A discussion on "good government" turned ugly Wednesday night, with Ridgewood council members trading a slew of ethics allegations against one another.
It was a 40-minute back-and-forth blowout with allegations of ticket fixing, secret meetings with developers, slander, and misuse of staff.
When the dust finally settled, the governing body agreed to "re-do" a meeting on redeveloping or rehabilitating the area surrounding the Ken Smith property.
At its crux, the questions Wednesday night revolved around whether all council members should be made aware when some of its members hold meetings (three members cannot attend a meeting without public notice); and if the divided council can move past the brouhaha that went down.
The tension began when Councilwoman Bernadette Walsh circled back to the "now-infamous" Graydon meeting, in which Deputy Mayor Albert Pucciarelli and Councilwoman Gwenn Hauck invited staff members for an "info-gathering" meeting on the Graydon ramp. Walsh, along with several residents, opined she and Councilman Tom Riche were not made aware of the meeting. (It was a meeting conducted legally, Village Attorney Matt Rogers later said.)
Almost immediately, the gloves came off. Pucciarelli insisted Walsh and Riche had been made aware of the meeting and said he had emails to prove it.
"I'm tired of hearing it and I suspect the public is too," he said.
Walsh wanted to continue, but an upset Pucciarelli cut in.
"It's not unimportant you let this misstatement of facts stand. I'd like to hear you say 'I'm sorry.' You were told about the meeting and you have now said, along with Mr. Riche, that you were not told about the meeting."
Hauck added her two cents, saying Walsh had been "maligning" Pucciarelli's reputation.
"To me, that speaks volumes about the kind of relationship we have as a council. To me, that needs to be addressed much more than the Sunshine law."
Riche was not present at the Wednesday council meeting.
Meetings with developers
According to Walsh (who said Pucciarelli had scheduled the meeting prior to telling her), the Graydon meeting tied into a more recent concern of hers, involving one of the hotly-discussed downtown housing proposals – 'Ridgewood Station' at Ken Smith Autos.
Her point, she said, was simple.
"What's the responsibility to each other when two of us are in a meeting?" Walsh asked, referring to meetings that don't require public notice.
She quickly moved to the 'Ridgewood Station' meetings.
"I sent everybody an email to all of you...have any of you been having meetings or discussions with people at Terminal Construction (the developer)?" she said. Only Riche replied.
Fast forward to a closed session in November. Pucciarelli, she said, brought out elevations of the site. All council members viewed them, though it was not on the agenda.
"He should not have pulled the papers out," Walsh said. "We shouldn't have had that discussion." Village Attorney Matt Rogers agreed on Wednesday – it was improper.
Aronsohn said the spirit of the discussion was parking-based, as the site is one identified for many years as ideal for commuter spots. It was discussed in closed sessions, in open sessions and frankly, he remarked, and he's willing to sit down with just about anyone interested in doing business in Ridgewood.
"I'm obsessed with parking," the mayor said. "I'll talk to anyone who wants to give us parking space. If you think we need new processes, absolutely, let's talk about it in a very positive way."
The discussion on rehabilitating or redeveloping areas around Ken Smith on Dec. 5 was incomplete without all the information, Walsh said.
"That conversation in my mind would have gone completely differently had I known that you guys had multiple meetings and discussions with the developer, their attorney, with our attorney, with the planning board attorney."
Walsh told Patch on Monday she was concerned the public and a few council members have been kept in the dark.
She took umbrage the pair "ran up" bills for legal counsel, and pressed them to release the 46 emails to the public Pucciarelli and Aronsohn sent and received on the matter.
"We as council members can't just take it upon ourselves to charge things to the village without the other council members knowing," she said.
Pucciarelli and Aronsohn on Monday said they have "no problem" releasing the e-mails, though Pucciarelli said there are potential legal concerns over who is allowed to release the e-mails because of attorney-client privilege. Matt Rogers could not immediately be reached for comment Monday night.
According to Pucciarelli, Aronsohn broached the subject with Terminal Construction in October. They have a large tract of land and might be able to provide 100 commuter parking spaces to the village if the area were deemed appropriate for rehabilitation.
Pucciarelli, a lawyer, says he and Matt Rogers determined the parcels would not be appropriate for rehabilitation and that's why the issue never carried to Dec. 12.
The council ultimately agreed to do a "do-over" of the meeting.
Parking ticket questioned
By the time the council had traded barbs over Graydon, staff time, and Ken Smith, the floodgates had opened.
Aronsohn said Walsh was an integral part in "one of the lowest points in the council's history," the vote on Gabbert's salary increase.
The $20,000 raise was put on the agenda within 24 hours of the August meeting.
He asked for a postponement but Walsh opposed him and "led the charge to shut down the conversation," he said. Walsh, Aronsohn remarked, was casting stones from her glass house.
Aronsohn wasn't done.
Walsh, a UP3 parking pass holder, received a ticket in December. She took it to the police chief and the village manager.
Walsh paid for the ticket as well as another fine tacked on (which she said was also in error). The councilwoman said she did nothing wrong in bringing a ticket to the attention of the top administrator and the police chief.
"A council member sending a ticket to the village manager and police chief puts them, I would suggest, in a very uncomfortable position," Aronsohn snarled, calling it a "blatant misuse of staff time."
Walsh replied she didn't appreciate police officers thought she was "not trying to pay a ticket." Others too could have been receiving tickets in error, she said.
Although the council is clearly divided – with Aronsohn, Pucciarelli and Hauck in one corner; Walsh and Riche in the other – perhaps the high-tension meeting will ultimately prove beneficial.
"As destructive as this conversation seems at the surface, maybe it's cathartic," Aronsohn concluded.
In a follow-up conversation with Patch on Monday, Walsh says she'll do what she can to work with her colleagues, though she might not be pow-wowing with them over lunch.
"We'll move forward," she said.
Pucciarelli carried the same sentiment, saying he believes the council can address issues productively and with collegiality.
If you want to check out the video for yourself, head to the Vimeo page. The discussion starts at about 1:45:00.