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Cleaning Medford’s Mess

by Samantha Melamed

After years of scandal, mismanagement and backroom dealings, can a new slate of leaders put this once-tranquil suburb on a better path

When, exactly, did things in Medford hit bottom? It’s a tough question to answer. Some say it was last fall, when horrified townspeople saw their backyard scandal—salacious claims about the mayor posted online by a male escort—hit the late-night circuit. (“The mayor says, ‘No,’ somebody must have broken into his hotel room and taken that picture of him sleeping in his blue underwear,” Jay Leno chortled. “I’ll bet it’s the same guy who broke in and took those pictures of Anthony Weiner.”) Some would say it goes back to when it was uncovered that the town had effectively given land and millions of dollars to campaign supporters based on no-bid contracts. Or when the town’s credit rating was given a “negative outlook” by Moody’s in November. Or when township council members became embroiled in a flurry of legal tussles, like the one regarding Victoria Fay, who was eventually ejected from council. Others, eyeing a yawning budget deficit upward of $5 million in 2012, plus the probability of more and deeper cuts to township services, fear the worst has yet to come.

Despite its bucolic charm, its historic main street, its attraction to regional celebrities from Angelo Cataldi to Carl Lewis, and its affluent demographics, Medford has, in the past few years, stood out among South Jersey towns for an entirely different reason: a municipal government wracked by scandal, backroom dealings and political squabbling. But in January, an entirely new team took over the township council and the mayor’s office, joining a new town manager and police chief. Now, it remains to be seen: After all that has happened, can they get this community back on its feet?

Rich Uschmann is what you might call a casualty in the battle for Medford. The former construction department head in the township experienced firsthand the consequences of getting in the way of Medford’s political forces. In July 2009, he says, “I was told there was illegal construction going on at [what was to become] the firehouse. When I discovered there had not been any permits issued, I put a stop-construction order on the job. I was terminated the very next day.” Uschmann says he was told it was a financially motivated layoff, yet he was not given the two weeks’ notice normally offered. Instead, he was escorted off the premises a half-hour later, he says, in violation of New Jersey state laws regarding tenure rights. Now, Uschmann is commuting 100 miles a day to work as an inspector in a North Jersey town—and he’s suing Medford Township. As to why the building was being done without permits, he says, “I have some theories. Reasonable people can come up with a pretty clear picture of why anybody does something without permits. Building permits are always public record.”

Another casualty: Victoria Fay, the former township councilwoman who was ejected from government after council discovered she had moved just over the township lines into Evesham while going through her divorce. “It’s all because I asked questions,” says Fay, the first to point out excessively high bills from township professionals, and to return campaign contributions from town counsel Parker McCay. “[Council] videotaped me, they took pictures. They investigated me for months leading up to that—and I even questioned the cost of the investigation, which the taxpayers had to pay. … I was elected to a four-year term and they took it from me and I keep asking: Why? For what reason? Because I had questions?”

It’s a mystifying and agitating situation for voters as well, who now worry not only about malfeasance, but also about disenfranchisement via the politically motivated removal of their elected officials.

Take longtime resident Marlene Lieber. Lieber never thought of herself as the letter-writing, town hall-going type—until she moved to Medford 26 years ago. “I lived in Moorestown for 30 years and never went to a meeting, because I never had to,” she says.

“I came here and I was just knocked dead by what was going on. It’s been going on a long time, but now it's come to surface.”

It started when she learned the quiet rural area she had moved into was about to be subjected to a re-zoning to clear the way for Medford Crossings—a housing development that has bitterly divided the town for more than two decades, because some think it’s disproportionately dense for the area, because the township was to secure it with a $35 million bond many say Medford couldn’t afford, and because a proposed payment in lieu of taxes deal for the developer would have potentially cost the township millions of dollars. Plus, Lieber thinks even the initial zoning change for the site—and the speculative sale of the township’s entire remaining stock of sewer permits to the developer—was nothing more than cronyism run amok.

“It was going to be a mega-city across the street from my house,” she says. “I kept hoping that people would come to their senses.” Just this past November, after numerous iterations, the township once again declined to enter into a development deal. However, legal entanglements and a slew of building permits remain.

That’s one of many messes waiting to be mopped up by the township’s new figurative Janitor in Chief, Mayor Randy Pace.

Things are so bad, decisions must, by necessity, be so difficult and unpopular, that many expect it’s likely to be a one-term gig. Pace, a 24-year Navy veteran who’s held onto his high-and-tight hairstyle and his when-the-going-get-tough-the-tough-get-going attitude, isn’t focused on that.

“We’re at the hands of a poor economy and perhaps some lack of oversight over the past several years,” he says. “But we’re going to get back to the point where everyone here is comfortable with what’s left. It’s a tough row to hoe, but we’re excited for the challenge.”

