Honeywell Hearings Delayed By New Conflict of Interest Concern
Committeeman Bruce Sisler's employment with assemblyman raises questions.
What residents thought was going to be the first public hearing on the ordinance to rezone Honeywell's property on Wednesday night turned out to be another bump in the road in the two-plus year process.
For the second time this month, another possible conflict of interest of one of the committee members was brought to the attention of Township Attorney John Mills, delaying the process to redevelop the Fortune 100 company's corporate campus even further.
Two weeks ago, it was Committeeman Jeff Grayzel who recused himself because of his wife's employment history with Honeywell, and on Wednesday night it was announced that Committeeman Bruce Sisler could also pose a conflict of interest.
Now the dozens of residents who showed up at the Morris Township Municipal Building on Wednesday must wait until Sept. 6 to comment on the ordinance for once again, the first public hearing.
The conflict, as Mills announced at the beginning of the meeting, is that Sisler, who works for Assemblyman Anthony Bucco Jr., was employed at the time Bucco was a primary sponsor of a bill that upgraded the Business Retention and Relocation Assistance Grant program.
The connection stated at the meeting is that Honeywell applied for tax credits under the BRRAG program—which helps businesses preserve jobs, expand their operations and reinvest—after the bill was passed in January of 2011. This program allowed the company to stay in the township as it considered relocating to Pennsylvania.
Although this information was alleged in the release Mills received, a Honeywell spokesman said Thursday that Honeywell did not apply for credits under the BRRAG program, and never got any benefits from the legislation.
Instead, more recently in June, Honeywell applied for tax credits under a different program—the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program—when the company considered moving to Pennsylvania again.
Even though Honeywell did not actually receive the credits from the BRRAG program, Mills said Thursday he still believes there is a conflict because the release implies that Bucco is in favor of doing anything to keep Honeywell in Morris Township.
"Whether or not Honeywell availed themselves under the grant program under BRRAG, the potential for an appearance that Mr. Sisler would be tempted to vote in a way that would be what his employer would expect, still exists," Mills said.
Mills found out about Sisler's potential conflict a few hours before Wednesday's meeting after receiving a press release from a resident with the information.
"The press release in my mind is kind of a tipping factor to raise the inquiry because it linked that legislation [Bill A3389] and Honeywell, and job retention and residential use of the Honeywell property, which is exactly what is in the ordinance that we're considering," Mills said.
While Sisler said resident Lee Goldberg sent the release, Mills would not confirm who it was from. He said there were no idenifying marks on the release that said what company it was from, but it appeared to be "legitimate."
Goldberg did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Thursday.
Sisler, who pointed out Wednesday that the BRRAG bill was not created to benefit Honeywell, but for the entire state of New Jersey, believes he should not have to lose a vote in the process and recuse himself like Grayzel did earlier this month.
"There is no conflict here," Sisler said. "This piece of legislation has not only bipartisan support, bipartisan primary sponsors, but it was passed out of the Senate 35-0, it was passed out of the Assembly 76-0, and was signed by the Governor for a piece of legislation that would keep businesses in New Jersey."
Sisler also pointed out that his responsibilities as the chief of staff for Bucco does not deal with anything relating to legislation.
"My purview is to do many different functions including distributing mail, reviewing calendars and schedules, dealing with constituent concerns," he said. "But no where in my job description does it have the legislative aid, or legislative issues under my purview."
The Morris Township Local Government Ethics Committee—comprised of three republicans and three democrats—will now review the case and issue an advisory opinion if Sisler should be able to keep his vote.
Mancuso praised Sisler at the end of the meeting and agreed with him that he doesn't believe there is a conflict present.
"I do not believe that there is a reason at this juncture for him to have a reason to step down," Mancuso said. "I understand Mr. Mills' position and I understand the law, and hopefully we will get the ethics committee to come to a swift and reasonble adjudication at this matter."
The zoning ordinance to develop Honeywell's 147-acre property for residential and office and lab space was reintroduced for the third time without Sisler's vote so the public hearing could begin on Sept. 6 if Sisler has to step down.
For the residents who were upset about the condensed hearing dates in August—originally planned for Aug. 1, 8, and 15—that were set in July when the ordinance was originally introduced, now have some more time when the next meeting convenes in September.
"We are now into September," Mancuso said, "and we will do everything we can to bring this to a prompt and reasonable and hopefully happy conclusion for everyone."
The next public hearing will be on Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. in the Morris Township Municipal Building.