Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mount Holly settles retaliation and racial discrimination suit for $75,000

In September 2008, Mount Holly Township officials agreed to pay a local couple $75,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that originated from the Township's attempt to make the couple fix a crumbling sidewalk adjacent to their Garden Street home. At the bottom of this posting is a September 20, 2006 Burlington County Times article that provides background on this case.

The settlement agreement, entered into by the Township with Andrew and Alda Copeland, requires all parties to keep the settlement terms confidential. The agreement specifically called for the Copelands to "not take any action to affirmatively notify the news media of the resolution of this action."

The civil complaint and the confidential settlement agreement, which I received after filing an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, are on-line here.

The settlement agreement expressly states that the $75,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Township or any of its officers or employees. All that is known for sure is that the Township and perhaps its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay the Copelands and their lawyer $75,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the Township's decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the Copelands' claims were true and the Township wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

ABOUT ME AND WHY I'M POSTING THIS.

I chair the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project which seeks to increase governmental transparency and accountability, particularly at a local level. As part of my work, I routinely check civil court cases where at least one of the parties is a government agency or official. Sometimes I run across settlements that may be of interest to citizens and taxpayers. For more information on the Libertarian Party, click here.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

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A partial concrete victory Judge chastises Mt. Holly for criminalizing sidewalk repair case

Burlington County Times (Willingboro, NJ) - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Author: Lauri Sheibley BCT staff writer lsheibley@phillyBurbs.com

MOUNT HOLLY -- A Mount Holly couple has been fighting the township for a year over who is responsible for repairing a buckling sidewalk along Clover Street adjacent to their home.

Last week, they won part of the battle.

A state Superior Court judge dismissed a citation filed by the township against Andrew and Alda Copeland. The township had filed the citation last September, saying the sidewalk adjacent to the Copelands' home is a safety hazard.

The Copelands live at the corner of Garden and Clover streets. They argued that the sidewalk is on public property and therefore the township should fix it. The Copelands appealed the citation and took the matter to state Superior Court.

Last week, Judge Harold B. Wells III said it was not appropriate for the township to pursue the matter in municipal court.

"The whole notion of compelling a private citizen to repair public property by quasi-criminal process is simply repugnant," Wells stated in his decision.

The Copelands consider the decision a victory.

"I think it is an enormous thing to have happen," Alda Copeland said. "I think it sets a precedent."

However, the Copelands are not yet off the hook.

Township attorney Brian Guest said the judge ruled only that the township was wrong to take the matter to municipal court. Guest said the couple are still responsible for fixing the sidewalk. He said township code requires residents to pay for sidewalk and curb repairs and sewer and water line extensions even if the problems are not on their property.

"It is a very common procedure," Guest said.

Guest said the township has two options. It can file a civil suit against the Copelands to compel them to repair the sidewalk, or it can repair the sidewalk itself and put a lien against the Copelands' property for the cost of that work.

Guest said he did not know which option the township would choose. Neither the township manager nor the mayor could be reached for comment yesterday.

The Copelands believe the township ordinance is unfair, and have collected the signatures of 75 neighbors who agree with them.

Alda Copeland said it would cost the couple thousands of dollars to repair the crumbling sidewalk.

"The cost is not a small amount of money," she said

The Copelands say the sidewalk was in bad shape before they moved there seven years ago. They say township dump trucks have driven over the edge of the sidewalk, causing even more damage.

The Copelands did not hire a lawyer to defend themselves. They had taken a political-science course at Burlington County College, and relied on their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution to argue in court.

If the township decides to file a civil suit, Alda Copeland said she will continue to protest what she considers an unfair ordinance.

"I'm more than happy to go again, if that's what they want," Copeland said, but she added she hopes the township just drops the matter and fixes the sidewalk.

"The money they are wasting on the attorney, maybe they should use that money to fix the sidewalk," she said. "It would be better spent."

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