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  • Writer's pictureCraig Richards

Lake Water Quality Advisory Committee ousted

Jonathan Oliva

Dan Bachalis

Hammonton—It’s over. The Hammonton Town Council voted Monday night on Feb. 26 to eliminate the Lake Water Quality Advisory Committee (LWQA). While the vote on the earlier reading carried 5-2, Monday night’s final reading and sequential vote to dissolve the committee was approved just 4-3.

Mayor Stephen DiDonato and Deputy Mayor Thomas Gribbin continued their opposition to the move, voting against the motion. Monday night the pair were joined by a third vote against the move, Councilwoman Renee Rodio, who had voted in favor of the committee’s demise in the previous council meeting.

Rodio reconsidered her position after hearing discussion on the topic and public comments. She felt the council could have done more to improve the board’s success. Rodio spoke with The Gazette after the meeting to explain her position.

“I felt we needed to give them more time to establish the committee. I think we needed to give them more members, appoint another member to the board to help them,” she said.

The councilwoman believed the board was beneficial. While strictly an advisory board, Rodio felt their attention to science was an asset.

“Council does have the ultimate decision, but they advise us, and I think what they are doing in regard to the science part is very important,” she said.

While the application of science to the lake water is important, Councilman Jonathan Oliva stated the suggested move did not eliminate that aspect going forward. In an address to the council and those in attendance at the meeting, Oliva said that the use of science was not in question.

“I am absolutely not advocating that we don’t use science. I am not advocating that we stop using science,” he said.

He continued to list reasoning for moving the function of the LWQA Committee to the Parks and Recreation Commission during his address, a response in defense of statements LWQA Committee Chairman Dan Bachalis made during the public comment section of the meeting.

Bachalis read from a prepared statement, stating a desire to shed some transparency upon the proposed ordinance. As to the claim that the committee only sent approved minutes for nine months in 2023, he said that only December was not approved. The chairman did not dispute the statement that of the nine-member board only four have 75 percent or greater attendance. He said that a series of unforeseeable health related issues requiring treatments negatively impacted attendance and that Oliva had only attended the January meeting of 2023.

He did not deny another statement that the LWQA Committee had less than 50 percent attendance in three of the nine meetings where completed minutes were submitted. Bachalis said that attendance alone is not sufficient reasoning for dissolution, especially since a quorum is not required in non-voting or decision-making meetings. He went on to claim that the record demonstrates that the committee had a quorum at every meeting in 2023 and questioned why Oliva would assert such false claims and went on to blame Oliva for speaking in favor of denying the committee a role in the matter regarding reviewing and reporting on the DuBois Associates bladderwort study. Bachalis went on to state that the committee was ignored by members of council, asserting those not specifically mentioned failed to share documents, provide feedback and even inform the public.

Bachalis said that regarding meeting in town hall monthly, there was no such requirement.

Since its inception and for years after, the committee had met in the Canoe Club. The committee met for a time at town hall but later returned to the Canoe Club stating ample notice was given to the public. This led to another argument that the committee did not have regular participation from the public. Bachalis defended his position stating that it was not a requirement in the function of the committee, but the community did in fact attend and participate and included a Gazette reporter at each meeting.

Bachalis concluded that Oliva failed to make a case for dissolution. He also reiterated that the committee simply serves in a strictly advisory role, continuing that the council routinely exercised its authority in rejecting or threatening to reject the committee’s advice. He concluded his argument by shifting responsibility to the council.

“The reasons put forward for the elimination of the Lake Committee by Councilman Oliva are all totally without merit, and the real responsibility for a perceived unsatisfactory condition of the lake in 2023 lies squarely with the members of this Council, not the committee,” he said.

Oliva sat silent during the public comment section, waiting to address reasoning for the move during discussion following the motion. After the motion was made to dissolve and the mayor opened the floor to council discussion Oliva detailed reasoning for the suggested move while responding to some of the statements Bachalis made earlier.

Bachalis delivered a more impassioned response, while Oliva’s explanation was more pragmatic in nature. After opening his explanation with confirming his commitment to continued application of science to the issues at the lake nor was he advocating for a vast reduction in the number of volunteers and individuals who are able to assist the community, he went on to detail his reasoning for the shift of responsibilities to Parks and Recreation Commission. Oliva stated that he was advocating to move that responsibility from the LWQA Committee to the Parks and Recreation Commission for a number of reasons.

Oliva reported that the LWQA Committee does have seven full-time members and three alternates. One of those alternates has not been filled for a number of years. There’s also a specific representative from the Parks and Recreation Commission serving a one-year term. That also went unfilled last month. He added that they haven’t had anyone in the last six months, having an individual who had previously stepped down.

The LWQA Committee had challenges with attendance and record keeping in 2022. At the end of 2022, that prompted Oliva to have discussions with the mayor recognizing that there are challenges and some issues. Oliva believed the move would be a resolution to those challenges. Oliva sought to work on 2023 to see if they improve record keeping and attendance.

It was concerning to Oliva that last year, the LWQA Committee had 59 percent attendance rate, which is the lowest of all of our warrants and commissions. The Parks and Recreation Commission had a 90 percent attendance rate, which is the highest. And while Bachalis noted specifically Oliva’s lack of attendance, Oliva said his attendance for those meetings would not have impacted the percentage since he was merely the council liaison.

Records were also an issue. There were multiple issues with meeting minutes being approved, or meeting minutes being tapped stating that there were four months worth of meeting minutes that were to be approved because they were not approved for the summer.

As far as the meeting locations is concerned, Oliva felt the choice of location could have helped.

“I know that there’s no requirement to meet in the council chambers as opposed to [other locations], but I believe that that creates a challenge for public engagement,” he said.

Oliva said those numerous issues and concerns prompted the conversation with the mayor. That was why at the beginning of the year, the committee members whose terms were up and open positions were not reappointed immediately in January, knowing this discussion was going to come.

The LWQA Committee has had members of the committee continue to meet. Only four members had consistent attendance.

“There are only four of the nine members of the committee that have had 75 percent attendance. So, what I personally thought was that if four members attend 75 percent of the time, and we’d have half of those members who we put them on Parks and Rec [then] we now had nine advocates, 90 percent attending advocates working for the lake, as opposed to four 75 percent or better attendance for the Lake. That would be better for the town - that would be better for us,” Oliva said.

That conclusion was shared by four of the seven council members Monday night. The addition of a letter shared by Councilor Sam Radio, written by Parks and Recreation Chairman Lou Cappuccio also served to reaffirm the decision by the majority of council.

In the letter sent to council by Cappuccio of the Parks and Recreation Commission expressed that the commission unanimously agreed to take on the LWQA Committee responsibilities should the council approve the ordinance to add two additional members to the commission.

While the vote to dissolve the LWQA Committee passed 4-3 the ordinance to add the additional two members from the LWQA to the Parks and Recreation Commission passed 7-0, effectively ending the heated debate on the LWQA Committee’s existence.


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