The Vernon Township Council is divided on whether to hire a conflict attorney, after the new board reversed the old board’s decision to buy the Baldwin property.
After agreeing in a 4-1 vote to hire a conflict attorney, the council tabled the resolution until they could discuss it in closed session.
Only Councilman Mike Furrey voted against the hire. “I don’t see reasons why need another additional conflict attorney,” he said. “It’s not a good use of Vernon Township funds, and I don’t believe it’s going to serve any positive purpose.”
The proposed resolution says the council needs to address the township’s Baldwin property purchase, which was made to completed the proposed Town Center Bike & Walking Trail, and that township attorney Joshua Zielinski is unable to represent Vernon because of possible legal conflicts between the township council and Mayor Howard Burrell.
The council on Feb. 3 passed an ordinance, with Councilmen Harry Shortway and Furrey absent, to repeal the Baldwin purchase. An ordinance adopted last February authorized the township to buy the property for $289,000 on the condition it obtained a clean Phase 1 environmental study. The tabled resolution cites a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection remediation program related to the Baldwin and adjacent properties, which for more than 20 years have been under remediation for petro-chemical pollution. According to the proposed resolution, Judge William McGovern accepted the results on Nov. 18, 2021.
Burrell said he was surprised to see this resolution on the council’s agenda (see his statement on page 12). He accused Council President Patrick Rizzuto of wanting to hire a “second municipal attorney for the exclusive purpose of helping him in his, so far, all-consuming effort to reverse a decision, and the actions resulting from that decision, that was made unanimously by the previous council.”
Burrell also said he will not sign a check made payable to a conflict attorney.
Township attorney denies Rizzuto’s account
Rizzuto said Zielinski suggested the council needed to get a conflict attorney in Baldwin case. But Zielinski said Rizzuto did not correctly characterize their conversation.
Shortway said that, under the township’s “strong mayor” form of government, the mayor has the right to hire a conflict attorney, and suggested that the council honor the mayor’s authority.
Councilwoman Natalie Buccieri asked Zielinski if the council has the authority to hire a conflict attorney. Zielinski declined to answer, saying the public meeting was not the “appropriate forum for me to provide legal advice.” He said he would be happy to answer the question in executive session.
“There are cases that discuss in this form of government the roles and authority of the mayor and council to hire counsel and when counsel can be hired in the appropriate situations, but I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to discuss that in public,” Zielinski said.