SPRINGFIELD — Mayor David Amlen thinks a lot has not come to the surface about the land swap deal between the township and school board.
The subject of contention is the nine-acre property near the intersection of Tree Top Drive and Skylark Road the school board agreed was a good swap if the township helped them get the turf field they desperately wanted and needed.
In order to delve deeper into exactly what took place last year when former mayor Ziad Shehady negotiated a deal with the school board to bond $3.2 million to fund a turf field in exchange for the 9.2-acre plot of public land owned by the school board, Amlen set up an ad hoc committee to investigate the entire timeline. The $3.2 million bonding, however, was passed unanimously by the township committee, which included Amlen.
Specifically, the mayor wanted to know why the contamination was not revealed before the governing body bonded millions for the school board, and ended up with nothing in return. The land, Amlen said, contains asphalt road remnants and other contaminants dumped by contractors and builders over the years. But even after the school district cleans the site, any profit will likely be just a drop in the bucket to offset the $3.2 million of bonding.
The cost to clean up the property will be several hundred thousand dollars, Amlen said, adding that once it is cleaned up the land will only be able to be used as open space and not have any real market value. Right now the school district is in the early stage of cleaning the land.
“What I want to know is when the board of education knew about the contamination,” the mayor said Tuesday, adding that while he is certain Shehady knew long before he told the governing body, actually proving this could be difficult. But he is going to try.
“There is a timeline. A professional engineer was hired to look into this and they provided a report to the school board. We want to know what was delivered, when it was delivered, who it was delivered to and who it was shared with,” Amlen said.
“With everything that is going on there is a gap between the bond being introduced in February 2012 and all the testing going on and what they knew and what they didn’t know,” the mayor added.
According to the school board and Shehady, it was not until November that Penonni Associates, the engineering firm hired by the school district, issued a report about the contamination.
In fact, Shehady has maintained that he never heard about the report until Nov. 16. Amlen, though, felt he knew prior to the election, or perhaps even in the summer since the engineering firm was working on the testing for several months.
“I don’t think there was any overt wrongdoing, not that I’m aware of, but Shehady has been on the attack over this and it’s time to get to the bottom of the entire issue,” the mayor said, adding that the township could not hold anyone legally liable even if it was discovered that Shehady and the school board knew about the contamination.
Still, he feels that if the contamination was covered up until after the election last year, “people need to know.”
“Residents are mad about this and they are asking a lot of questions,” Amlen said.
The ad hoc committee, made up by Margaret Bandrowski and David Barnett, two members of the Township Committee who were not on the governing body last year, will appoint one member of the public to join them in the investigation into the timeline.
Amlen said it would be better if the member of the public was someone the Republicans agreed with so the investigation was fair.
According to Amlen, Shehady has been fighting Amlen’s appointing of the special committee, maintaining the mayor does not have the authority to do so. The mayor disagreed, pointing out that as mayor he is the chairman of the Township Committee and can appoint a special committee if he sees fit.
Shehady, who did not return phone calls to LocalSource, said in other media interviews that he had no objection to an investigation if it was independent, impartial, unbiased and by a neutral party. However, because both Bandrowski and Barnett campaigned against a turf field at the high school, he feels they are not objective in this particular matter.
In February when LocalSource revealed that Springfield came out on the short end of the stick when it came to the land swap, it was also reported that the township backed off the deal. After seeing the engineering test results, officials decided the school board should pay to remediate the land, sell it and give the township any profit that is generated from the sale to offset the $3.2 million bond for the turf field.
Amlen estimated that after the property is remediated, the land should sell for somewhere around $200,000 to $300,000. This is not the $1 million Shehady promised residents last year, but something, at least, towards the millions the township bonded in good faith.