The West Deptford township committee violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and acted improperly by not disclosing the terms of a $15 million settlement with Sunoco over tax appeals at Eagle Point, Judge Eugene McCaffrey Jr. ruled Thursday morning, before wiping out the deal.
“The settlement with Sunoco is declared void,” McCaffrey said in his ruling in a lawsuit filed by township resident Gary Kuehnapfel.
But while the township violated OPMA, McCaffrey said he believed it wasn’t part of a pattern of violations, or a willful or knowing violation by itself, and that no penalties or sanctions would be applied.
“At best, it was clumsy,” he said.
In effect, the judge hit the reset button on the process, and told the township committee they could pursue the settlement again, but would have to go about it more transparently than they did previously.
“You’re going to have to have a public hearing,” McCaffrey said. “I leave it to the township where to go from there.”
Before rendering his decision, McCaffrey grilled West Deptford solicitor Anthony Ogozalek Jr. and plaintiff’s attorney John Trimble Jr. on the facts of the case, and debated with Ogozalek at length about what transparency was required with respect to OPMA.
McCaffrey honed in on West Deptford’s lack of detail in the original resolution authorizing settlement, which didn’t even specify the amount—that came in a refunding bond ordinance the committee passed soon after the settlement resolution—or any other information about the settlement.
“Oddly, the township chose to do that in the submission to the Local Finance Board,” he said, noting the township told the state in that document, which is public record, that the tax appeals could’ve run anywhere from $15 million, where they settled, on up to as high as $47.5 million on just the eight years of taxes Sunoco was contesting.
“When you make that decision, that’s got to be before the public,” McCaffrey said.
Ogozalek told the judge the various pieces of the settlement—the Local Finance Board application, the bond ordinance and the settlement resolution—ultimately contained all the relevant details.
“It’s a fine line the township is walking,” he said. “They’re trying to be as open as possible.”
But McCaffrey disagreed with that notion.
“You can’t piece together compliance,” he said.
Ogozalek said the township committee was prepared to present the full details of the settlement to the public, potentially as early as tonight, as the township committee tries to determine what to do from here.
West Deptford Mayor Ray Chintall and committeeman Sam Cianfarini, who were both present for the proceeding, declined to comment on the decision.