Opinion: Public officials’ personal connections to development projects are fair game

Oct. 4, 2021: There seems to be some confusion on the part of elected officials about the nature of their jobs.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of pushback against the at-times aggressive language used by some community members opposing the idea of closing New Street from Main to Pearl and turning it into a pedestrian center.

Specifically, officials are warning against invoking family and friends when disparaging the idea of shutting down one of only three streets to get from Main Street to Lake Avenue (or, in other words, from one side of town to the other). And of course, any normally functioning human can sympathize. Why drag innocents into the fray?

What they’re forgetting, however, is the nature of their roles, and the vital belief that personal connections, and even the appearance of conflict in public development, should be highlighted, trumpeted and disclosed to the public.

So, for example, when a member of borough staff has family connections to a business that would benefit from a project to turn the area of New Street/Main Street area into a pedestrian center, that should be a discussion point on the next borough council agenda. In this case, Jay Muldoon, director of special projects for the borough, has a relative who is a business owner along the stretch of New Street that would be turned into a pedestrian area. Muldoon also is the secretary (non-voting) of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance, the tax-payer and member-funded management organization for the borough’s special improvement district. (Muldoon hasn’t responded to questions I sent him over email last week).

This connection was brought to light in an acrimonious back-and-forth between Muldoon and former Metuchen Mirror owner Randy Splaingard on social media. You know, rather than simply disclosed during the actual public meeting, the perfect forum to bring to light anything that even might have a whiff of a conflict.

The chairman of the MDA, Eric Berger, is a founder and owner of a real estate company that owns a strip of properties right in the target zone along New Street that house a bunch of restaurants. These would benefit greatly from the area becoming a pedestrian center, and in fact, they have already enjoyed the MDA’s largesse, which provided them the use of outdoor dining tents funded through pandemic-relief grants (fully or in part, I’m not sure).

Berger has not been shy about making his connections public. He was the one, after all, who suggested, way back in October 2020, that the idea of closing New Street at Main Street should be explored as an option as part of the broader Main Street safety improvement plan. Borough Council President Linda Koskoski mentioned vaguely at the last council meeting that a member of the public brought up the idea at the 2020 meeting, only to confirm it was Berger after directly asked by a resident.

These kinds of connections shouldn’t be a secret or something whispered between residents like a conspiracy. I’d advocate posting them on large signs outside borough hall.

Who is benefitting? Are any officials, their friends or family members, poised to benefit from a particular project? Let’s understand the connections. Instead of sanctimonious finger wagging about civility, how about high-minded proclamations about the importance of transparency in government?

The project

As a reminder, there is an idea being batted around by the borough and the county to close New Street at the Main Street intersection as a way to make the area safer for pedestrians. The idea is part of a much broader safety enhancement plan over a 1.1 mile corridor along Main Street. The Main Street work will be funded by a $9.3 million federal grant, though any work to convert New Street to a pedestrian center would not be covered by the grant.

The planning group is asking for comments about the New Street idea by Oct. 5. Some members of Council seem to like the idea of closing New Street, which is considered one of the options for that intersection. The other option would be to leave New Street open while adding left-turn signals at the intersection and delayed signals to allow pedestrian crossings, among other things. (Get all the information about the plans and the project here).

Because remember, not every business is set to benefit from shutting down half of New Street, as has been made clear since the plan was first publicly discussed earlier this month. Certain businesses, like New Pearl Cleaners, fear their business will be destroyed by the change.

The answer is not, and cannot be, well, businesses that will be negatively impacted have time to change their business models since the project would take years to complete, as one interested party said during the public call with the NJTPA. That sort of antipathy to local business is not how the borough thrives.

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