Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Public Will, Democracy, and Eminent Domain Abuse

Across New Jersey, the elections held one month ago confirmed a rising tide against eminent domain abuse. Edison voters approved a referendum prohibiting eminent domain for redevelopment by a whopping 74%, with 11,191 yes votes to 3,951 no votes.

In Long Branch, Council challenger Brian Unger was elected with a plurality of 1,836 votes or 42 percent compared to incumbent Councilwoman Jackeline Biddle's 1,157 votes, about 27 percent, for a term on the nonpartisan council (there were a total of five candidates). According to a local newspaper, "Unger said that in the districts he captured, including Elberon and West End, many voters believe the administration was becoming distracted by the issue of eminent domain, which dominates every council meeting. Biddle represented the establishment to Unger and his supporters. She was the mayor's candidate, and the only one in the field who hadn't rejected the notion that the power of eminent domain had been abused in Long Branch."

"In Neptune Township, the mayor's team who all refuse to take eminent domain off the table, no longer have a job. Newcomers Dr. Michael Brantley and Ms. Mary Beth Crandall Jahn, who has spoken against the abuse of eminent domain won by a landslide. In a few short years in Neptune, the council went from 4 in favor of eminent domain and 1 against; to only one, the mayor, alone now with his redevelopment plans that continued to hold the threat of eminent domain."

In light of an obvious tide against eminent domain for private redevelopment sweeping the state, on November 8, 2006, the day after Election Day, I asked the Highland Park Borough Council to do the right thing and protect our homeowners and businesses against any threat of eminent domain for redevelopment. I asked that this be done in a two-step process.

1. Adopt the resolution I presented one year ago, which Middlesex Borough has adopted, amending the Redevelopment Plan to prohibit any use of eminent domain, as of January 2007. As resolutions must be adopted annually, this will only affect the next 12 months but will provide local homeowners and businesses with some measure of protection.

2. Adopt the ordinance the Edison Township Council did, placing the same question on the November 2007 ballot, asking whether the borough government should be prohibited from taking someone's private property through eminent domain with the purpose of selling, transferring or leasing the property to a private entity or party. The mayor and council should have enough faith in the voters of Highland Park to make the right decision. If they truly believe the voters want this power to remain in the hands of borough government, they should not be afraid to hold a public referendum. The November election results show what happens when a government persists in pursuing policies that cause more harm than good and no longer have the support of a majority of its constituents.

Here, verbatim, is the response I received from Mayor Meryl Frank:

“We have a redevelopment plan with, yes, at the very, very end of a process, if under dire circumstances, the use of eminent domain, which we really will probably never use.”

“The way that we have handled redevelopment has motivated people to do their own redevelopment.”

Response: We do not need a redevelopment agency that has been given $100,000 in taxpayers' money plus $35,000 a year for a paid director in order for people to develop their own properties. And if we "probably will never use eminent domain" anyway, why not put the decision to the voters?

“That in fact (reference to the June 2005 Democratic primary) was a referendum, and the candidates here won."

Response: Here we have not just a fallacy, but a justification for disenfranchising more than half the voting population. Why should only registered Democrats be allowed to have a say on the issue of eminent domain for private redevelopment? And how can anyone be fully sure the majority of people voted on one issue as opposed to making a thoughtful evaluation of all the candidates' records of service, strengths and weaknesses?

“I can’t imagine that this group, that our Planning Board or that this community wants to move in another direction. They haven’t shown us that they’re interested.”
“We have no objectors. None of the property owners are objecting to this.

“It is a complicated issue that takes a tremendous amount of time to understand. This council has taken the time to be educated about it; our redevelopment agency has taken the time to be educated about it. I don’t believe that everything needs to go on a referendum before the public. This is a complicated issue. We were voted into these offices to make these decisions. If they (the public) had access to the same information, I believe they would come up with the same conclusion.”

Response: Does the last statement mean the public does not have access to the same information the mayor and council have? Does the Governing Body not have faith in the voters' ability to understand the issue? When I asked this question, the only answer I received was "we already answered your question."

