It is not July yet, but there was no shortage of fireworks at the West Windsor Township Council meeting on June 13.
A shouting match erupted when Township Attorney Michael Herbert attempted to prevent Councilman Charles Morgan from talking about his lawsuit during the portion of the meeting where council members are allowed to comment.
Morgan, who has filed a second lawsuit against Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, insisted that it was within his right to defend himself after members of the public criticized him — and some supported him — during public comment earlier in the meeting.
During the shouting match, Morgan said his lawsuit was not politically motivated — he revealed that he is planning to move to Florida in December at the end of his term and will not seek re-election.
Meanwhile, the council postponed approving another $10,000 to defend the mayor until the mayor’s attorney could provide a breakdown of the costs associated with that expenditure and update the council on the legal process. A vote is expected at the council’s next meeting on Monday, June 20. It was also revealed that the mayor’s attorney was contemplating filing a counter lawsuit against Morgan, alleging he continues to file frivolous lawsuits after his first two were thrown out.
Morgan has filed an appeal and a second lawsuit alleging the mayor failed to provide a report as requested by him during budget deliberations in 2010. Morgan filed the civil suit in Mercer County Superior Court claiming that the mayor failed to provide a report with information about the 2010 municipal budget that the councilman believes he is entitled to under the township’s Faulkner Act form of government.
Mercer County Judge Douglas H. Hurd dismissed the lawsuit on February 18 in a less-than-two-page ruling, stating that the court considered briefs and oral arguments from both attorneys and granted Hsueh’s cross motion for summary judgment and denied Morgan’s motion for summary judgment.
However, Morgan subsequently filed two new motions with the court — one to reconsider and another to amend his original complaint, as well as a 14-page brief. His motion was denied on April 1.
Morgan submitted an appeal to the Appellate Division at the end of April seeking reversal. He has also filed another lawsuit.
When Morgan began commenting in response to the residents’ comments about his lawsuit at the June 13 meeting, Herbert claimed Morgan was using his time to make political speech and that it was inappropriate to discuss litigation openly.
“I have the floor — you cannot interrupt me,” Morgan responded, referring to the council’s rules of order. “People are shooting at me, and you gave them the ability to speak.”
Herbert said Morgan was acting illegally by discussing the lawsuit. “I’m allowed to interrupt you when it’s a matter of common sense,” he said. Morgan responded that common sense is not listed in the rules as a legitimate reason for interruption. Morgan also said the lawsuit was a public document, and he had a right to comment on it.
Morgan said the lawsuits would not have happened if the mayor and administration provided reports that he has a right to ask for. “We’ve been challenged around here in getting the information we asked for,” he said.
Responding to critics at the meeting, Morgan also said he listened as they made comments. “You owe me the courtesy of getting your facts right before you go and say things that aren’t true,” he said.
The shouting match was prompted by the crowd’s comments, where residents either urged Morgan to drop the lawsuit or supported him.
Resident Lindsay Diehl presented another version of her petition, which she started in March, to the council — this time with 135 signatures calling for Morgan to drop the lawsuit. She said she stood outside of the library to collect the signatures and that it was easy to find support.
“They were eager to sign it,” she said. “They practically grabbed it out of my hands.” She also said that if the petition were circulated around the township, there would be an even stronger response.
Resident Andy Bromberg criticized Morgan for costing the taxpayers money in difficult financial times. “I strongly urge the council tonight to start taking sanctions against this action,” he said.
“You’re not gaining any support,” Bromberg added. “Please, can you stop this?”
Resident Janet Lerner also said she supported sanctions against Morgan because Morgan’s lawsuits had already been dismissed twice and had no merit. “Why do we need to go through this a third time?”
Resident Ina Marx echoed this sentiment, saying, “Once is enough; twice maybe, but three to four times? It seems to be a little obsessive.”
Jim Moeller, another resident, said that Morgan was at an advantage because he is a lawyer by trade and does not need to hire an attorney. Therefore, he said, it does not cost him any money. The best way to prevent him from continuing to file lawsuits is to file a counter lawsuit, when it will start costing him money, he said.
