What is Kaplan v. Teaneck BOE about anyway?

In one word, Transparency. It’s also about the fact that the Board dismissed Principal Pedro Vades from Teaneck Hich School through a series of meetings that violates NJ’s Sunshine Law.

The law lets any citizen bring suit to ensure the law is complied with correctly.  Today, I happen to be that citizen.

Of course, Mr. Edelstein (who says on his firm Bio:  “I always want to be the best prepared person in the courtroom”), has the upper hand being an attorney admitted to the NJ bar longer than I’ve been alive.

Oral Argument was held on Friday, April 5th.  Both BOE Counsel Stephen J. Edelstein from the Weiner Law Group and I argued our points to Judge Catuogno.

Why am I doing this?

I have lived in Teaneck for almost 20 years.  My daughter attended the district and I’ve volunteered my time as a public servant on the Planning Board and Township Council where I had the opportunity to represent the interests of residents.  While I do not personally benefit from the outcome of this action, the case affects important issues and the lives of residents.  Principal Valdes has spent his life and career in Teaneck.  He is respected by the student body and parents and the greater community.  Among the violative meetings for which I’m asking this Court to take action to void was a December meeting in which he was removed from the high school.  While the NJ Supreme Court has indicated under a case called Polillo and the cases that followed it that even mere procedural improprieties should be found to be violative of the OPMA, the current issues before the court affect real people and deserve to be vindicated for many within the municipality.

Why not have an attorney argue this?

Continue reading “What is Kaplan v. Teaneck BOE about anyway?”

Ethics Complaint Filed Against Councilwoman Denise Belcher

Last week, an ethics complaint was filed against Councilwoman Denise Belcher in connection with an Application for a zoning variance before the Township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The property at 61 Church Street was zoned as a residential property and housed St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.  The property is 1.3 acres and a new applicant wished to use it as a school for 100 students.
[note: the property had been abandoned for many years at the time of the application]

Of note, the property was used by the Teaneck Board of Education in the 1970s (the high point in terms of Teaneck’s population) to deal with an overpopulation issue in the district (at the time the district had over 8,000+ students, more than double today’s numbers).

In response to changing demographics, the Council instituted a set of racist and hurtful rules that were specifically designed to keep new residents, such as Blacks or Orthodox Jews from getting a foothold in the township.

One of the rules required that schools would need 10 acres + 1 additional acre per 100 students.  That rule, still on the books, required the applicant to seek a waiver for the 11 acres the Building department said was necessary.

Let’s be very clear.  Compared to existing schools, the closest in terms of size would be TCCS with 1.33 acres (spot-on match) and with 350 students, they are FAR below the required space.  The 350 students alone would require FOUR ADDITIONAL acres beyond the initial 5 necessary.

Teaneck High School?  At 12.97 acres, and with 1,239 students, they would require 10 acres + an additional 12 acres = 22 acres.  Teaneck High School is  TEN ACRES too small according to the rules for which the Applicant was being held.

But being in favor of a once racist policy as soon is suits you, is merely reprehensible… not unethical according to State Ethics rules.

Sadly for Teaneck and the Applicant, that’s not where Councilwoman Belcher stopped.

Zoning Board Appearance

Councilwoman Belcher came before the Zoning Board of Adjustment as a representative of the East Votee Neighborhood Association.  The Applicant’s attorney addressed her directly twice during her remarks as “Councilwoman Belcher.” This clearly indicated that the Applicant’s attorney understood that a Member of the Township Council was opposing the Application

On February 5, 2023, three days after the first public hearing held by the Board of Adjustment concerning the Application, Councilwoman Belcher and Gervonn Rice received an email from Councilmember Mark Schwartz concerning the Application that stated “[t]he above applicant reached out to me this evening in the hopes of arranging a sit down with you both after hearing you represent the community at the Board of Adjustment meeting this past week.” (Emphasis supplied.)

On February 27, 2023, Councilwoman Belcher received an email from Vincent Brevetti, another member of the East Votee Neighborhood Association, that requested “[p]lease call me so we may discuss legal implications concerning 61 Church St.” (Emphasis supplied.)

In an email dated March 1, 2023, Councilwoman Belcher stated that “[t]his invitation is extended to you from the EVNA (East Votee Neighborhood Association) for you to attend in support of the neighbor’s effort to reject this proposed application.” (Emphasis supplied.) The email further stated that “[t]his is the second meeting since the 1st introductory meeting in February, since then the neighbors have researched and mobilized and are vehemently against this application.” (Emphasis supplied.) As used in that email, the term “neighbor” is referring to the East Votee Neighborhood Association.

What is clear from all four of these exchanges concerning the Church Street Property is that Councilwoman Belcher was acting on behalf of the East Votee Neighborhood Association in her official capacity in her active opposition to the Application. Councilwoman Belcher was not just speaking “as a neighbor in the Northeast.” See Wyzykowski v. Rizas, 132 N.J. 509

After the applicant pulled the application looking to find a home elsewhere, Councilwoman Belcher wasn’t done.  She wanted to make sure she approved of any FUTURE applicant for the property.  A message was sent by a local email list (for which previous version indicated Belcher was a Supporter) stating:

“But we’re not done! Moving forward a team of residents is partnering with the current property owner with the goal of identifying a suitable project that will enhance our neighborhood. If you are on the East Votee Neighborhood Association (EVNA) mailing list, we will keep you informed regarding any developments.”
[via Teaneck Voices where Denise Belcher was listed as a Supporter on the Masthead]

After the East Votee Neighborhood Association members were made aware that the current application was withdrawn, they stated: “First, until we know that the 61 Church Street site will be developed responsibly, in ways that preserve our neighborhood, we must remain mobilized and continue our work together. We cannot let our guard down. Whatever is proposed next, needs to be compatible with our neighborhood.”

