A lawsuit filed by a West Deptford resident that could slam the brakes on a $15 million settlement over the Eagle Point refinery property with Sunoco alleges a series of violations of the Open Public Meetings Act that boil down to a lack of transparency in the settlement's approval, plaintiff's attorney John W. Trimble Jr. said Wednesday.
“I don't understand why they're trying to hide the terms of the settlement,” said Trimble, who represents resident Gary Kuehnapfel in the suit. “It flies in the face of what the Open Public Meetings Act is all about.”
Kuehnapfel, a Gloucester County College employee, claims in the suit the Republican-majority West Deptford committee violated OPMA by failing to disclose those terms.
While Sunoco officials have said it's a $15 million deal, and the township committee passed a bond ordinance to bond up to $15 million, Mayor Ray Chintall wouldn't actually confirm that was the settlement amount just after the committee passed several resolutions on the deal last week, even when pressed by residents and members of the press on the issue.
In a statement released by Trimble's office, Kuehnapfel said that course was unacceptable.
“I am fed up with the public's business being conducted behind closed doors,” Kuehnapfel said in the statement. “The tax appeal litigation is too important to West Deptford's taxpayers to be settled without transparency to the public.”
Trimble, a Democratically-connected attorney based in Turnersville, said the lack of details about the settlement is in conflict with OPMA guidelines.
“They need to place on the record what the settlement is,” he said. “You can't just say, 'This is a good deal.' ”
The suit doesn't allege any wrongdoing in the settlement itself, Trimble said, but only targets what he called a mishandled process.
That's more than enough to pursue under OPMA, Trimble said, without even considering what former Mayor Len Daws and several open government advocates pointed to as another potential violation—Sunoco's involvement in a Jan. 17 closed-session meeting.
“They could've cleared this up simply by doing it right,” Trimble said.
Kuehnapfel's suit comes at the same time the Democratically-controlled county government is making a similar push via County Counsel Matthew Lyons, who said he's been trying to get the basics from the West Deptford committee after last Thursday's approval of the settlement.
The lawsuit could potentially land in court in short order; Trimble said it should be in the hands of Superior Court Assignment Judge Georgia M. Curio shortly, if it isn't already, and could be reviewed by her office by next week.
Kuehnapfel's suit seeks to void the settlement with Sunoco and prohibit any further action by the township committee, as well as prevent the state's Local Finance Board from further action on the settlement. It also asks for a court-appointed monitor to prevent further OPMA violations.
A similar suit Trimble brought against Elk Township last October was resolved within about 10 weeks.
Chintall declined to go on the record when contacted about the lawsuit, pointing again, as he has with the Sunoco settlement, to the issue of it being ongoing litigation.
“I can't comment,” he said.