Garwood's first regular council meeting of the year brought fireworks, as Council President Sara Todisco took to the mic to call out the Westfield Leader for printing incorrect information regarding the borough's controversial Athletic Field Complex in its Jan. 3 issue, part two of the paper's annual Year in Review.
which includes a new multi-purpose turf field, field house with a full kitchen and activity space, upgrades and lighting for the existing baseball field, and a bocce court. Plans for the building of the complex have been underway for more than 10 years, with the council granting final approval this past fall.
Todisco says this is the second time the paper has gotten the cost of the project wrong, this time suggesting that the average per taxpayer cost of the $3.2-million project "would average about $1,800 per property owner."
Todisco says the impact to taxpayers is actually $375 over 15 years ($25 per year) for homes assessed at $100,000 (which is also the average home assessment in Garwood) – a far cry from the Leader's figure.
"For the record, no other paper or online media printed this figure nor was it ever said on this dais,” said Todisco.
Todisco's figure takes the $3.2 million total project cost, subtracts the $1 million in county and state grants the borough received for the project, and then averages the remaining cost to arrive at $65 each year for 15 years per home assessed at $100,000. Then, this figure takes into account separate expiring borough debt that would lessen the net impact of the project in residents' tax bills. With the expiring debt, the net increase in taxes would come to $25 each year for 15 years per home assessed at $100,000, says Todisco.
The paper also wrote that "residents of Garwood packed the council chambers to express their disapproval" and the council proceeded regardless and that the borough's bond proposal was $3.2 million, the total project cost. In fact, an equal number of residents came out to express their support for the project over the course of meetings leading up to its approval and the borough bonded only $2.1 million.
“Whether you are for or against this project is really not the issue here,” said Todisco, “it’s about making sure residents are informed with the facts. The fabrication published by the Westfield Leader crosses the line. It is truly bothersome knowing residents pay for and rely on this local paper to present the facts and help them find out what happens at these council meetings and this is what they get.”
Todisco says when she called the paper's publisher, Horace R. Corbin, to ask for a retraction, he refused and defended the $1,800 figure, saying the paper took the total $3.2 million cost (not taking $1 million in grants into account) and divided it by 1,780 taxpayers. Todisco was also perplexed by how the Leader came up with 1,780 taxpayers as there are 1,501 total property taxpayers in Garwood according to the borough's CFO.
Councilman Jim Mathieu responded to Todisco, arguing that she shouldn't go after the Leader and that it's the borough's fault for being unclear. Mathieu also argued that the published figure should be $65 per year over 15 years for homes assessed at $100,000, as the expiring debt would not have an immediate, seamless impact for taxpayers and is separate from the project cost.
“Beating up on the Westfield Leader is not what we should be doing here," said Mathieu. "The Westfield Leader has done as good a job as could be expected. We, as the governing body, have done a horrible job communicating to people how much this will cost.” Mathieu also added that he felt the mayor misstated the project cost in a letter to the editor she wrote the Leader.
Todisco responded, saying that even if Mathieu preferred the $65 figure, that then totals $975 over 15 years for homes assessed at $100,000 – about half the cost that the Westfield Leader published.
“That 1,800 dollar number is wrong,” added newly elected Councilwoman Ann Palmer to Mathieu, backing up Todisco. “Now you want to argue that number $25 or $65, fine, I’m not going to get into that argument with you – then $975 is the right number not $1,800. So they made a mistake. They’re wrong. And all I’m asking, and I am pushing for this entire council to ask, is that they retract it – not have us write a letter to the editor because then that’s our opinion. If they published incorrect numbers and we have a spreadsheet right here that tells us the correct number at $975, then they should retract their incorrect number because that is sloppy journalism. It’s incorrect journalism. It’s wrong and they’re scaring the public.”
Mathieu said he was not defending the Leader's mistake, but argued that freedom of the press means the paper should be allowed to print whatever it choses, correct or incorrect.
The mayor eventually gaveled down the argument, adding that she agreed the paper should print a retraction and refuting Mathieu's earlier suggestion that her letter to the editor was incorrect.
In an article recapping the meeting in today's Westfield Leader, the author states the paper will not print a retraction.
The Westfield Leader recently came under fire in Westfield for reporting "less than all the facts." At the Dec. 11 meeting of the Westfield Board of Education, Board president Richard Mattessich addressed an editorial written by the staff of The Leader that appeard in the Dec. 6 edition regarding the $13.6 million bond referendum that was voted on Dec. 11.
Mattessich said he found the piece, printed on page 4, "quite disturbing at a professional level" and responded to each of the eight questions posed in the editorial. Further, Mattessich stated that to publish the piece just days before the vote without giving the Board a chance to respond showed a misuse of power.
"Spreading less than all the facts in a town's newspaper's editorial column in a manner intended to steer a vote a particular way and thereby abusing the public's trust should never have occurred," he concluded.
Board members Mitch Slater and Ginny Leiz agreed with Mattessich's statements.