At that point, to ensure that the new applicant for the property was approved by Belcher, she became (through her Real Estate firm) the listing agent for the property.

Any and all applicants for the property were to go through Belcher.

Let’s be clear about what this issue reveals:

A Councilwoman who appoints the members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment (several members who appeared in favor of the application were not appointed a few months later), who makes zoning affecting Teaneck residents, who is working on the Master Plan which will guide zoning and variance decisions… that individual appeared on behalf of others to influence the Zoning Board against an application and then became the Agent, making thousands of dollars in commission (the building sold for $2.4M).

When you have control of zoning decisions, the ability to replace (or not replace) members of statutory boards, advocate on behalf of others and make money after stating you will ensure you approve of particular buyers and users of the property… you now have an ethics issue.

In response, Belcher said that she understands ethics and the obligation to ensure no conflicts exist.  Referring to the complaint, she stated the “targeted attacks” are simply divisive, they are hate-filled and they are discriminatory.
Ms. Belcher, you will not find a discriminatory word in the complaint, as it’s irrelevant to the manifest problems.

I suggest you read it.

Belcher Complaint with Exhibits

Kaplan v. Board of Education Oral Argument

Oral Argument in Kaplan v. Teaneck Board of Education will take place on Friday, April 5th at 2pm before Judge Catuogno

Link to Argument

What is the case about?

Violations of the Open Public Meetings Act [NJSA 10:4-6 et seq]
NJ’s Sunshine Law was passed in the 1970s and requires all State Agencies, Public Universities, Municipal Governments, and Boards of Education to follow certain requirements. The Complaint alleges that the Teaneck Board of Education has violated these requirements for many years, including recent meetings at which Principal Valdes was removed from Teaneck High School, the Board met in secret, without informing the public about discussions, and more.

Is there evidence the Board violated the OPMA?

Yes, the Board Admitted to doing so
The Board admits they violated the OPMA. In their Answer to the Court, they admit that they technically violated the Notice Requirements for the OPMA [NJSA 10:4-8(d)] for Workshop and Regular Public Meetings in paragraph 41 and they admit that they technically violated the proper notice requirements for the special meeting of December 21, 2023 (at which they removed Principal Valdes from THS) at paragraph 22

[Link to answer: Answer]

Is technical non-compliance something important?

Yes, under binding precedent, the Court may be lenient in looking at the remedy used to cure a defect, but not as to whether a defect took place.
Under Polillo v. Deane (which the Board of Ed cites in their own documents), the Supreme Court of NJ said:

The thrust of defendants’ argument is that the Court should uphold the Commission’s recommendation on the basis of its substantial compliance with the Sunshine Law. They assert (1) that there was no attempt “to meet secretly or without some notice to the public,” as found by the Appellate Division, and (2) that any meeting at which formal votes were taken complied with the Act, thereby satisfying the requirements of the law. Although, on these facts, we impute to the Commission no wrongful motivation for choosing to conduct its business as it did, lack of wrongful intent cannot excuse noncompliance with the Act. Such a reading of the statute would invite abuse and would contravene the legislative intent in enacting the provision.

Rather than providing a new exception to the rule, we believe that defendants’ suggestion would swallow the rule. Accordingly we reject this argument completely and hold that strict adherence to the letter of the law is required in considering whether a violation of the Act has occurred.
Polillo v. Deane 74 N.J. 562 (1977)

What will happen if the Plaintiff wins?

Under the NJ Open Public Meetings Act, the Judge is empowered to do two things:
  1. Void actions that were done not in accordance with the OPMA [NJSA 10:4-15]
  2. Issue an injunction [NJSA 10:4-16] that the Board must follow the rules of OPMA going forward (which can be enforced if they do not follow the rules)

What can the Board do if the actions are voided?

The Board is free at any time to re-do the actions that were done improperly [see NJSA 10:4-15]. In fact, the Board claims that they have done so (at the meeting of January 17th). This will be one of the topics of discussion at the hearing on Friday.

How does the Board Re-Do the Votes they took improperly?

If the Board does decide to re-do their decisions (e.g. the vote to remove Principal Valdes), they would have to:
  • Properly Notice a meeting
  • Send out an Agenda stating the action(s) they wish to take
  • Abide by the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and any other applicable laws (e.g. RICE notices to affected employees)
  • Mention the information or testimony/reports from the previous discussion(s) they intend to use to form the basis for a vote
  • Since there are new members of the Board who didn’t attend the closed sessions in December, they will likely need to re-do the closed session discussion for the new members
  • Have public input (from those who did not know about the previous meeting at a minimum, but hopefully anyone who wishes to speak)


Hearing information:

The hearing before Judge Catuogno will take place on Friday, April 5th at 2pm. You can watch via the Zoom link below:
Topic: (MTD Hearing) Kaplan v. Teaneck BOE – BER-L-121-24
Time: Apr 5, 2024 02:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join NJCourts Virtual Courtroom
Meeting ID: 161 626 3311
Password: 010820
If anyone is interested in reading the documents in the case, they can do so here: https://www.teanecktoday.com/blog/board-of-education/litigation/ber-l-000121-24-kaplan-vs-teaneck-board-of-education/