Despite Pace’s military credentials, he is perhaps an unlikely mayor. After all, at first, he and his campaign partners Christopher Buoni and Frank Czekay were just the loudmouths who kept showing up at the community meetings, asking questions and challenging the answers. Buoni had even filed a lawsuit against the township, the board of education and town counsel Parker McCay alleging ethics violations; it was eventually dismissed.

When Pace and Buoni decided that a big part of the problem was Medford’s unchallenged Republican machine, they started their own campaign, Vote Medford First.

Buoni bought a $100 Flip video camera, and he and Pace began making a series of laughably hokey yet deadly effective videos, documenting side-door campaign contributions and misspent town funds. They were digging up stories the local media probably should have been reporting but wasn’t: the town’s expenditure of $52,000 to pave tennis courts that were locked and never had a net; a $193,000 payment to a contractor for sprinklers and landscaping—for trees that were brown and dead by the time the video was shot; the township’s $2.4 million payment for a building the twin of which had sold, when the market was stronger, for just $850,000; a startlingly vague $1.9 million purchase order for “various emergency repairs” that looked like a blank check to a campaign donor, Mount Construction. “In the next two years, every single project was an emergency: sewer projects, repaving,” Buoni says sardonically. “The people who had the ability to make those decisions absolutely abused the taxpayers. … There was at the very least an attempt to bypass legitimate controls that were in place and was at worst outright fraud and deception. When that much money changes hands and when someone pays that high of a bill above market value, something untoward has happened.”

Pace, Buoni and others began filing public records requests and talking to people like Fay and Uschmann, and the more they learned, the less they liked. They noticed the township’s legal bills for 2009 had totaled $578,000, and the town’s solicitor had seemingly billed for work that should have been covered in its retainer. “We were paying three times what other townships of comparable size were paying in legal fees,” Pace says. He felt that no one was holding vendors accountable; combing through invoices, he noticed they appeared to have been cut-and-pasted from one year to the next, errors and all.

“This is my perception of how local government is done in New Jersey: You have engineers, you have lawfirms essentially funding campaigns. … The bills are paid by engineering and law firms who make their living by receiving contracts,” says Buoni, who at one point counted three major no-bid contracts in eight months. “In terms of undue influence, I don’t know another situation where a government of our size is awarding $8.5 million in no-bid contracts. You just can’t do that.”

Malfeasance or not, there’s no doubt the local government’s fiscal practices during the past decade have put the township in a deep hole. Jeff Beenstock, who was appointed to council in December, describes the situation as “a perfect storm” driven by three coinciding factors: an increase in spending from $17.5 million in 2005 to nearly $24 million in 2010; the failure to increase taxes between 2006 and 2010; and the overdependence on one-time revenues, specifically deferred school tax liabilities. By the time the township council went to address the gap, Gov. Chris Christie had pushed through a 2 percent cap on property tax hikes. Township voters were asked at a referendum to approve a 25 percent property tax increase last year (down from an even more outrageous 57 percent increase initially proposed)—and they declined.

Pace says that referendum, if nothing else, proved to be a vital wake-up call for residents.

“You get the government you inspect, you don’t get the government you expect,” he says. “Medford Township has been run by one party for years and years. If your public official tells you everything is great here, and for the most part what people see is great, they have no reason to question it. But when you wake up one day and your local government is asking for a 60 percent tax increase, people go, ‘Wait, why would you do that?’”

He says constituents seem shocked by the news. “They are being told we have a significant financial problem, and they’re really surprised,” he says. “Some people have never paid attention to it before. Now because their bulk trash isn’t being picked up and some services have been cut, they’re paying attention a little more.”

Misspent funds, shady contracts and self-interested vendors may hit people in the pocketbook, but the personal scandals on the local government grabbed the headlines. Everyone knows the story of former Mayor Chris Myers by now: the online allegations that Myers had paid for sex, placed by a male escort from the website; the photos that appear to show the married Myers in a hotel room in his underwear; Myers’ tepid defenses that “the Internet is a murky anonymous place” populated by “crackpots,” and that he would not “justify craziness.”

But that was only the most salacious of the many publicly reported and privately whispered allegations. For example, Buoni accused former councilman and later, after Myers, interim Mayor Bob Martin of inappropriately weighing in on school budget decisions, given that his son’s and daughter-in-law’s jobs teaching in the district were at play. Former Councilwoman Victoria Fay accused the town’s lawyer of overcharging, so much so that the town’s bills were higher than “Evesham, Mount Laurel and Moorestown combined.”