Morgan later disputed this claim, saying it costs him money out of pocket, including costs associated with copying and filing paperwork and other expenses.
Not everyone at the meeting was critical of Morgan. Resident Marshall Lerner questioned why the mayor could not simply respond to information requests. “Why wouldn’t he want to be forthcoming?”
He questioned why “of all the other priorities occupying the town’s energies, there is so much time being devoted to this issue.”
Lerner also criticized the mayor, saying that he may not understand American culture, but in America, “we believe the little guy has a right to fight City Hall,” and when someone does that, it is “something to be respected, not criticized."
He suggested that there could be three solutions — first, that the mayor provide the information that was requested. “After all, he works for us,” he said. Second, the mayor could choose not to provide the information, but hire a less expensive attorney. If the mayor chooses to move forward without providing the information, “let it also be his expense” to continue defending himself.
Virginia Manzari also supported Morgan. She criticized Council President Kamal Khanna for his comments to a newspaper in which he said the council had no choice but to continue spending money to defend the mayor. She said the council can vote against spending more money and ask the mayor to turn over the information.
“The mayor can actually provide the information without being asked twice,” she said. Commenting about the chance that the mayor will file a counter lawsuit against Morgan, she said Khanna should instead launch an investigation into why the mayor would not provide the information. She said she suspected it was either because he was hiding something or was “playing games” and was “trying to keep Mr. Morgan from doing his job.”
Rebecca Esmi also said the Faulkner Act was created under the belief that accountability and transparency were valued. She said the council serves as the legislative branch, while the mayor serves as the executive branch to encourage that transparency. Therefore, information should be shared, she said.
“What do you do when it’s not?” she said. “You don’t sanction the tools that the legislature has given” to fight the problem, she said.
Resident Rita Shaha said she was very disturbed by the lawsuits, but said she felt both Morgan and Hsueh should address the issue between themselves. “Please don’t use taxpayer money,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who is wrong or right. Taxpayers lose out.”
She said West Windsor taxpayers “have to ask, ‘Is this the best way of resolving any issues we have?’ I don’t think it is.”
In response to all of the comments, the mayor told residents he is always available. “Any one of you living in this community, if you try to set up an appointment, you never get rejected,” he said. “If you want to talk to me, I’m available.”
In response to Lerner’s remarks, Hsueh said he views himself as an American. “Don’t make that kind of racial remark,” he said during the meeting.
Morgan said that none of the people who have criticized him have bothered to call him about the issue. “My term on council ends in December,” he said. “I am not running for council again. I will be changing my residence to Florida after my term is up.”
He said he is spending his own time to protect residents’ interests and has spent his own money pursuing the litigation. “A member of council should not have to file a lawsuit to get what the law already clearly says he’s got a right to receive.”
Morgan also referred to a resolution passed last year by the council authorizing a transit village designation after the resolution was added at the last minute and approved quickly so that the township could obtain grant money. Morgan has since criticized the mayor and administration and alleging there was no urgent deadline for the grant. “The mayor knew that there would be a big uproar about a transit village designation if word got out ahead of time,” he said.
Morgan also criticized the mayor for rejecting his settlement offer to amend the wording in the township’s ordinance.
Councilwoman Linda Geevers offered to act as a mediator between Hsueh and Morgan outside of the court to try to resolve the lawsuit without spending more money. She suggested the council tighten up the wording in its own ordinance in a way that is acceptable by both parties.
The lawsuit, she says, “destroys relationships. Everybody’s trying to work together, and it’s a distraction.”
Councilwoman Diane Ciccone also said the issue “needs to be resolved” but said she did not like hearing about the possibility that the mayor’s attorney may file a counter lawsuit from the newspapers. She asked that the council vote on spending $10,000 more in legal fees after getting a report from the attorney about the process and why the money is needed.
Business Administrator Robert Hary reported at the meeting that to date, council has authorized $15,628 in attorneys fees, but the township is now about $3,100 in the hole with that budget, and the money spent is already at about $19,000. The additional $10,000 would include that $3,100 already spent but not authorized.