Mayor: Bloomfield subpoenaed in councilman’s bribery case

Following news of bribery charges involving a Bloomfield Councilman, the Council is planning to adopt a local pay-to-play law (hopefully stronger than the state law) and form a local Ethics Commission. Ethics is a hot topic these days. Search our website to read more about related issues, like ethics reform bill S729 and NJFOG’s petition for rulemaking to the LFB Re handling of ethics complaints. -NJFOG  

December 2, 2015
By Christopher Renda
Staff Writer | Bloomfield Life
(full article here and re-posted below)

The Bloomfield Township Council took steps toward the creation of an Ethics Commission and crafting of a pay-to-play law at its regular meeting Tuesday following state bribery charges against Councilman Elias Chalet, who was absent.

Bloomfield Councilman Elias Chalet is accused of soliciting and accepting a $15,000 bribe to ensure a township property purchase.

Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia also said that the township is the subject of a subpoena in the matter. In a subsequent telephone interview, he said that the state is demanding board and commission minutes from meetings going back to 2011, the year Chalet was elected as First Ward councilman.

Ordinance proposals

After speakers from the audience challenged the mayor as to why the two most momentous ordinances – pay-to-play and the Ethics Commission – were listed under a special closed session section on the agenda, Venezia said they would revert to being part of the open session. There was an error on the Clerk’s Office part, he said.

The Open Public Meetings Act provides strict conditions under which a governing body can conduct business in closed session.

Per the usual process, neither ordinance was finalized. The pay-to-play ordinance would place limits on the amount individuals and companies can contribute to political campaigns that are part of non-fair and open contracts.

Township Administrator Matthew Watkins said there may be some changes to the ordinance “from an operational point of view,” and Councilwoman Wartyna Davis suggested it be made available on the township website for everyone to see.

With two frameworks of varying responsiveness to choose from, the Ethics Commission too is a matter to be worked out.

Councilman Nick Joanow asserted that the state Ethics Commission is practically defunct under Gov. Chris Christie, and said that to have one locally, as he proposed three years ago, is important.

“We’re doing what’s right with the people of Bloomfield,” said Venezia, who instructed Watkins, who has worked in the past with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, to draft a proposal for the Dec. 14 council conference meeting.

A public commenter suggested Councilman Joe Lopez to head the Ethics Commission. Lopez had accused Chalet of conflict of interest in the sanctioning of the Moon Palace bar, which was allegedly once a client of Chalet’s realty business.

Lopez was vocal regarding what he portrayed as his own foresight; however, Davis said that matter was “not germane to the discussion.”

“I guess Councilman Lopez had a mystical ball,” Davis added.

‘You should be furious’

Taking place on the heels of the annual tree lighting in Municipal Plaza, turnout was unusually high, with approximately 50 audience members.

Quite a few were vocal on the recent events, referring to Chalet as a member of the mayor’s administration, and calling for judicious action.

“Just because you can’t force [Councilman Chalet] to resign doesn’t mean you can’t strongly encourage him to resign,” said resident Cathy Dimarino. “You should be furious.”

Another challenge leveled at Venezia was that, since he was appointed Nov. 2 as the director of human resources of Essex County Vocational Schools, he has a conflict of interest and should not be taking part in actions involving the acquisition of Bloomfield Tech.

Speaking by phone Wednesday, Venezia said that he was appointed by the superintendent of county schools and approved by the board of education. Since taking the job, he has not discussed the acquisition with the township attorney or the administrator, and nothing has been voted on, the mayor added.

Previous Acting Township Administrator Samuel DeMaio did order an appraisal report to provide a cost estimate, and attorney Matt O’Donnell will proceed with negotiations if the township chooses to do so, Venezia said.

“There’s no conflict whatsoever,” the mayor said. “People are just making up stories to feel good about themselves.”