I attended my first Township of Middletown Sewerage Authority (TOMSA) board meeting on Thursday night, November 10th. I got there about ten minutes early. There was a conversation going on that promptly ended. The moment I walked in, Pat Parkinson jumped up to introduce himself and get my name. I felt set upon. I shook his hand because he caught me off guard, but gave him only my first name. It took him about a minute to run out of the room to inquire, and I heard my full name mentioned in the hall by someone I didn't see, and who didn't see me, when I walked in. So I had to wonder how that person knew who I was. The front gate took a long time to open when I arrived, so it appears someone is watching. In fact, the gate remained closed for so long that I thought I had come to the wrong place and had begun to back up to leave when it finally opened.
Chairperson Chantal Bouw also came over to introduce herself and get my name -- she wasn't there for the Parkinson maneuver. At that point I was annoyed and admit I was impolite.
When it was time for public comments at the end of the meeting, I said that never before had I attended a public meeting and had so many people in a tizzy to know who I was. I said that it was a public meeting and I was a member of the public and expected to just come in and sit down. Ms. Bouw said they rarely had visitors and wanted to make the public feel welcome and part of the process. I said a better way to do that (besides leaving the gate open!) is to make more information accessible easily and at no cost, and mentioned all the information they could be providing via email and on their website like the Town does -- financial documents, agendas, resolutions, etc. (And by the way, even the documents the town offers are just the tip of the iceberg.) Parkinson said that people are welcome to come in during office hours and review documents, and I said no they aren't because not everyone is free during the day and some people are disabled and can’t easily make the trip.
I also said TOMSA's copy fees are unreasonably high and further deter people from obtaining the information. (Per their OPRA form, the first 10 pages will cost you a hefty $7.50, and 100 pages will cost you $32.50. Compare that to the Town’s charges for paper copies, for which 100 pages would cost you $5 for letter size or $7 for legal. However the Town typically emails material at no charge. TOMSA does not.)
Parkinson said that they are a small operation and that copy fees are to offset their costs. I can't recall if I mentioned the $750K surplus gifted to the town over the last two years, which shows TOMSA doesn’t need the additional source of revenue. Parkinson said that most people are not interested in financial documents, anyway. The fact is he has no way of knowing that -- maybe they just don't want to pay the $50 bucks for them! I said it didn't matter how many people were interested in the information, that TOMSA is a public entity and should be providing it. Then someone whom I believe may be their attorney stated they are in full compliance with the Open Public Records Act. (A very Brian Nelson-esque comment.) I said the Act didn't preclude them from providing information and wasn't meant to be a guide as to what they should be providing.
There was no notebook with copies of resolutions and ordinances for me to look through like there is at Town Committee meetings. There should be that at least since TOMSA doesn't list the documents on their website. This is something else they could do to make “the public feel welcome and part of the process”, as Ms. Bouw put it.
They were all pleasant at first but started to steel themselves during my comments. Parkinson finally launched into talking points that reminded me of what we hear at Town Committee meetings. He offered familiar comparisons about operating at lower cost than other towns. I let it slide but next time may point out the $750K surplus and excess benefits, without which operating costs would be much less. He also said something about providing services they don't charge for, like timely response when a resident is having a problem. I said those aren't free services, that residents already pay fees for that.
There was mention that the solar bids are due December 1st from the County. Currently, TOMSA is paying about 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, which includes the delivery charge.
Aside from the professionals in attendance, board members there were Chantal Bouw, Emil Wrede, Tom Stokes, and Charles Rogers. Absent were Joan Smith and James Hinckley.
I learned that Emil Wrede and Joan Smith are actually alternate members, even though Joan Smith is listed as Secretary/Treasurer on the TOMSA website and Emil Wrede is listed as Commissioner. There is no mention of their “alternate” status. According to Ms. Bouw, the TOMSA board is actually a five-member board that currently has one empty seat that was vacated by Cliff Raisch earlier this year.
It will be interesting to see if that empty seat is filled because any new board appointee would not receive pension and medical benefits, which were stripped per a 2009 Town ordinance. That ordinance also “grandfathered in” those benefits for existing board members, whose compensation was never meant to include them.
When I had no more comments, Ms. Bouw stated that business was concluded and that there would be no executive session. No one said otherwise. Yet, with the exception of two staffers, no one was leaving and they were clearly waiting for me to leave. I did, only to realize afterwards that there was no formal vote to close the public meeting in line with Robert’s Rules of Order. And today I noticed that the last page of the meeting agenda does list an executive session as the last item.
I was in my car but hadn’t left yet when I realized I should pick up a copy of the OPRA form before going because it’s not on the TOMSA website. I went back in to find the conference room door closed. So, was that an executive session or a continuation of the public meeting, which was never formally closed? And will there be minutes for that non-public discussion, I wonder?
A woman was in the office when I came back in and she provided me the OPRA form. Per quick glance at it, I saw no information for submitting it other than a street address, so asked for the fax number. I asked a few other questions about the process, but the woman said she didn’t know and that Mr. Parkinson was the person to ask. She then went into the conference room to let them know I was there.
Parkinson came running out, happy to help. As long as I had the opportunity, I pointed out to him that the fees listed on the OPRA form were much higher than what he quoted during the meeting – the starting price is 75 cents per page, not the 25 cents he quoted. He said he didn’t know those details exactly. That struck me as insincere. The policy has been the same for years, and there has been plenty of criticism of TOMSA’s fees and overly burdensome records request process, enough that he should be well familiar with all the rules. He’s the executive director, so he set the policy, didn’t he?
What’s interesting to note is that Mr. Parkinson made a habit that evening of rushing over to help. In one instance, as two TOMSA staffers were leaving at the end of the public portion of the meeting, I stopped them to ask their names. In a flash, Parkinson was between us, offering to help. It was ridiculous. He was clearly running interference. I think the question is, why did he feel the need to?