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South Jersey

Saturday, January 27, 2001

Ship officials to reconsider closed talks

Courier-Post Staff
CAMDEN The co-chairmen of the Home Port Alliance want to revisit a decision to continue closing meetings on the battleship USS New Jersey museum project.

Their call to reconsider the issue came on the same day Camden County Freeholder-Director Jeff Nash blasted the alliance for its "unacceptable" decision not to open meetings to the public.

The question of whether to ban the public from the alliance's meetings should be discussed at the nonprofit corporation's next board of trustees meeting on Feb. 7, the group's leaders said Friday. The board's co-chairmen - county Surrogate Patricia Jones and state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester said they were surprised the topic was discussed and unanimously approved after they left Wednesday's alliance meeting early.

"You have earned the public's trust and their financial support, and right fully so," Nash wrote in a letter Friday to the alliance's executive director, Thomas Seigenthaler. "It is imperative you reinforce this trust by developing a process for public access."

Nash said he favors open meetings because the ship has generated great public interest and because tax dollars including $3.2 million from the county are funding most of the construction costs. The total battleship project, including a future landside museum, is projected to cost more than $30 million. State and federal money is also helping to fund the project.

"I urge you and the Home Port Alliance to follow our lead and reconsider your policy," Nash wrote, referring to the county's policy of expanded public access to its records and meetings.

Jones said she will ask the board to revisit the issue. She and Matheussen said the topic was not on Wednesday's agenda. Both left early for other commitments.

"We thought the co-chairs should have been there (for the discussion)," Jones said. "Unfortunately, we weren't. John had another meeting, and I went to a funeral."

Jones, a former county freeholder, said she would like to see some of the proceedings open. Matheussen did not commit to a position on that specific point, but promised the matter will be discussed again in detail at the board's next meeting.

Jones said the board would need to define clearly what topics are appropriate for public discussion and must weigh the need for privacy in contract and personnel talks.

At least six of the board's 14 members were not present for the unanimous vote to close meetings to the public, several members said.

"Granted, this project is a tremendous undertaking by a volunteer nonprofit group, and matters of personnel and contracts are highly sensitive issues worthy of closed session, but while you are not required to meet in public, I feel the spirited public support your venture has realized suggests otherwise," Nash wrote.

Nash said he discussed his concerns with some board members Friday and is optimistic the alliance will amend its decision.

Among those who voted to keep meetings closed was Norman Sooy, the county's veterans affairs director who sits on the board as the freeholder-director's designee.

Sooy said he has always favored open meetings, but decided to vote with those members who had overwhelming opposition rooted in concerns about contracts, personnel matters and length of meetings. The vote to keep meetings closed caught him off guard, Sooy said.

"We didn't even know it was an issue that was coming up," Sooy said. "Someone just threw it out there." The Navy has said the public's role played a part in the successful grass-roots campaign to bring the historic, highly decorated World War II ship back to the Delaware River, where it was built. Tens of thousands of well-wishers greeted the ship when it arrived in Philadelphia in November 1999. It will be renovated into a floating museum on the Camden Waterfront behind the E-Centre.

On the Web:

  • Complete Courier-Post USS New Jersey coverage
  • Official USS New Jersey Web site

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