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Transparency Questioned in Fort Monmouth Redevelopment

Economic Revitalization Authority enters lease with Army for office space on fort property

What began as a routine approval of a short term lease agreement with the Army for office space on Fort Monmouth property turned into a protracted discussion of transparency Wednesday night.

The Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority moved to approve a lease agreement that would turn the former post library into office and meeting space for the local redevelopment authority. But when Eatontown resident Bob English asked about the security plan for public access when the revitalization authority holds its public meetings there, he touched off a hot button issue for many who wonder, as one resident put it, "what is happening behind the curtain."

Shrouded in confidential real estate dealings and state government processes that differ sharply from the way local government works, the movements of the redevelopment authority can seem stealthy to the general public.

In fact, when board Chairman James V. Gorman answered English's question, he said that the details of public access for the monthly public meetings at the future site hadn't been worked out, which brought criticism from another Eatontown resident.

"Shouldn't you work out these public access issues before you move?  I know you like to do things in secret," William Robinson said.

That comment generated discussion, with the board not entirely making clear its intention to hold open public meetings free to any citizen with an interest.

The authority's move from an office in Eatontown's Industrial Park is partly a cost-saving measure, according to the board, and partly one of convenience for those who attend. The authority's lease at its building is up, and public meetings are currently held in a rotating schedule between the three borough halls — Eatontown, Tinton Falls and Oceanport (and sometimes a county location). 

Moving to a site on the post would make for one central, consistent location.

'Thirst ... for transparency'

But the lease agreement touches on some distrust of the authority in the communities. While the board members spoke on Wednesday, Robinson of Eatontown muttered "secrecy."

It was that word that motivated Oceanport Mayor Michael Mahon to address his own board.

"There is a thirst in the community and a thirst in the audience for transparency," he said.

Mahon admonished the board to consider the public's opinion of the state-run entity, which entertains private real estate deals in confidence and then reveals and approves them in the same meeting, long after they have been in the works. Mahon said this is contrary to how municipal government works with its process of introducing an ordinance, holding a public hearing and then voting on the ordinance at a later date.

Those confidential real estate deals, when leaked out, Mahon said, give the impression that not only is the revitalization authority hiding something, but that Mahon, as the mayor of Oceanport and a board member, is unaware. This conception also obscures the strict process by which the Army requires properties be transferred to new owners.

Mahon spoke in inferences about the media's role in leaking real estate talks held in confidence which gives off the impression that "talks" are in fact "deals" when that isn't the case. 

Specifically he referred to , an all-girls high school that two local families are founding. The founders told Patch in June that one of their proposed locations was Fort Monmouth. Shortly after that article posted, revitalization authority officials said they began considering asking potential real estate clients to sign a confidentiality agreement, in part because as Caren Franzini, CEO of the Economic Development Authority (which runs the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority) said, "Just because they met doesn't mean they get the property."

And that is because of the Army, which  and has a strong hand in saying who gets what property. In fact, it was the Army which required that the revitalization authority get an outside , which it helped choose, so it could have a hand in the deal.

What's more, each property (with rare exception) must go out for competitive bid so that even a school such as Trinity Hall, or a veterans group such as , must compete in the marketplace with other buyers. is another property deal which was out on Patch long before it was discussed publicly at a revitalization authority meeting.

Mahon urged his board to do a better job of communicating with the public about its real estate dealings to avoid a veil of secrecy. "We have to overcome that at every opportunity."

Efforts to enhance communication

Bruce Steadman, the executive director of the revitalization authority, said, "There are about 100 different projects brought to us. Most of which, with the exception of Trinity Hall, the participants understand the importance of keeping it confidential."

Referring to the Army's requirements for competitive bidding on all properties, Mahon said, "My residents seeing that for the first time in the newspaper preempts that process."

Franzini said the Economic Development Authority has a marketing team that is working to enhance communication with the public and that one of the efforts will be a monthly newsletter that will be published the day after public meetings. Any member of the public who wants to be on the distribution list can sign up here.

Phil Welch, a housing advocate, urged the board to "learn something from the process that the local municipalities go through."

He advised the board to at least advise the public of its projects on at least a "function specific" basis instead of a location specific basis, which might violate the confidentiality of a potential real estate client.

