trustees. The motion was then denied by the remaining three trustees.

Collum then moved to strike the resolution under consideration, which was again seconded by Schnall and denied by Clarke, Davis Ford and Levison.

Levison then called for a vote on the resolution to install Smith, which passed with the same 3-2 split in the Board.

In the second round of public comment, Kline stepped to the podium and asked if she was to remain until Sept. 30 and was advised to speak with Administrator Barry Lewis.

Oxfeld returned to the podium and asked for a reason why Kline should be fired, adding, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Landau also returned to admonish the board for letting a philosophical opposition to tenure put the township in the position of having to look for a new Village Clerk every three years, calling it “one of the stupidest decisions I have seen from a Board of Trustees in a while.”

In answer to Oxfeld’s demand for a reason for the decision, Village President Alex Torpey deferred to attorney Rother, who went on at length about the “Rice Notice” process, which gave Kline the option of having the discussions about her position held in public or private sessions.  In past months, Kline opted for private sessions, and anything discussed during those meetings is prohibited from being discussed at a future public session like this one.

Kline said she was not informed about tonight’s meeting in time to meet the 48-hour Rice Notice deadline to respond to the public/private question.  She had requested private discussions in the past to allow unfettered debate among the Trustees.  She said that she wrote to and spoke to the Board and Administrator in March to discuss her future with the township and never received a reply.  She also said that she was informed there would be no Executive Session on July 22, only to learn later that there was and the purpose was to discuss her position.  She called that decision by the Board “disingenuous.”

At this point, Rosner arrived and Collum brought forth a motion to reconsider the resolution that had just been adopted in order to give Rosner the opportunity to vote on it.  Schnall seconded, and the motion was denied by Clarke, Davis Ford, and Levison, with Rosner abstaining, saying that since he had not been present for the discussion prior to the vote, he should not participate.

After the meeting, Rosner confirmed that he did not want the original vote reconsidered when he had not heard the discussion around it, but added, “I don’t think it would have changed the outcome."

Schnall said, “I am very disappointed. I was hoping this board would take a look at this new information, as well as the groundswell of citizen interest in the outcome and take the opportunity to reconsider.”

Collum said, “I want to thank Robin Kline for her extraordinary service to this village. She will be greatly missed.”

Kline declined to make a comment, but has submitted this open letter to South Orange Villagers.

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