A Tale of Two Boroughs (Lock Step or 2 Step)

Well, if there is anything I have learned in trying to find differences and similarities between Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, it’s that their governing bodies have absolutely nothing in common.

I’ve also learned that the administrators of each town are so different one wonders how one has time to do everything he does and the other doesn’t do enough to fill his time.

As a result the people who deal with their governing bodies and administration also act differently. In Atlantic Highlands, people get up at council meetings, ask questions, get answers, say thank you and sit down.

In Highlands people try to ask questions, have to speak quickly and as succinct as possible to ensure they aren’t cut off at three minutes.

Or, also in Highlands, it depends.

Everyone is told there is a three minute time limit, but depending on what they say whether it goes over or under three minutes. For those cut short, they were also silenced during virtual meetings, never to be heard from again.

Sometimes, people in Atlantic Highlands even offer suggestions, or come up with another idea that could work in their opinion. And the governing body actually listens, attentively at that, thanks them for the suggestions, and then actually takes them into consideration.

That never happens in Highlands.

Once the Mayor has made her mind up that something is going to happen, she’s got her very loyal, very dedicated, very “I’ll vote for whatever you say council” that doesn’t dare ask a question on their own.

That’s the majority.

Only one councilwoman in Highlands ever questions, ever has ideas, ever makes suggestions, ever stands up for what she has researched, talked to residents about, and then decided that regardless of the majority on council, she votes the way the majority of the people want.

You haven’t forgotten the Highlands council a couple of months ago, have you? He voted against the funds for borough hall, a vote that killed it, then missed the meeting when the exact same ordinance that was voted down was introduced again. By the mayor. But he was there for the all important final vote, only this time, he voted the way the mayor wanted him to.

His reason for such a radical switch? “I’m a complicated person,” he said.

Even more frightening than all of that is how each governing body handles money….the spending of it. In Atlantic Highlands, the administrator studies, researches, talks to experts, leans on his own experience to make wise decisions, searched out grants or aid from other sources, then presents the entire picture to the governing body at a public meeting so the public knows everything as well.

Don’t know exactly what happens in Highlands. But there is a $10 million borough hall going up, one that will be built on the second…or is it the third?...architectural drawings, and many folks are simply not happy with a lot of things about it. Were there no hearings over the years to hear from the people? Or were they limited in what or how much they could say or ask? Did anybody in government administration even look into the possibility of reducing the size of the building or getting others to help finance it? If they have, they haven’t told the public about that either.

Then there is the really serious matter, the way Highlands leaders made it clear they just don’t give a darn about people with disabilities, and they don’t mind one bit ignoring completely the Americans with Disabilities Act. You remember that one, too.

As a citizen with a disability that prevents me from attending night meetings in both Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, I simply asked, politely and with confidence the first time, that both towns continue the virtual meetings they’ve gotten so great at over the past two years so that persons who could not attend meetings in person could still attend meetings, not exactly in person but with the ability to not only hear and see everything at a meeting but also to speak out as well.

Atlantic Highlands people both on and off the governing body immediately offered rides, assistance, anything I need to be able to see, hear and speak at a meeting.

At the same time the administrator, the one who always seems to get everything done and done correctly to the appreciation of the citizens, immediately wrote a letter saying the governing body is improving its equipment, and virtual meetings would be back soon. But he also offered suggestions in the meantime.

Highlands?? Never heard from them. Never.

So I prepared an ADA suit for the federal government. I then wrote Highlands once again, gave them details on the lawsuit and asked once again if they wouldn’t want to accommodate citizens with disabilities.

Nothing once again.

Not only is the governing body ignoring a citizen with disabilities as defined under the ADA law, but apparently it’s ok with them that the suit that could have been easily, and at no cost, settled and everybody could remain friendly and appreciative, is now headed to court.

It will take filing OPRAs, I’m certain, to find out how much this ridiculous response to a citizen is going to cost the Highlands taxpayers.

On what is a much smaller note, but terribly typical of the way the administration handles nosy people, nosy, meaning anyone who wants to know anything about how tax dollars or spent or decision made for the good of the town, I repeat a scenario that took place.

I simply asked, of each administrator, how many OPRAs have been filed between June of last year and June of this year. I asked how many of those OPRAS were passed on to the borough attorney before being answered, knowing every time the borough attorney gets asked a question other than routine borough business, it can be costly to the taxpayers.

You remember, if you’ve been reading these Monday missives. The Atlantic Highlands administrator answered within minutes, gave me the moderate number of requests made, told me since he researches most of it himself or within his staff, attorney fees were less than $1,000.

When I could not get any answer at all from the administrator in Highlands, even so much as an acknowledgement of my request, I did the only thing I could do. I filed an OPRA to get my answers. I filed that request by e-mail on Aug. .5. I received the response Aug. 13 at the end of the day. The very deadline for responding. The person who handled it was identified as the borough clerk.

My request was closed because they said, they did not give me any answers.

I do not know whether the borough clerk, who is always very professional, pleasant and helpful when I can manage to get through to her, is the person who actually responded. I do not know whether her response was written by her or by the borough attorney, the mayor, or for that matter, the head of the public works department. She is the only person identified on it.

But rather than give me an answer to a couple of questions that would simply mean counting numbers in a specific file and checking the attorney’s monthly vouchers, somebody took the time, the research and the effort to send me a 22 line, two paragraph response. It included references to two state laws, the action of one judge, and all the information on what I could do within seven business days if I’m not happy with the denial.. Whoever did the research had absolutely no problem in giving me the names, address, phone numbers, websites, and e-mils for state officials. Yet they could not give me the number of times OPRA requests have been filed in this little community in the course of a year.

Their reasons for the denial? I, the citizen asking the questions, wasn’t asking for government records, just seeking information.

So there you have it. In Atlantic Highlands, information was readily, easily, politely and accurately given within an hour. In Highlands. I learned that once a citizen asks for information, it’s up to the administrator to decide whether he wants to give it to you. And if he doesn’t, and you file an OPRA, you can’t get it from that same authority because it’s a matter of information.

Do you ever wonder what’s going on that even the number of OPRAS filed in 12 months is such an invasion of local government policy that it can’t be answered.

Does that ever make you wonder whether there is an awful lot more, lot more serious, lot more demanding things, actions, or events that are also kept undercover from the citizens?