"There are projects that would get good public support, but we just don't know about them."

Gorman countered by saying, "A corporation would not be happy if we were to publish their business plan so their competitors would see."

Welch encouraged the board to share as much non-confidential information as possible. "I'm glad to hear there will be a newsletter," he said.

"There will be more than that," Gorman said, though he did not elaborate.

What would you like to know about Fort revitalization? Tell us in the comments.

Sal July 19, 2012 at 10:21 AM
Government has NO BUSINESS competing with Private Sector real estate brokers and developers and property owners. In 12 years of trying military officials and local politicians combined have not managed to find even one useful purpose for the Officers Quarters redevelopment on Sandy Hook. Efforts to Redeveloping Ft Monmouth is engaging in COMPETING with the private sector owners of existing vacant stores, vacant offices and vacant warehouse and industrial space.
Ray July 19, 2012 at 12:35 PM
Just wouldn't be Fort Monmouth if there was transparency.
Jack Harris July 19, 2012 at 12:39 PM
Shannon, to what extent is the FMERA governed by the open public meetings act? What state sunshine laws & other financial disclosure laws are required of the FMERA its board members, contractors & subcontractors?
Butch Gregoria July 19, 2012 at 12:56 PM
What if the Army, who still owns the property turned Fort Monmouth into a R&D center for high tech signal and communications, maybe add a school. They already have all the comforts of home to present to those who may be employed there.
S Talarico July 19, 2012 at 01:18 PM
I'm interested in knowing the answer to Mr. Harris' question, also.
Ryan July 19, 2012 at 01:29 PM
I still feel that a college should take over the property. Whether it's another campus of Rutgers or Monmouth, or an out of state school opens a new campus here at the shore. It has all the infrastructure to make it work and could be a boon to the area.
Omar Suleiman July 19, 2012 at 02:02 PM
Colleges are going the way of barnes and noble. All education will be free over the internet in the next 5 years. I think we need more lowes, home depots, gas stations and dunkin donuts anyway.
captain nemo July 19, 2012 at 02:44 PM
The bottom line is Fort Monmouth property being dumped onto the real estate market will serve to only further depress already lower leasing rates & property prices. So this whole charade is all about slowing down this dumping process so as to not totally sink the commercial real estate market and their minion of developer allies. Once one understands this truth, one can understand the obfuscation.
Shannon K. Winning July 19, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Ryan - While a college take over won't happen there are plans for some kind of science campus. The state had said they would announce their plans last night but then Caren Franzini, CEO of the EDA told me that plans were still too preliminary and the state is still putting "feelers out."
Shannon K. Winning July 19, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Jack, FMERA is bound by the open public meetings act and does publish its meeting notices in the APP and Star Ledger and on its web site. I will forward the second of your questions to FMERA and get an answer for you.
Kathleen Devine July 19, 2012 at 04:21 PM
THe idea of a science campus has got to be the best attraction out there and yet the state of new jersey can not get "feelers out" quickly. Now that has to be another transparency question. What is the process? Caren Franzini, CEO of the EDA? How hard could it be? Either the State steps up to the plate and puts a Science campus like University of Colorado at Boulder or the get off the pot and let private schools like Monmouth or Colgate or Notre Dame get in there . It would be a nice location for astronomy. Especially measuring the influence of light pollution. It a great location for any science campus as the Monmouth Area and NJ has the densest population that is affected by technology, health care, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology. Please keep taps on this reach out to college's, it is either State of NJ or Private.
Shannon K. Winning July 19, 2012 at 07:46 PM
Kathleen - Thank you for your comment and I will keep tabs on this university project.
Shannon K. Winning July 19, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Jack, I posed your question to Erin Gold, the public relations representative of the Economic Development Authority, which oversees FMERA. This is her answer: "FMERA adheres to all the laws required of decision-making government bodies in the state."
Fred M July 19, 2012 at 11:55 PM
The Ego's is what I worry about...One has got to wonder what type wheeling and dealing is going on behind the scenes...Someone will want to be THE KING. There must be a person that will want all the credit for being THE GUY who redeveloped Ft Monmouth...I worry about this person trying to benefit himself first...I hope I am wrong.
Jack Harris July 20, 2012 at 12:35 AM
