On April 28, 2022, I got an email from Township Solicitor Robert Wright, which said this:
"It was mentioned to me that you were given a deed to the Timbuctoo cemetery by a church in Burlington. If this is accurate, can you please send me a copy of the deed?"
Why is the Township Solicitor researching privately owned parcels? If someone in Westampton Township government wants to know about property ownership, why involve the $200- $300/hr. solicitor? Isn’t this a task for $20/hr. administrative assistant? Moreover, these records reside in the offices of the Township’s Tax Assessor and Tax Collector. They are also available online to the public. The person making this request from Mr. Wright could easily find out on their own with fewer keystrokes than needed to email him. What motivates this request, and why are Westampton residents footing the bill? By the way “given a deed by a church in Burlington” is false.
The tension between the Timbuctoo Advisory Committee and the Timbuctoo Historical Society began when newly appointed Chairperson Carolyn Chang began imposing restrictions on visits to Timbuctoo due to liability concerns. During my my six-year tenure as committee chairperson ended, no such restrictions existed. In brief, I contended that liability concerns of this nature are typically handled by requiring the visiting organization to provide a certificate of insurance naming the concerned party, in this case, the Township, as additional insured. This discussion eventually escalated to the point whereby Township Administrator Wendy Gibson, who had always been cordial and cooperative, would no longer approve requests to use the parcel next to our cemetery to assemble participants of our educational events. Note this May 10, 2022, email, in which Gibson says “The Township doesn’t have any issue with use of the area on those dates; however, I leave it to the Chair of the Advisory Committee for any final decisions." My objection here is that under the best of circumstances, a private citizen advisory committee chair may not be available to provide timely responses to public inquiries from his or her place of employment during business hours. In the case of this private citizen, delays in responsiveness had been frequent long before the dispute. Moreover, this is not how municipal governments typically do business. In Westampton’s case, public inquiries regarding use of Township owned parcels are typically handled by the Director of Recreation. Why is Timbuctoo different? It appears as if these restrictions are less about efficiency or protecting public interests, and more about giving the Timbuctoo committee chairperson a desired role.
Additional restrictions are reflected in a July 15th letter from the Township Solicitor to the Timbuctoo Historical Society’s attorney, which indicates that permission for the Timbuctoo Historical Society to use the lot requires a consultation with the Timbuctoo Advisory Committee to determine if our proposed use is "appropriate". This is impractical, as it hampers the historical society from providing timely responses to inquiries we receive. Its also unusual, unnecessary, and another waste of tax revenue on the solicitor's fees.
At a March 7, 2023, Township Committee meeting, Mayor Henley announced that our use of the parcel was just a matter of communication between Mr. Weston and Ms. Chang to avoid schedule conflicts. If it was just a matter of scheduling, contacting the advisory committee chair in her law office would not be necessary. Mayor Henley did not respond to a March 9 email from me in which I proposed that we write an MOU to define procedures if it’s just a matter of scheduling. It is interesting to note that we also need to define procedures for the advisory committee’s use of the cemetery for its events, but the mayor makes no acknowledgement in this regard.
They can put whoever they want on their committee. The problem here, and I speak as the former chair of that committee, is the committee’s charge. According to Ordinance 1-2018 that established that committee, their first purpose is:
"to advise and assist the Township Committee, Land Development Board, Historic Preservation Committee, all municipal departments, committees, and officials on all issues related to the historic significance of Timbuctoo."
The ordinance also requires that two members of the committee be Timbuctoo descendants and indicates preference for professional experts and Westampton residents. According to professional profiles on LinkedIn, the committee consists of a social worker that works in child welfare, a non-profit executive of a social service agency, a client associate from a local bank, a business owner, and a quality assurance specialist at a psychiatric hospital. One additional member worked at Home Depot, and only one member was involved before January 2023. None are descendants. Mayor Henley told me none of that matters. He also said I don’t have standing to raise questions, because I am not a tax paying resident of Westampton.
I am not a taxpaying resident of Westampton. However, my organization owns property in Westampton which is tax exempt because it is a cemetery. In addition, my mother is a tax paying resident, I am my family’s spokesperson, and our family has paid taxes in Westampton for 193 years, literally. I think it’s safe to say that some substantial proportion of descendants and people in the local history community would consider me a prominent stakeholder and spokesperson. Does Westampton Township have anyone similarly qualified? Certainly, any descendant or local history professional is a potential stakeholder.
Published research about Timbuctoo was scant prior to Township funded archaeological research that began 14 years ago. Regarding Timbuctoo’s history in particular, the largest singled repository of information is the Timbuctoo Historical Society’s website. It includes things like transcriptions of newspaper articles as early as 1851, research articles, and educational presentations; some on video. We have a lot of work to do. I am a Visiting Scholar at Rutgers University and serve as editor of an African American history and genealogy journal. My ancestors settled in Timbuctoo in 1829. So, my question is, why does the Township need to review my activities for appropriateness? If review is needed, why are there no experts involved? Is there anyone on that committee that would claim to be enough of an expert to advise the township or articulate a historic preservation plan? I think not. I suspect new members didn’t even realize they could be drawn into such a dispute when they agreed to serve.
The ordinance also stipulates that the Timbuctoo Committee will meet at least quarterly, and must comply with the Open Meetings Act, which establishes rules for publishing meeting times, minutes, etc. As of 11:00 AM on April 21, 2023, the most recent record of activity is on the township website is the minutes of an August 2, 2022, meeting, which states a compliant that the Township Committee Liaison, Deputy Mayor Jaime Mungo has not represented the Timbuctoo Committee’s concerns to the Township Committee as requested.
Why should Westampton Township position itself as a gatekeeper, while failing to follow its own policies and procedures or establishing a track record of success in presenting events. Three of the four events planned in 2022 were cancelled.
We also find it offensive that Township officials seek to commandeer our history, while insisting that Church Street in Timbuctoo cannot be paved because of its low traffic volume. This refusal is despite an engineering report commissioned by the Township that gave Church Street a priority ranking of #2 out of all Westampton roads.
And why can’t Westampton find any descendants or experts to serve on its committee? I don’t expect that residents that agreed to serve on the committee had any clue of the dynamics outlined here, so I do not begrudge them. On the other hand, Township Committee members who serve on the Timbuctoo committee should be accountable to their constituents who are stakeholders in this conversation.