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.