BRIDGETON – Legal counsel for the Cumberland County Utilities Authority has been publicly reprimanded for texting as members of the public addressed the commissioners in a meeting Thursday evening.
Lawyer Gregg Zeff was seen looking at his cell phone on several occasions and was eventually called by Vice President Richard Dawson. The two have a strained relationship and had clashed earlier in the reunion.
Dawson was leading the meeting when he berated Zeff. President Albert Porter had left at the end of a closed session. A member of the public was speaking when the acting president noticed Zeff using his phone.
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Dawson swiveled in his chair towards Zeff, who was sitting next to him. âPut down your phone,â he said.
Dawson told Zeff he disrespects speakers and won’t put up with it. “You’re on time,” he said.
But Zeff refused and said he would go outside to “finish my text”. The lawyer then walked away from the table and headed for an exit door, phone in hand. He did not disclose the nature of the text.
Earlier in the meeting, Zeff’s law firm was approved for a contractual pay raise. The increase was the second approved this year for the lawyer. The Marmero law firm, separately, also received a significant contract raise at the meeting.
SACC Acting Executive Director Bob Carlson, responding to questions from the public, said the Zeff contract was worth $ 74,000 without the proposed increase.
Carlson said the board approved an additional $ 36,000, for a total of $ 110,000 in billing for the year. Only Dawson and Commissioner Zarko Rajacich voted against the increase.
Members of the public Thursday often shouted questions, criticism and sometimes insults at members. The president and then the vice-president frequently used the hammer to call to order.
Zeff, a lawyer and resident of Mount Laurel, was a frequent target of the public and occasionally offered lines. He also asked the board of directors to issue deletion warnings to the public.
The audience included several members of Local 231 of the Police Benevolent Association. Its chairman, Vic Bermudez, addressed the board towards the end of the meeting.
Zeff also works for the county government. He is her lawyer in a class action lawsuit in federal court regarding COVID conditions in his prison. The PBA represents the prison officers.
The case was brought by detainees, but the case involves members of the PBA as witnesses. The PBA clashed with Zeff in this case no later than a court hearing on Wednesday, when he accused officers of intentionally ignoring Federal Court orders.
At that hearing on Wednesday, a federal judge harshly criticized Zeff for not obeying orders and giving inaccurate testimony. The judge also fined the county and threatened further penalties.
Bermudez mocked Zeff about the result, saying Wednesday must have been a “tough day” for him.
Bermudez said the authority is enduring the same behind-the-scenes politics and lobbying tactics that the county government uses to try to close its jail. The goal in both situations is to find ways to issue expensive contracts, to politically favored companies, to do bogus work, he said.
âThe studies are just a documented justification to show taxpayers why their program is legally covered,â Bermudez said. “And Mr. Zeff can attest to that.”
Unruly crowds have been a regular feature of SACC since May.
At that point, it was revealed that some board members and Zeff had met with an investment firm. The topic of the meeting was a possible multi-million dollar monetary concession deal.
The other members and management were not informed. This led the executive director of the authority to resign in protest.
On Thursday evening, a member of the audience asked Zeff repeated questions about attending private meetings on matters of authority. Zeff declined to answer questions, but Dawson said the questions will be part of the official meeting record.
A vote the board took on Thursday was to reject the continued monetization review. The vote was unanimous, although member R. Todd Edwards defended the money and effort put into exploring the idea.
âI don’t see a reason, honestly, at this time for monetization,â Edwards said. âWe have done due diligence. We have researched many different angles.
The divide that opened in May between members has not improved, as some members have turned away from the idea of ââmonetization to push the regional sanitation authority to become a broadband internet provider.
On Thursday, members R. Todd Edwards, Angelia Edwards and Kenny Smith-Bey Jr. argued several times with Dawson over whether and how to consider a broadband project. Angelia Andrews and Kenny Smith-Bey participated via Zoom.
A resolution is being prepared describing a study project and could be voted on in October.
Dawson prevailed against R. Todd Edwards, who wanted an immediate vote on a feasibility study. Dawson said members and the public need to know what will be in the resolution well in advance of the vote.
Thursday’s meeting started at 4:30 p.m. and lasted after 7 p.m. This pushed the limit for members, with some leaving before the meeting adjourned. This injected more turmoil.
One of the reasons for the long meeting was a closed session held by the board of directors. A closed meeting of a public body is permitted under state law, but only for certain reasons defined by law. Examples are discussing personnel matters, negotiations and litigation.
The executive session of the CCUA board on Thursday was apparently aimed at discussing a vacant corporate director position. Legally, this should have been the only point discussed.
And there was disagreement as to whether the board acted correctly even with this decision.
Dawson had argued that since a particular person was not to be discussed, there was no reason not to speak in open court.
Via Zoom, Smith-Bey criticized Dawson for his position.
âI said, ‘Who’s running the meeting? The president or Mr. Dawson? ‘ Smith-Bey said. âBecause I personally have said it before. I will not speak for another member of the board of directors. And I don’t want another board member talking and picking me up.
Dawson replied that he was only speaking for himself. But the rules of the executive session must be followed, he added.
âSo if you haven’t read the Sunshine Law, maybe now is a good time,â Dawson told Smith-Bey.
County Commissioner Douglas Albrecht was in the hearing and also raised an objection. The apparent purpose of the closed-door session did not meet the criteria of the state’s Sunshine Law to exclude the public, he said.
After the private meeting, Dawson revealed that the members talked about not only the trade administrator position, but the executive director position as well. He did not develop.
State Sunshine Law requires a public body to state a specific reason for meeting privately and to comply with this law. Members can then discuss only that specific item. And if an employee is discussed specifically, they should be notified before the meeting.
The lawyer did not comment on Dawson’s revelation.
Porter party, Dawson assumed the role of interim chairman for what remained on the agenda. He said the executive session was over and public comments could continue.
However, R. Todd Edwards took issue with Dawson and sought Zeff’s advice. Unlike Dawson, he added, Zeff had attended law school.
âAt this particular moment, you (Dawson), as interim president, have decided to usurp that authority and take it 100% for yourself,â Zeff said. âThis, in my opinion, is inappropriate under all the laws that I know of. “
Dawson responded by referring to Robert’s Rules of Order, the guide universally used for conducting public meetings. Robert’s Rules encourage the removal of “past motions and things that are so out of order that they don’t even deserve to be discussed,” he said.
âAnd that’s my take on what we just did,â Dawson said. “So based on that opinion and based on the rules of the Orders of Robert, this is why I am moving forward as I am.”
The atmosphere between Dawson and Zeff did not ease after the vice president allowed board secretary John Fuqua to leave due to the meeting’s delay.
Fuqua’s job is to take notes, so Dawson promised the audience that their comments would always be recorded.
At this point, Zeff interrupted him to say, “And I’m not staying past 7.”
âThank you,â Dawson said.
The authority is a regional sewage system supplier, with contracts with Bridgeton and the townships of Upper Deerfield, Hopewell, Deerfield and Fairfield.
Joe Smith is a native of NE Philly who transplanted to South Jersey over 30 years ago, now keeping an eye on the South Jersey government. He is a former editor and current editor of the Vineland Daily Journal, the Cherry Hill Courier-Post and the Burlington County Times.
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