And here is a comment by Acting Borough Administrator Greg Fehrenbach:

“The public will has never necessarily been one that has gone in the correct

Response: Really? In a democracy, doesn't the public will trump everything but the state and US Constitution? Borough residents should know the contempt with which our administrator views the public will, as it is very telling of his true attitude toward the public.

The mayor believes no one in town has shown a desire to move in "another direction," i.e., letting the people decide through a non-partisan referendum whether eminent domain should be used for private redevelopment. Do those of you reading this feel the same way? If you disagree with the mayor and want this choice made by the voters of the community, it's time to speak out and say so in the form of comments at Borough Council meetings, letters to the editor, letters to members of the Governing Body, and, most of all, your vote six months from now in the Democratic primary for mayor, two council seats, and the entire Democratic Municipal Committee. Yes, the countdown continues.

Meanwhile, there are several other actions for which we have a small window of opportunity, all of which can help fight eminent domain abuse at the state and national level.

1. (the New Jersey Coalition to Stop Eminent Domain Abuse) will have its next meeting Friday, December 8th at 7 pm in Neptune, NJ. Pastor Randy Steinman has been gracious enough to allow the group to use his church again for this meeting. Redeemer Lutheran Church, 3531 State Route 33 at Jumping Brook Rd, Neptune NJ 07753-3003 The Church is located at 3531 State Route 33, at the corner of Jumping Brook Rd in Neptune. About 1/2 mile east of GSP Exit 100 (Rt 33 east, Ocean Grove) and about 2.5 miles west of the interchange for Rt 18 and Rt 33.Also, at the last meeting we asked everyone to sign up at least 5 new members before the next meeting. There will also be T-shirts for sale at the December meeting so please be prepared to buy a few if you can afford to.Hope to see everyone there! Spread the word!STOP EMINENT DOMAIN ABUSE COALITION of NJ is on the rise !!! Spread the word.

2. State Senator Rice's Committee is holding a hearing on his bill, S1975 (Eminent Domain reform), Monday. The public is welcome to speak. Senate Community and Urban Affairs Monday, December 11, 2006 - 10:30 AM Meeting - Committee Room 1, 1st Floor, State House Annex, Trenton, New Jersey It is important that we have alot of people there! Please make plans to attend!STOP EMINENT DOMAIN ABUSE COALITION of NJ is on the rise !!! Spread the word.

3. This is the last week Congress is expected to be in session, and eminent domain reform has yet to be brought to a vote. It's time for a final, full-court press to get federal eminent domain reform passed before the 109th Congress adjourns. As you know, H.R. 4128 passed the House over a year ago by an extraordinarily bipartisan vote of 376-38. There is no reason this bill should be stonewalled in the Senate, but there has been no vote until now. The Senate needs to understand that federal protections against eminent domain abuse are important to the American people. Every poll done in the wake of Kelo shows overwhelming disapproval of seizing private property for economic development. 34 states have passed legislation in just over one year limiting their powers of eminent domain. And both state courts that have heard this issue since Kelo - Oklahoma and Ohio - disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision and ruled in favor of the property owners. It is clear that this abuse of power will no longer be tolerated, nor will Congress’s support of it.

There is going to be an effort to get eminent domain reform passed this week, but it requires that every Senator agree to it. Consequently, your senators’ - Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez - support for this legislation is essential to its passage. We urge you to contact Senators Lautenberg and Menendez TODAY and TELL THEM TO SUPPORT H.R. 4128/S. 3873. Then call Senator Frist’s office and let him know that you talked to your senators. Lastly, tell all of your friends and family to do the same. Every additional person that makes their voice heard increases the chances that this bill will pass, so please - take a few minutes today to spread the word.

Here are their phone numbers: Senator Frank Lautenberg: (202) 224-3224, Senator Robert Menendez: (202) 224-4744, Senator Bill Frist: (202) 224-3344
Or you can e-mail them through this link:
This is the last chance for the 109th Congress to pass eminent domain reform. If they don't, we will have to start all over again next year - so let's make this week count.

Let's keep making our voices heard!