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Ewing government spat boils over

Mayor Jack Ball, town council at odds over him speaking at council

Saturday, May 12, 2007


EWING -- In a spat more suited to a school playground than the hallowed halls of
government, Mayor Jack Ball and Council President Les Summiel are embroiled
in a debate over whether Ball has a right to speak at council meetings.

Ball, who rode to a rare GOP victory on an anti-Democrat backlash last fall, says
he's being illegally barred from taking part in council business. Summiel, who
heads the Democrat-controlled legislative body, says Ball is trying to
commandeer the meetings with political grandstanding.

In the four months since Ball's inauguration Summiel has repeatedly refused to
call on Ball during council meetings, often adjourning sessions while the mayor's
hand is in the air.

The long-simmering tension boiled over Tuesday night, when Ball sought to
clarify his position on an issue raised by a member of the public.

Miffed, Summiel told Ball it was not his forum, reminding him that he has his own
monthly public meetings to address his own issues.

Ball was clearly annoyed at the slight.

"I now know the openness and cooperation (between mayor and council) I was
looking for when I took office will not take place," Ball said.

"Well, that's your opinion," Summiel snapped back before ad journing the

The heated exchange was sparked when Charles Green, a long-standing critic of
Ball's, used the public comment session to re count a meeting between Ball and
a state finance board.

Ball said that Green mischaracterized events of the meeting and asked to set the
record straight.

Summiel would not permit Ball to speak on the matter.

"You can address it at the pub lic forum you hold each month," Summiel said.
Resident Trish DeCello tried unsuccessfully to yield her time to the mayor.

"Are we still in America?" an irate DeCello asked. "Because it doesn't sound like
it to me."

Council attorney Mike Hart sough, who was appointed by Ball, said the mayor
has a right to speak at the meetings.

"This is a matter of decorum more than it is a matter of law," Hartsough said. "But
I can tell you one thing. You can't prevent a citizen from speaking at a public
meeting. The mayor doesn't leave his citizenship papers at the door."

Summiel disagrees.

"This is not a platform for (Ball's) issues and concerns," Sum miel said. "Our
meetings are to conduct the business of the town. We're following an agenda.
These sidebars and debates stemming from public comments have no place at
council meetings."

The mayor is "disruptive to our meetings when he uses it as a plat form for
administrative initiatives or proposals or just plain politics," Summiel continued. "If
the mayor has something specific he wants to present to council, we can put him
on the agenda and give him all the time he needs."

According to the Faulkner Act, which governs such matters, "The mayor may
attend meetings of council and may take part in discussions of council but shall
have no vote ..."

Summiel interprets that statute to mean that a mayor is not prohibited from taking
part in council meetings. But, Summiel said, it doesn't give him carte blanche to
speak at every turn.

"I think it's within the discre tion of council to select who is going to speak,"
Summiel said.

Municipal law experts say they cannot recall the issue ever being raised.

"I've never seen a council try to shut down a mayor and not let him speak," said
William Kearns, general counsel for the League of Municipalities. "It's apparently
one party trying to shut down the mayor from another party."

David Rebovich, a political analyst and Rider University professor, urged both
sides to exercise common sense.
"This is a mess," Rebovich said. "They need marriage counseling. Regardless of
the political split, I think it advantages the local government officials if they seem
to be working together."

The first inkling of trouble began in January when Ball was sworn in as Ewing's
first Republican mayor under its strong mayor/ council form of government.

At the inaugural ceremony, Ball promised to put partisan politics aside to work
with the Democrat- controlled council.

Summiel, who was being sworn in as council president, said he welcomed the
goodwill, but made it clear that the council had its own work to do as a legislative
body and would follow its own agenda.

Since then, Ball's presence at council meetings has been a silent source of
contention with Ball repeatedly raising his hand to speak on issues and Summiel
pointedly ignoring him.

When residents complain about something the administration has done or ask
questions about administrative decisions, Summiel tells them their issue is not
within the council's legislative purview, then advises them to take up the matter
with Ball himself.

But when Ball, sitting in the audience, raises his hand to speak to the matter,
Summiel refuses to call on him.

It happened when Ball cut police overtime, sending residents into a panic that
there would not be enough police on the streets to keep Ewing safe.

It happened Tuesday night, when Green announced to the council that Ball had
told state fi nance officials that Lowe's home improvement store would be coming
to town.

Green wondered aloud why the township is soliciting public comment on the
proposed project when Ball clearly indicated it was a done deal.

Ball, who insists he made no such representation to the state, was not allowed to
rebut Green's statements that night, leading to his angry exchange with the

On Wednesday, Ball said he re gretted his comments.

"But sometimes you get to a point where you feel you have to say something," he
said. "For me it was Tuesday night."

He said there are times when his comments are needed at the meetings.
"I think it's important to set the record straight," he said. "I think we owe that to
the people. I've had people come up to me after meet ings and say, 'Jack, why
won't they let you speak?'"

An unapologetic Summiel said he has no intention of letting Ball commandeer

council meetings to address public comments or criticisms.

"We're not here to answer or address the administration's initiatives or lack

thereof," he said. "He is the executive of our town and as such, he has a forum. If
he feels the need to explain his policies, that's where he ought to do it."

Hartsough said Ball has as much right to speak as any citizen in the room.

Summiel agreed, but said, "He doesn't want to speak as a citizen, he wants to
speak as the mayor."

On Tuesday, council members leveled their own criticisms at Ball, saying he

wants their cooperation at meetings but has failed to show them the same
respect by keeping them abreast of his administrative initiatives.

"It's a two-way street," Councilman Joe Murphy told Ball. "I had to find about (Ball
cutting overtime for) the gang unit from the newspaper. I had to find out about
(Ball rearranging work schedules for ) the trash collectors from the newspaper. I
have yet to receive a phone call from you, Jack."

Ball said it's not his place to call the council members.

"That's not really proper proto col," he said. "Proper protocol is for (Business
Administrator) Dave Thompson to inform the council president what I'm doing.
Dave has made sure Mr. Summiel has been kept informed. It's up to Mr. Sum
miel to make sure the council members are informed."

Summiel said he's gotten "scant" information from the administration as to what
Ball is up to.

"If he gives me information that I can use to put one and one together and make
two, I'll tell the council," Summiel said. "But with the information I get from him,
there's nothing I can tell the council."