Thanks Shannon. Very nice PR spin from Erin. What exactly does that mean? Which governmental bodies? Executive, Legislative, Municipal? Is there separate administrative law governing the EDA and it's associated entities. Or separate statues governing authorities in NJ --- I think there are. What are their financial disclosure requirements? And how does holding a meeting behind a fence adhere to the open public meetings act? Thanks again.
Jack Harris July 20, 2012 at 12:43 AM
What's particularly disconcerting about these "feelers" is that there is obviously no institutional anchor in place or on the radar. It appears no one thought about bringing on board early a university or a knowledge-intensive company with strong R&D or design capabilities to anchor the revitalization. This is very concerning because it makes it much more likely that the Fort is parceled out lot by lot with no coherent regional plan or broader economic development strategy in place to guide redevelopment and integrate it with the broader Monmouth County community.
Jack Harris July 20, 2012 at 12:46 AM
And it begs the question how can you have a "science campus" without a research university as a partner?
Jack Harris July 20, 2012 at 12:47 AM
This is a great idea and would be a great way to build public/private collaborations for R&D.
Jack Harris July 20, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Ryan, that baffles me too. When Fort Ord was decommissioned in California, a new Cal State campus was built on part of the Fort and UC Santa Cruz helped build out a science/technology incubator. Given all the concern expressed by state political leaders with not having enough public college and university seats for NJ students, you would think building out some sort of college at Fort Monmouth, even one that just specializes in STEM or Allied Health Sciences or graduate programs would have been top of mind.
Cindy Burnham July 20, 2012 at 10:28 AM
Great idea Ryan! I have always thought that too.
Jill July 20, 2012 at 12:57 PM
Ryan, I agree with you. I've always thought also it would make a great college campus and also they should put vocational schools in there too. Trades are big again. Plumbing, carpentry, etc... But they won't do that. It is too simple of a plan. Everything is drama. Pathetic
JosephGhabourLaw July 20, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Aside from the issue of attracting investors in an area with a high vacancy rate, and the lack of a site-wide plan to attract investment, is the NJ Open Public Meetings Act. The Open Public Meetings Law (“Sunshine Law”) was passed in 1975. N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 to 10:4-2 establishes the right of all citizens to have adequate advance notice of all public meetings and the "right to attend meetings" at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon. Ergo, if you can't access the site of a meeting to attend, you are violating state law. In addition, while it does NOT violate the letter of the law, www.nj.gov/fmera/ posts minutes as scanned .pdf's. Since they are not text based pdf document, it makes searching the documents difficult, and compounds the perception that transparency is not valued.
Jack Harris July 20, 2012 at 03:52 PM
That's a great point Joseph. At a minimum FMERA should release the minutes in word or text files as well as an "official" PDF. The Sunlight Foundation has a set of 10 principles for open government. Principals 4 & 5 address Ease of Physical and Electronic Access and Machine Readability. <a href="http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/documents/ten-open-data-principles/">Sunlight Foundation: Ten Principles for Opening up Government</a>
JosephGhabourLaw July 20, 2012 at 04:58 PM
I don't have on an opinion on this matter, as I don't know enough of the facts. However, based upon comments here, when a base closed in California it was converted to a college campus. My assumption is that such a conversion takes planning. The base closure was not abrupt. The "market was strong" when the original plan was written. As a real estate attorney, I'm aware that the market has changed -- ergo -- why has the plan not been adjusted accordingly? Did the plan have only one market assumption -- if so, why? As any business owner knows, plan for the worst, while hoping for the best. http://middletown-nj.patch.com/articles/fort-monmouth-s-long-road-to-a-civilian-future
Bob English July 21, 2012 at 03:48 PM
It would also be helpful to the public if the Board Packages were online prior to the meetings rather than being posted after the meeting has taken place. Since agendas normally do not contain much if any detail on resolutions, without having access to the info prior to the meeting, the public does not have a way of knowing what the details are of actions prior to them being taken.
Shannon K. Winning July 21, 2012 at 07:31 PM
Joseph - FMERA has said there will be changes to the plan and that the original plan is a guideline.
Shannon K. Winning July 21, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Bob - You make a good point. The EDA pr rep has sent me more information on the board's practices. You can look for that story in the near future.

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