The New Jersey Comptroller’s Office is alleging in a lawsuit that the City of Bayonne ignored an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, and later a subpoena, about the Marist High School sale.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
“The City has a legal obligation to respond to OSC’s subpoena, either by producing the documents or moving to quash the subpoena as unreasonable or oppressive. The City has done neither,” a February 8th memorandum of law from Edward Dauber, a partner at the Newark-based law firm Greenberg Dauber Epstein Tucker, P.C., says.
“Rather, the City has ignored the subpoena, as well as all OSC communications made in an attempt to obtain the requested documents. Therefore, the City should be compelled to produce the responsive documents.”
The 62-page lawsuit, filed in Mercer County Superior Court last month, says that the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) sent a public records request to the Bayonne City Clerk’s Office on June 16th, 2022.
Although the correspondence is heavily redacted, sources familiar with the situation who spoke under the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak on the matter, confirmed it was about the sale of Marist High School and that the complaint was originally made by former Business Administrator Melissa Mathews.
While the request was due two weeks later, Clerk Madeline Medina said she never received the OPRA, and therefore it was resent and the OSC was given a response date of July 14th. An email to Medina the subsequent day of the due date, July 15h, was allegedly ignored.
After calling the clerk’s office on July 20th, Medina redirected the call to Law Director Jay Coffey, who said he would provide a comprehensive response in the following week.
According to the lawsuit, that didn’t happen and Coffey ignored follow-up emails on July 29th and August 8th. On September 8th, an employee from the OSC was told over the phone that Coffey was not in the office.
As a result, a subpoena was issued to the city on September 29th that had a production deadline of October 14th.
Coffey could not be reached in three subsequent inquiries from the OSC after the due date, so they retained GDE&T on November 4th.
Shortly after, GDE&T left a message for Coffey, to which they were informed Bayonne was represented by Leslie G. London, of the law firm McManimon, Scotland & Baumann, LLC, in respect to the subpoena.
According to the court filing, she informed them that the documents would be ready by December 2nd and then December 9th, but were still never produced as of this writing.
Email correspondence from the OSC to the city indicates that the request was multi-faceted, seeking appraisals, studies, and inspection reports, the purchase and sale agreement – along with corresponding resolutions or ordinances – a copy of the redevelopment plan, and email exchanges about a redacted property.
As a result, the OSC is seeking for the city to satisfy the subpoena and produce the documents in question, along with any other relief the court may deem just and equitable.
Marist High School closed at the end of the scholastic year in 2020, citing a $1 million budget shortfall. Going back 13 months ago, it stands to reason that the state would be looking into the particulars of the proposal at 1241 John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
At the February 16th city council meeting last year, the governing body considered the possibility of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority taking the land via eminent domain despite a tentative deal being reached with a local developer – the Alessi Organization.
“Our client has invested millions of dollars and remediated environmentally and cannot now redevelop it,” attorney John Stolz, of the firm Lowenstein Sandler, representing the owner of the site 1241 John F. Kennedy Boulevard IPX LLC, said at the meeting.
Later, then-Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski, who was in the midst of a mayoral campaign, said she was under the impression that there was an ongoing investigation into the matter and therefore the council should not vote on it.
“There is an ongoing investigation of the state into the city’s handling of this matter. I know that a number of city officials have been contacted by a state office and have been asked questions and told of an investigation going on,” Nadrowski asserted at the time.
Coffey replied that the Law Department had not received any correspondence about an investigation, only an anonymous letter that was sent to city officials, the U.S. Attorney General, and the OSC.
When Nadrowski asked if that meant there wasn’t an investigation, Coffey said I don’t know and shrugged.
The comptroller’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment, while the city deferred comment to McManimon, Scotland & Baumann, LLC.
Managing partner Joseph Baumann, Jr. could not immediately be reached at his office on Tuesday.