After probing how a politically connected firefighter was named Westampton Township's fire chief and EMS director, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office has found that the township committee violated the Open Public Meetings Act when it appointed Jason Carty to the $90,000 post without adequate notice to the public.
In a letter dated Feb. 5, Assistant Prosecutor Thaddeus E. Drummond said the committee held a special Friday-night meeting on Dec. 12, 2014, without giving the 48 hours written notice required by the act, known as the Sunshine Law.
Instead, a notice of a "special meeting" appeared in the Burlington County Times that day. The notice said the meeting was closed to the public but "action may be taken."
Gil Gehin-Scott, a resident who has regularly attended town meetings for years, filed a complaint with the prosecutor, suggesting a violation. "This township committee wanted to ram this vote through, without public input," he said, saying he and other residents asked about the hiring at several earlier meetings.
The board should have selected acting Chief Craig Farnsworth because he had more managerial and educational experience and came up through the ranks, said Gehin-Scott, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for township committee twice in recent years.
Carty, a Republican who had been a firefighter in Willingboro, has held fund-raisers and stirred up union support for candidates of both major parties in recent years. He was vice president of the Burlington County Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 3091.
The vote to hire him was 3-2 on the exclusively Democratic committee and one of the "yes" votes was questioned. Gehin-Scott said Robert Maybury should have abstained because he was named interim director of the Mount Holly Municipal Utilities Authority while Carty was a commissioner.
Westampton Solicitor George Saponaro said recusal was not needed because Carty had resigned as a commissioner a few days earlier.
In an interview Monday, Saponaro said he would suggest that the committee "just redo the vote" at its regular meeting Tuesday night.
The prosecutor said the committee "should take immediate steps to remedy this error, including holding another special meeting that is properly noticed in accordance" with the Sunshine Law. If the committee failed to do so, Drummond said, the prosecutor would consider taking the matter to Superior Court.
Saponaro said he would suggest that the committee comply with the recommendation to take a second vote. But he said no special notice would be required because the meetings for 2015 were advertised together in January in the Burlington County Times. Business items can be added to the agenda of these meetings as needed, he said.
But the committee also may ignore the letter, he said, because "the prosecutor has no authority to tell a governing body what to do or not to do." Saponaro said the prosecutor based his opinion on "a technicality" and if the issue went to court, the committee would face "a $100 fine" if it lost.
Saponaro, also a Democratic fund-raiser, who said he considers Carty a friend, said the law only requires the town to notify two local newspapers - not the public - 48 hours in advance of a special meeting. He said Township Clerk Donna Ryan properly e-mailed the Times two days in advance but failed to do so with a second newspaper.
The prosecutor, however, cited a judicial ruling that a committee must make sure two newspapers are notified and both are able to publish the notices 48 hours prior to the meeting. Drummond also said that the special meeting that was called to vote on the hiring was not "an emergent matter which might permit relaxation of the notice requirements."
As chief and EMS director, Carty oversees a staff of 10 paid firefighter/EMTs and 25 volunteers.
Drummond wrote that the Open Public Meetings Act "is designed to protect 'the right of the public to be present at all meetings of public bodies, and to witness in full detail all phases of the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision making of such public bodies.'" He also said the law is to be interpreted liberally - if there are questions, the public benefit is to be heavily weighted.
Mayor Carolyn Chang said the vote would be taken again Tuesday. She declined to discuss any details and said Saponaro's opinion was protected by attorney-client privilege.