Then there were the allegations against Fay, whose divorce and subsequent move out of town to Marlton became a topic of public conversation, as her fellow councilmembers voted to kick her out of government for violating the residency requirement. She sued the town to get the decision reversed (that suit was dismissed). And she also faced her own lawsuit, a simple assault charge for “causing or attempting to cause bodily harm,” filed after she allegedly poked former Public Safety Director Stephen Addezio in the chest with a finger (also dismissed).

One result of all this discord was immense and highly disruptive turnover in the town government. “Since I was on council for four years, I think I served with 10 different people,” Martin says. “There were a couple issues that were very ugly: the Vickie Fay issue. … Our hands were tied; the law says you have to live in Medford, in the town you represent. She tried to say, ‘It’s only temporary, I’m going through marital issues,’ and I’m sorry but the law is the law.”

Fay sees it differently. She says she never had much luck cracking the old boys’ club on council, being a rookie and the only woman, and that when she began doing her homework and seeking answers, the indifference turned to hostility. She has another theory as to the reason behind her takedown: “Is it because I was liked? Is it because 7,000 people voted for me: Democrats, Independents, Republicans? Is it because I was a strong voice? I was real. I genuinely cared about the town. I’m not saying that they don’t care about the town, just that I had no political aspirations. I just wanted to be there for the people. I wanted to be the voice and the change.”

Steve Madosky, former Medford Republican chairman, supported Fay and ended up being ousted alongside her. He says he had been questioning township expenditures and borrowing practices “for years” but was told “Madosky, you run the campaigns and we’ll take care of the rest.” When Fay asked him if she should speak out, he advised her to act on her conscience—“and then they all went to war.” Madosky says it’s crystal clear that what happened to Fay was no more or less than the political price of her questioning legal bills, doubting the Medford Crossings development plan, and calling for an audit of vendors. “She returned contributions to Parker McCay because she didn’t like their billing practices, and that threw the whole thing into a firestorm,” he says. “They beat the living hell out of her and ran her family through the mud.”

And that’s exactly how it looks to some town residents, too.

“I got the feeling there was dissension within council, there were people that were opposing some of these things going on that were costing the township so much money,” says Mike Reilly, a 21-year Medford resident. “They were driving out the people who wanted to be a little more truthful. In Victoria Fay’s case, that was clearly what happened.”

He describes an atmosphere of tyranny at town meetings, dominated by Myers, who not only refused to answer questions but would “simply ridicule you for asking.” Buoni seconds that: “[Myers] would dictate what was going on. He really ran the room, and clearly he was on a destructive path not just for the town but it appears for himself personally. We lived in a place where the rules didn’t matter, the rules didn’t apply to anybody.”

Now, Buoni says he and his neighbors just want to put all that behind them. “Our town’s been through a lot over the last two years,” he says. “People in our town just want Medford off the front page.”

Today, Medford has a new leadership slate in place—and they have their work cut out for them. Martin says he wishes them luck, but transitioning from rabble-rousers to town councilmen won’t be simple.

“I don’t know if it was political or from the heart that [they] challenged what we were doing and where we were going,” says Martin. “When there’s times of distress, I think stuff like that pops up. So we were challenged on a few issues and you do what you can, but it’s not easy, because there are five members of council and everyone has their own direction they want to go in. When you have that going on, other people want to knock you down and push you around. So let them go in and try to do it. It’s not easy to solve all of these problems.”

Pace doesn’t deny that major challenges lie ahead. “Our budget deficit obviously is the first thing that hits us in the face coming in the door. It’s significant,” he says. And despite all efforts to remedy the situation, he says the deficit this year will be at least as bad as last year, if not worse.

Service cuts have already been made—brush pickup, bulk trash collection—and staffing levels have been slashed at the fire and public works departments, prompting the town manager at the time to step down, citing “moral” qualms. The police department (which has seen its own leadership turnover and, of course, its own scandals: namely the discovery that its officers were devoting work hours to patrolling the home of late cheesesteak magnate Joey Vento, who lived outside Medford in Shamong) is down from 49 officers in 2009 to just 33. Pace says more cuts aren’t out of the question.

“Does Medford Township, based on its call volume and crime rate, warrant 33 officers? Quite frankly, that’s something that we need to continue to look at,” he says. “I’m not certain that right now we’ve determined what the bottom number is for officers.”

Beenstock says the question he hears over and over again is: Just how did we get into this mess? All he can do is try to explain, and put his faith in the power of transparency.

“Whether I’m at the grocery store, a school function or a sports function, people want to know why we’re in this position. There’s frustration, there’s anger, there’s a feeling that there’s been mismanagement in the past. People, I think, want to understand,” he says. “There are many hard decisions that are going to have to be made, where neither of the options are things people are going to like. So I think it’s important that we just help people to understand why we are where we are, and then explain what we need to do to go forward.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 11 (February, 2012).
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