Belleville mayor pushed utility plan that involved no-bid contract for donor
The town of Belleville is considering switching its residents to a new utility provider. A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds the company the town contracted to manage the project was a donor to the election campaign of Mayor Michael Melham, who then cast the deciding vote that kept the project alive.
“In my opinion this is a very brazen quid pro quo,” says Lee Dorry, a citizen journalist who runs the website “Essex Watch”.
On Feb. 11, the Belleville Town Council voted to set up an energy aggregation program that would allow the town to switch residents to a third-party energy company. Melham says the effort was intended to lower residents’ utility bills.
But New Jersey election filings show the company contracted to oversee the process, Commercial Utility Consultants, funneled two donations to Melham’s election campaign through “Energizing New Jersey”, a political action committee it owns. The company’s registered agent made two other donations. In all, the donations total more than $2,530.
Despite what some perceive as a conflict of interest, Melham did not recuse himself from voting on the plan. In fact, he cast the key vote that allowed it to move forward.
Two weeks after the town council originally authorized the energy program, Belleville Councilperson Marie Strumolo-Burke proposed getting rid of it. The vote ended in a 3-3 tie, so the program stayed alive.
“The mayor was one of those votes,” Dorry says. “He should have recused himself and this should have died on Feb. 26.”
Kane In Your Corner wanted to interview Melham but he declined. “I, along with nearly every other elected official in the state, have openly reported contributions from vendors and professionals. There is absolutely nothing wrong, illegal or unethical about this,” the mayor said in a written statement.
Melham now says the town may not go forward with the plan, because savings are not as high as originally hoped. He also notes that not everyone who donates money to his campaign is automatically rewarded with a no-bid contract.
Some residents also have concerns about the way the program was supposed to be implemented. Melham promised that any resident who chose not to participate would be given a window in which they could opt out. Jeff Mattingly, a Belleville resident and business owner, says residents should not be opted in unless they make that choice.
“There's all different energy programs and how they're structured and the cost related, and I want to be in control of those things myself,” Mattingly says. “I don't want anyone making that decision for me.”