RUTHERFORD — The Borough Council is planning to dissolve the Rutherford Downtown Partnership, which has been beset by turnover and has drawn complaints for its stewardship of the central business district, and create a new entity to replace it.
At its meeting on Monday night, the council voted to have the borough attorney draw up two ordinances — one to eliminate the partnership and another to establish a replacement to manage the town’s Special Improvement District.
Under state law, municipalities can create improvement districts to bolster commerce, and must assign a “district management corporation” to essentially run business-boosting efforts within their boundaries.
The partnership, founded two decades ago, serves as the management corporation for Rutherford’s Special Improvement District. It has been the target of complaints and has endured much turnover over the last few years, with some merchants and residents claiming that it has not done a good job of promoting the borough’s downtown.
Councilman Mark O’Connor, the liaison to the partnership, requested the two ordinances, and the council responded with unanimous support. After the meeting, O’Connor said that Mayor Joseph DeSalvo asked him some time ago to be part of a group charged with looking into the partnership following complaints about it.
“It’s come under such turmoil and such dissension from others, it’s time for a fresh start,” O’Connor said. “It’s been there for 20 years. It was formed in 1996. It’s time to come up with a leaner and more market-driven capital improvement organization.”
The partnership, which is financed through assessments on local businesses and property owners within the district, has had a bumpy history. In 2014 more than 100 property owners filed a petition calling for the dissolution of the Special Improvement District. A year ago, the partnership’s manager, Al Zaccone, resigned after just four months in the job.
O’Connor said the partnership has “been in limbo.” The corporation that replaces it will be “a tighter, leaner organization,” he said.
Katie Walker, the partnership’s president, could not be reached for comment.
When asked if Walker will be part of the new district management corporation, O’Connor said: “We don’t know yet. That will come out over the next few weeks. We have to see how this goes and that it passes through the ordinances and its setup.”
He also cited several municipalities that have succeeded in revitalizing their business districts.
“If you look at Morristown or what Westwood is doing now, you look at Somerville and Flemington, these are all working together with the common goal of enhancing their downtown, and that’s what we want to do,” O’Connor said. “That was the mission from the beginning, and we have to get back to that.”
He did laud the efforts of the partnership’s most recent trustees. For example, district businesses are promoted on the organization’s website and Facebook page, according to O’Connor.
“They’ve come under attack for different things, but this is a group that has really been working hard and diligently to try to make a difference. … They want to see something happen,” O’Connor said. “They believe in it. They’re working hard on it. They see that certain parts of it work. There are other parts of it, bylaws and other things, that don’t work, that hinder them from trying to do the work. So they’re looking to the changes.”
At the meeting, O’Connor told the council that he and the borough’s chief financial officer had reviewed the partnership’s audits.
“We do have some questions … on one of the years,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to need some answers. It’s just some procedural things about how they were done and how the process went through. So we’ll be looking and analyzing that a little bit more.”