What began as a routine approval of a short term lease agreement with the Army for office space on Fort Monmouth property turned into a protracted discussion of transparency Wednesday night.
The Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority moved to approve a lease agreement that would turn the former post library into office and meeting space for the local redevelopment authority. But when Eatontown resident Bob English asked about the security plan for public access when the revitalization authority holds its public meetings there, he touched off a hot button issue for many who wonder, as one resident put it, "what is happening behind the curtain."
Shrouded in confidential real estate dealings and state government processes that differ sharply from the way local government works, the movements of the redevelopment authority can seem stealthy to the general public.
In fact, when board Chairman James V. Gorman answered English's question, he said that the details of public access for the monthly public meetings at the future site hadn't been worked out, which brought criticism from another Eatontown resident.
"Shouldn't you work out these public access issues before you move? I know you like to do things in secret," William Robinson said.
That comment generated discussion, with the board not entirely making clear its intention to hold open public meetings free to any citizen with an interest.
The authority's move from an office in Eatontown's Industrial Park is partly a cost-saving measure, according to the board, and partly one of convenience for those who attend. The authority's lease at its building is up, and public meetings are currently held in a rotating schedule between the three borough halls — Eatontown, Tinton Falls and Oceanport (and sometimes a county location).
Moving to a site on the post would make for one central, consistent location.
'Thirst ... for transparency'
But the lease agreement touches on some distrust of the authority in the communities. While the board members spoke on Wednesday, Robinson of Eatontown muttered "secrecy."
It was that word that motivated Oceanport Mayor Michael Mahon to address his own board.
"There is a thirst in the community and a thirst in the audience for transparency," he said.
Mahon admonished the board to consider the public's opinion of the state-run entity, which entertains private real estate deals in confidence and then reveals and approves them in the same meeting, long after they have been in the works. Mahon said this is contrary to how municipal government works with its process of introducing an ordinance, holding a public hearing and then voting on the ordinance at a later date.
Those confidential real estate deals, when leaked out, Mahon said, give the impression that not only is the revitalization authority hiding something, but that Mahon, as the mayor of Oceanport and a board member, is unaware. This conception also obscures the strict process by which the Army requires properties be transferred to new owners.
Mahon spoke in inferences about the media's role in leaking real estate talks held in confidence which gives off the impression that "talks" are in fact "deals" when that isn't the case.
Specifically he referred to Trinity Hall, an all-girls high school that two local families are founding. The founders told Patch in June that one of their proposed locations was Fort Monmouth. Shortly after that article posted, revitalization authority officials said they began considering asking potential real estate clients to sign a confidentiality agreement, in part because as Caren Franzini, CEO of the Economic Development Authority (which runs the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority) said, "Just because they met doesn't mean they get the property."
And that is because of the Army, which owns all of Fort Monmouth and has a strong hand in saying who gets what property. In fact, it was the Army which required that the revitalization authority get an outside master broker, which it helped choose, so it could have a hand in the deal.
What's more, each property (with rare exception) must go out for competitive bid so that even a school such as Trinity Hall, or a veterans group such as Soldier On, must compete in the marketplace with other buyers. Commvault is another property deal which was out on Patch long before it was discussed publicly at a revitalization authority meeting.
Mahon urged his board to do a better job of communicating with the public about its real estate dealings to avoid a veil of secrecy. "We have to overcome that at every opportunity."
Efforts to enhance communication
Bruce Steadman, the executive director of the revitalization authority, said, "There are about 100 different projects brought to us. Most of which, with the exception of Trinity Hall, the participants understand the importance of keeping it confidential."
Referring to the Army's requirements for competitive bidding on all properties, Mahon said, "My residents seeing that for the first time in the newspaper preempts that process."
Franzini said the Economic Development Authority has a marketing team that is working to enhance communication with the public and that one of the efforts will be a monthly newsletter that will be published the day after public meetings. Any member of the public who wants to be on the distribution list can sign up here.
Phil Welch, a housing advocate, urged the board to "learn something from the process that the local municipalities go through."
He advised the board to at least advise the public of its projects on at least a "function specific" basis instead of a location specific basis, which might violate the confidentiality of a potential real estate client.
"There are projects that would get good public support, but we just don't know about them."
Gorman countered by saying, "A corporation would not be happy if we were to publish their business plan so their competitors would see."
Welch encouraged the board to share as much non-confidential information as possible. "I'm glad to hear there will be a newsletter," he said.
"There will be more than that," Gorman said, though he did not elaborate.
What would you like to know about Fort revitalization? Tell us in the comments.