Are credentials important, or even necessary, for volunteers seeking appointments to Morristown boards?
The question sharply divided the town council, which erupted on Tuesday and had to be gaveled quiet by Council President Stefan Armington.
By a rare 4-3 vote that split along gender lines, the council appointed Kenneth McPherson, a real estate attorney who also serves on the town’s environmental commission and rent leveling board, to fill an unexpired term on the Morristown Housing Authority (MHA).
The three women on the council favored Derrick Harris-McCoy, a former public housing resident who has organized youth basketball programs for the neighborhood.
The opposing factions framed the issue as credentials vs. the simple desire to serve, on a commission in flux that serves several hundred low-income residents.
Freshman Councilman Nathan Umbriac had asked to table the matter, so the council could digest a presentation by MHA Executive Director Keith Kinard about the changing duties of MHA commissioners.
Like many housing authorities nationwide, Morristown’s is privatizing. A company will manage the town’s senior citizen buildings on Ann and Early streets, and public housing in Manahan Village.
The arrangement is under a controversial federal program called RAD, short for Rental Assistance Demonstration. RAD enables public housing agencies to work with developers and borrow money to renovate housing.
Millions of dollars in renovations are planned this year for MHA apartments that date back as far as the 1960s.
Going forward, Kinard told the council, the MHA’s board of commissioners will be responsible for approving budgets and contracts, disbursing federal Housing and Urban Development funds, and overseeing social services for residents.
Additionally, the board will pursue more affordable housing, and oversee hiring the MHA executive director (Kinard’s position) and, if necessary, replacing the property management company.
‘WE’RE NOT BEING TRANSPARENT’
Prior to Kinard’s arrival in 2018, the MHA was embroiled in controversies. His predecessor launched an investigation into commissioner junkets and other alleged irregularities. Things got so hot that one commissioner reportedly took a swing at another during a closed session. The director was fired; soon after, he died, and so did the probe.
Based on Kinard’s update, Umbriac said he wanted to re-interview all four residents who applied for the unpaid appointment, which runs through September 2023. Umbriac previously served on the MHA, where he said several commissioners either failed to take required state courses, or were no-shows at meetings.
“I want to make sure that we appoint the right person, the right qualifications,” he said.
Councilman Robert Iannaccone, a hospital CEO, also interviewed all the applicants. He said the MHA’s evolving role suggests the need for a commissioner with financial acumen.
“You know, you’re talking about financial, legal policy and property management…I do think that we need somebody with financial prowess, and /or legal prowess onto that commission,” Iannaccone said.
Armington and Councilman David Silva, council liaison to the MHA, joined in supporting McPherson’s appointment.
Council Vice President Sandi Mayer, who nominated Harris-McCoy, and Councilwomen Toshiba Foster and Tawanna Cotten, noted the town requires no special qualifications when soliciting volunteers; a passion to serve should be enough.
“We’re looking for somebody who’s going to be there for the residents,” Mayer said, citing complaints from public housing residents that nobody on the MHA board advocates for them. “It’s time that we stop appointing the same people to the same boards, over and over.”
Cotten, whose public housing residency was part of her campaign platform, said appointees can get up to speed when they take state-mandated courses.
Questions about credentials seemed “underhanded” and motivated by “personal agendas,” Foster said.
“It seems like we’re not being fair. We’re not being transparent because we do not do that for any other board. These people have applied. We’ve had enough time to interview them. I think we have enough information about the candidates and I think that we need to just take a vote,” said Foster, a former public housing resident whose late mother was an MHA commissioner.
What the councilwoman did not say was that Harris-McCoy is her cousin. Foster later said she looked at resumes of the applicants, but did not interview them all.
All the council members are Democrats except for Iannaccone, an Independent. He told Foster he had no personal agenda, and agreed with her call for a vote. Harris-McCoy fell short; McPherson got the nod.
HYBRIDS, LEAF BLOWERS…
Tuesday’s meeting was a hybrid format–sort of. The in-person session was livestreamed via Zoom, but only the audio portion worked. Glitches have plagued prior hybrid attempts, prompting Iannaccone to ask why, when other towns appear to have figured out the technology.
Iannaccone also noted that neighboring towns post replays of various board meetings; Morristown only posts council replays.
Livestreaming can be automated, and would be a worthwhile municipal investment, he added.
“It’s all about money, Bob,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty.
Throughout the pandemic, all of Morristown’s boards have met virtually. Chairpersons of each board have the option to continue meeting that way,according to town Attorney David Minchello, even though Gov. Murphy has lifted New Jersey’s public health emergency.
Armington said he favors extending hybrid capabilities to the planning and zoning boards, to give the public more options to participate. It’s easier to view planning documents and hear what officials are saying via Zoom than in person, he said.
If managing online public comments proves tricky, he suggested comments could be limited to in-person spectators.
Town Administrator Jillian Barrick agreed to meet with Armington to discuss the subject.
The council also continued pondering what to do about gas-powered leaf blowers. Their volume violates a noise ordinance enacted last year. Armington said options include carving out an exemption for the devices, or restricting their use to certain times of year, as he said Montclair and Westfield have done.
The council has cited the noise ordinance when denying permits for outdoor parties and rooftop dining. Armington said it’s unfair to ignore leaf blowers, which can cause hearing damage.