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Wonder What's Happening with Bancroft Buy? So Do We

Public officials discuss Bancroft purchase behind closed doors.

News of the proposed public purchase of the Bancroft property on Kings Highway East has been hard to come by lately.

After several well-attended, high-profile public meetings at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, the plan is now only discussed in closed session in public meetings, which means the public is shut out of the discussion.

It happened again on Monday when the borough voted to go into a closed session to discuss Bancroft at the end of a nearly three-hour work session that was open to the public. The school board has used the same tactic, as well.

Officials have said some negotiations need to be behind closed doors, such as discussions of personnel matters and the purchase of property. They say disclosing their position during a negotiation can handicap them in finding a fair price if the other side knows what their strategy is.

"Negotiations for the purchase of any kind of asset are private," long-time borough Solicitor Mario Iavocoli said. "The public, themselves, when they buy and sell things, they're not going to let the seller know how high they can go. The government is not supposed to be put at the disadvantage of the taxpayer. The laws are not made to hurt taxpayers."

Commissioner Ed Borden, borough Administrator Sharon McCullough, school board President Steve Weinstein and Superintendent Rich Perry have held several meetings with Bancroft officials for the past two months. Any meeting in which official business is discussed is required to be open to the public if a quorum, or majority, of the public body participates, according to the state Sunshine law. That would mean two out of three borough commissioners or five of nine school board members would need to participate to trigger a public meeting.

Because a quorum of elected officials has not attended the ongoing Bancroft negotiations, officials say it is not open to the public.

Some borough residents disagree.

Herb Hess, a Haddonfield resident, made this comment on a recent story about the Bancroft purchase:

A summary of the law as provided by Rutgers University states.
All meetings of public bodies in New Jersey must be open to the public unless closure is specifically permitted by law...
• Advisory bodies are not subject to the Sunshine Law, such as when a mayor or governor meets with department heads. However, if an advisory body has the power to eliminate options available to a decision-making body, it too becomes subject to the law.

While there may be an impression that the law can be contravened by only sending one representative of each elective body to the meeting, the last bullet point could be interpreted (and is interpreted by me) as stating that the Board of Education representative’s presence and input has the power to eliminate options available to a decision-making body (i.e. the Borough Commission). This power is evidenced in the ability to contribute or withdraw financial support to a planned purchase – such withdrawal making the option of a purchase infeasible, exercise the power of eminent domain (as School Boards are allowed to do), and to provide for the disbursal of costs and debt service related to the acquisition allowing the Boro and/or BOE to remain within the State-mandated cap.

The school board is promoting a for current and future school use and open space.

The borough estimated a public purchase could cost up to $19.52 million, with $14.27 million in financing.

The commissioners agreed to work with the school board to approach Bancroft for a purchase price, but also agreed the borough will need to be the lead developer. They said only the borough can apply for open-space grants for the property, which account for an estimated $3.5 million of the estimated acquisition cost.

The plan, if approved, is projected to costs the typical Haddonfield residential taxpayer $268.80 annually over 20 years of financing, or a total of $5,376 each.

Tom Kenny May 17, 2012 at 12:37 PM
Thanks Herb, my first thought when reading this was Sunshine Law. Does this also apply to the School Board officials? How were they able to cut a deal with Bancroft? Obviously behind closed doors... Business as usual. Tom Tom
Jack S May 17, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Let's face it, it's going to cost a lot more than $19 million, or $268.80 per taxpayer per year for the acquisition of Bancroft's property. Those figures fail to factor in long-term refinancing, improvements to the property, upkeep, additional administration costs to manage the property, inflation, etc. Net-net, your talking about at least $25 million over the next 15-20 years. While I strongly support efforts to keep high-density development off the property, a purchase by Haddonfield taxpayers is not the answer. Residents have lived with the substantial traffic through that area for decades -- generated both by Bancroft activities and the use of the street as a cut-through between Kings and Grove -- so, a continued limited commercial use of the property is not going destroy our town, especially in light of the fact that Bancroft is on the edge of town. As someone posted yesterday, Haddonfield can't even fix its potholes, and our local tax just went up 7% because of a deficit in our reserve. Bottom line: Local taxpayers are tapped out, and the Borough and BoE is wasting taxpayer resources (not to mention risking Sunshine violations) by continuing to have these pie-in-the-sky closed door meetings in which it pretends to be able to afford this purchase.
Jeff H May 17, 2012 at 12:57 PM
UPKEEP. NOW THERE IS AN ISSUE. DO WE THINK THE CURRENT STATE OF BOROUGH UPKEEP IS SUFFICIENT? WON'T THIS ADD TO THE WORKLOAD? LET'S GET A PRIVATE CONTRACTOR TO BID THIS WORK vs RELYING ON THE LESS THAN EFFECTIVE PUBLIC WORKS STAFF PLEASE.
Brian Kelly May 17, 2012 at 09:15 PM
When someone engages in closed door meetings and shuts out the tax payer it's for one reason and that's to push something through without any outside interference. Bancroft has been pushing Haddonfield for a resolution for a long time and our local government is doing their best to accommodate them. Does anyone remember the original concept of this deal? A massive sports complex that will "aid" in the development of a tiny handful students who may get a sports scholarship. Yes, a student can't hit a ball farther or develop at Radnor field, he needs to be in a multi million dollar sports complex that puts a town into massive debt to achieve athletic excellence. Anyone who thinks that's what this plan is really about is dead wrong. Of all the projects our local government is trying to push through that would damage the historical integrity of Haddonfield and forever alter the quality of life in all neighborhoods within proximity of the complex, this one is the granddaddy of them all. If the commissioners and the school board were talking about spending this kind of money on a project that would aid all students in improving their academic performance thus giving them a better chance at not only a college scholarship but preparing them for the world I'd see their point. But to drop almost 20 million dollars on a project that, in proportion, aids only a fraction of the student body leads to one question...exactly who is profiting from this debacle?
Maryann Campling May 18, 2012 at 11:54 AM
Messrs. Kenny, Hess, Kelly, etc. you are all absolutely correct in your observations and comments. I am still trying to process the fact that the BOE negotiated this deal directly with Bancroft. How did that happen?! And, is it "legal"? As an east-ender, who has been described as living on the outskirts of Haddonfield, I have contended with the threat of over/inappropriate development of the Bancroft site for years....as we all have; and I continue to ask the question: Would this kind of development be tolerated in the west side/high rent area of town? And just an aside, there was some sort of event at the high school last night, the speaker system was so loud, I had to close my windows. My friends on Hopkins and Kings Highway complain about this, too.

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