Mayor of N.J. town under fire for moving $125K painting out of the public eye and into his office

The mayor of a town in Essex County said he was trying to save a 200-year-old painting from water damage when he brought the $ 125,000 piece from the Belleville Public Library to his office across the street.

But some have accused Mayor Michael Melham of stealing Landscape of Belleville from public view and hanging it in his locked, private office in City Hall.

“I have no idea why this is a problem. There’s nothing shameful here, ”Melham told NJ Advance Media on Tuesday. “We are facing a budget deficit of $ 6 million and that is what a handful of outspoken critics have focused on.”

David Hatch, 76, of Connecticut, says he found the painting when he was 12 years old in the basement of his Belleville home. “After cleaning it with soap and water, I realized it was historical treasure,” Hatch said in an interview on Wednesday.

Hatch says he is a descendant of Belleville’s founding father Josiah Hornblower (“a great-grandfather at least five times across the board”) and that his family decided after much deliberation that the painting should be donated to the city.

In 1962, the Hatch family donated the painting to the Belleville Historical Society. The historical society, which had nowhere to hang the work of art, loaned it to the library.

The painting, which was made in the 19th century, stayed in the library for nearly 60 years until the mayor removed it last fall, Hatch said.

Hatch fired a letter to Belleville Police Chief Mark Minichini, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and others on March 2, demanding that the painting be returned to the library “immediately and safely”.

“It is very hard to believe that anyone would take a historical artifact from the people of their community to decorate their private offices,” Hatch wrote.

“The unauthorized removal of this precious painting from the library was an act of selfishness and irresponsibility,” Hatch said in the letter.

The removal of the painting from the library might have been acceptable if it had been kept in public, said Michael Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society.

“Melham did not use the painting for display in the public spaces of the town hall such as the city council chambers or the councilor’s office, but he did use it to decorate his newly established and always locked private office,” Perrone said in an email on Tuesday.

“No business meetings are held in the mayor’s office,” said Perrone, describing the mayor’s work as “largely ceremonial”.

The mayor’s position in the city of around 35,000 also has a seat on the 7-member council, a non-partisan form of government.

However, Melham denies that his office is “private”, saying he has met dignitaries from countries like China and Peru and regularly reads children’s books for local students who gather there.

Some of the events were for Read Across America, Thanksgiving, New Business Welcome, and Ugly Sweater Day, he said, relaying photos from public events in the office with the painting in the background.

“Let’s go, all on my various social media channels, there since before November 2020. Now is it a problem?” Melham said in an email with photos.

Melham said the library board members passed a resolution on June 17, 2020 authorizing the loan of the painting to the mayor’s office pending renovations to fix the library’s leaky roof and windows. (However, the resolution states in two places that the painting will remain in Melham’s office until the end of his term.)

Melham said he expected the city council would soon approve spending about $ 250,000 on bonds to fix the library. “The painting was at risk in the library and I’m keeping it safe,” Melham said.

The public outcry, Melham said, appears to come from a group of critics who have spoken out against him repeatedly since he took office two and a half years ago.

“I have to do something good in Belleville if you only worry about a painting that has been in the library for 60 years,” said the mayor.

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Anthony G. Attrino can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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