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12/9/06

Group sues Democrats, developer

By DAVID STEGON
STAFF WRITER - Home News Tribune

FRANKLIN - The Democratic members of the Township Council and the "former head of a local political party" are accused of colludingwith developer Jack Morris on the affordable housing plan to build 600 homes and a Home Depot on Bennetts Lane in a complaint filed in New Jersey Superior Court.

The complaint accuses the former party head, who is not named in the suit, of holding secret meetings late last year with the Township Council and Morris, violating the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, to persuade the council to approve Morris, a contributor to the party, as the developer for Bennetts Lane.

"I think that I can prove that the council violated the Open Public Meetings Act and therefore this project should be voided," said Stuart Lieberman of Princeton-based Lieberman & Blecher P.C., who is representing Franklin Residents Against Improper Development, a nonprofit organization against the development. "I believe very strongly that we can prove there was a conflict."

Louis Rainone, the township's attorney, said the suit, which is the third amendment to an original lawsuit brought almost a year ago, gives no factual evidence backing the claims.

"The first two amendments were thrown out by a judge, and this one will (be) as well," Rainone said. "Each time they presented their case, there has been no facts but just rumors, and they are looking for anything they can to get this project to go away."

The second amended complaint was thrown out two months ago but is under appeal. Lieberman said the third amended complaint, which was filed last week, is beginning the legal process, but it may have to wait for the other appeal to run its course.

"Each time we go to court, the judge throws out only some of our complaint, so we are going forward with the parts that the judge has yet to decline," said Doris Bennett, a member of FRAID. "We just want people to know that this fight is not over, and this project has not yet been approved."

The suit claims that on July 1, 2005, the former head of one of the political parties ordered members of the Township Council and Planning Board to act for the benefit of Morris. The party head ordered that two Planning Board members not be reappointed to the board and be blacklisted for not going along with the project, the suit alleges.

One of the council members, who was not named but running for office, was intimidated and pressured to vote in support of Morris to repay a political friend, the suit said.

On Dec. 5, 2005, all but one member of the council attended a meeting at someone's house, and the business of both the council and Planning Board were discussed, specifically the affordable housing plan, the suit said.

Mayor Brian Levine, a Republican, said he was the one member of the council not at the meeting. Levine is the only Republican in an otherwise all-Democratic council.

"This concerns me a lot that there was a meeting to discuss who would be the beneficiary of a project worth tens of millions of dollars, and it was not in a public forum," Levine said yesterday, "especially with a person who has given money to their party. It's bothersome, and it violates the Open Public Meetings Act, and these meetings should have been aired publicly."

The suit also claims Deputy Mayor Ellen Ritchie, then a councilwoman, met in secret with Morris on Dec. 5, 2005 to discuss the project. Ritchie said yesterday she did meet with Morris, but she did not keep it a secret and was doing so on behalf of the people of Bennetts Lane.

"I was there for them to request the project be lower density and try to work with him for the best thing for the community," Ritchie said. "There was no secret meeting or anything like that. This group is grasping at straws and frankly this suit has been going on for more than a year. I just wish it would go away."

Bill Grippo, a former head of the Democratic Party, declined to comment on the suit, saying he is retired from local politics and focusing on his role as a middle school principal.

David Stegon:
(732) 565-7251;
dstegon@thnt.com