Mayor signed LOI for bank in Dec. ‘22
Council vote held in Feb. ‘23
HAMMONTON—According to documents received by The Gazette as a result of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request made by The Gazette on March 23, 2023, Mayor Stephen DiDonato signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) dated December 5, 2022 for the municipality’s purchase of the former Wells Fargo Bank at 236 Bellevue Avenue for $675,000. DiDonato also signed an agreement of sale for the bank dated February 28, 2023, which included the purchase price of $675,000, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
Also on March 23, 2023, The Gazette made an OPRA request for “all votes regarding the acquisition of the Wells Fargo Bank Property and associated lots from January 1, 2022 – March 23, 2023. Please include all votes, method of voting, dates of votes, roll call of votes.”
In response the town provided The Gazette with one vote, from the February 27 council meeting. The following is taken from the minutes of the meeting provided to The Gazette by the town:
“Motion by Council Person Wuillermin Second Oliva
“Approval to move forward on the acquisition of Wells Fargo Bank. Located 236 Bellevue Avenue Hammonton for a purchase price of $675,000. Down payment of $10,000. Mayor will donate his salary for the down payment if the agreement does not close.
Furgione – Yes
Gribbin – Yes
Oliva – Yes
R. Rodio – Yes
S. Rodio – Yes
Wuillermin – Yes
Mayor DiDonato – Yes
Mayor DiDonato declares motion is carried.”
The Letter of Intent signed by DiDonato obtained by The Gazette dated December 5, 2022 and signed by “Wells Fargo Bank N.A.” states, “I wish to take this opportunity to convey to Buyer (defined below) [Town of Hammonton Attn: Frank Zuber, Town Clerk 100 Central Avenue Hammonton, NJ 08330 [SIC]] the interest of Seller (defined below) [Wells Fargo Bank N.A.] in selling the Property (defined below) [Approximately 0.83 acres of land and improvements along with all of the rights, title and interests in such property, including any easements relating thereto located at 236 Bellevue Avenue, Hammonton, NJ and as more particularly described and depicted in Exhibits A and B attached hereto.”
In addition, the LOI from December 5, 2022 signed by DiDonato stated:
“This letter summarizes our recent discussions to sell the Property; it is not intended to be contractual in nature, but only expresses the basis upon which we wish to negotiate to enter into a sale agreement with respect to the Property (the “Sale Agreement”). The undersigned acknowledge that this letter is intended to outline the initial terms for consideration only and is not intended to obligate any party contractually. No such obligation arises from this letter or from any resulting Sale Agreement drafts unless and until a mutually satisfactory Sale Agreement is fully executed by, and delivered to, all parties.”
The LOI from December 5, 2022 lists Sam Kates of GK Commercial Realty Group, Inc. as “the sole broker in this transaction.”
According to the document received by The Gazette, DiDonato is the only person who signed the December 5, 2022 LOI. There is a line with the word “By:” next to a line under the words “Wells Fargo Bank N.A.” but there is no signature on the line.
In its OPRA request, The Gazette requested the following:
Agreement of sale (2022)
Agreement of sale (2023)
Votes regarding the acquisition of the Wells Fargo Bank property and associated lots from January 1, 2022 to March 23, 2023, including all votes, method of voting, dates of votes, roll call of votes.
The Gazette received two copies of the LOI, one dated December 5, 2022 and signed by DiDonato, and one undated and unsigned by DiDonato. The newspaper did not receive an agreement of sale from 2022, but did receive an agreement of sale dated February 28, 2023 signed by DiDonato. The February 28, 2023 document also has the signature of Douglas J. Grant, CEO of Omega Settlement Solutions and, according to another document provided by the town marked “Docusign” Robert Pardon and Juan Vaca, both of Wells Fargo Bank N.A. are recorded as signing the agreement of sale on February 28, 2023 as well.
The February 28, 2023 agreement of sale lists the purchase price as $675,000, states the property is being purchased in an ““AS IS”, “WHERE IS” condition, with all faults, and without warranty or representation by Seller whatsoever …” by the municipality.
A deed restriction was also included in the February 28, 2023 sales agreement banning the use of the building by financial uses, including the following: “a state or national bank; a savings bank; a credit union; a savings and loan institution; a finance company; an industrial bank; a mortgage company; a securities broker or dealer; a trust company; an investment advisor; a wealth manager; and any other business in the financial services industry that accepts deposits; originates loans; cashes checks; provides automatic teller machine services; offers trust services; sells stocks, bonds, or mutual funds; provides investment advice; or offers wealth management services.”
The Gazette contacted the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) asking about the “town” form of municipal government, which is Hammonton’s form of municipal government. The DCA directed The Gazette to the relevant statutes.
According to an email from the DCA, “A “Town” form of government is governed by NJSA 40A:62-1 et seq. In the excerpt of state statute pasted below [the statute was included in the email], 40A:62-6 lists “control and regulate the finances of the municipality” as a power of Council. Under 40A:62-5 Powers of the mayor in the excerpt below [the excerpt was included in the email], the mayor does not have any separate purchasing authority. Furthermore, in Local Public Contracts Law NJSA 40A:11-6.1b “Award of Contracts” states that any contract above the bid threshold must be awarded by resolution of the local governing body. The bid threshold is currently $44,000. The mayor can sign such contract only after the local governing body has authorized it by resolution and appropriated the funds in the municipal budget to pay for the contract.”