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, October 19, 2006

Turning Down County Money for Schools?

Are Mayor Frank and the Borough Council turning down, or at minimum stonewalling, acceptance of a $1 million grant from Middlesex County to repair Highland Park High School's athletic fields and track because the source of the funding is Frank's rival, Freeholder H. James Polos?

A very murky situation has been unfolding between the county, the local Board of Education, and the Governing Body over the past six or so weeks. The county, through Freeholder Polos, has offered the school district approximately $1 million toward fixing up the athletic fields and track at the high school. The repair would involve installation of artificial turf, which would mean the field could be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system under consideration has excellent drainage, so this is not the source of the problem. The repairs would create additional opportunities for the high school's athletic teams and gym classes as well as for the borough's recreation programs, which are currently short on space due to the closing of portions of Donaldson Park for renovations.

Legal procedure requires the grant be approved by both the Board of Education and the mayor and Borough Council. The Freeholders have already made the money available, and both the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools are in favor of accepting it. The only ones holding it up are the mayor and council, who have apparently been stonewalling during informal talks over the last month and a half.

Other Middlesex County municipalities have been only too happy to accept similar grants. Edison received $500,000 to fix a park near its municipal complex. Dunellen was given about $1 million to improve Columbia Park, creating a beautiful recreational complex totally funded by the county.

Until very recently, county officials assumed our acceptance of the grant was a done deal, as it should be.

Why is our town not accepting this money, which will benefit all of our populations? These facilities would be open and available to schoolchildren and local residents. There are no strings attached to the county's grant offer to the borough other than use of the fields be shared between the Board of Education and the borough's recreation programs. Without this money, the Board of Education will never be able to afford these improvements.

Freeholder Polos is up for re-election this November. Over the past seven years, Mayor Frank has maintained a personal grudge against him, at one point even telling a senior citizen not to mention his name at "her" monthly mayor's lunch. Her supporters who occupy leadership positions in the Municipal Democratic Party have actually encouraged voters to skip pushing the button for Polos when voting in both primaries and general elections to deliberately discredit him with a lower number than anyone else on the party line.

Is Mayor Frank afraid Polos will get credit for our obtaining the grant in these weeks immediately preceding the election? Is she rejecting the money because the initative was not her idea? Why is Councilman Mark Watson also apparently objecting to accepting the grant? If Frank is opposing acceptance of the money, why aren't members of the council overriding her and approving it anyway, as is their responsibility?

Mayor Frank's rhetoric is filled with abundant references to children and making this borough child friendly. If it is true that she is turning down $1 million that would benefit our children because the gift does not suit her personal and political needs, then that rhetoric rings hollow and reveals the blatant hypocrisy of someone who does not deserve to hold public office.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ethics: Appearance vs. Reality

The mayor and council have embarked on a systematic marketing campaign aimed at convincing the public and the media that they are forerunners of ethics and good government in New Jersey. Conveniently, they arranged to adopt ordinances restricting nepotism, pay to play and dual office holding, all noble endeavors in and of themselves, at the meeting to be aired immediately preceding the November election.

The ordinances are important milestones though one wonders why it took the administration seven and a half years to enact them. At the same time, beneath the immaculate surface of "good government" lurk many unaswered questions and ethical problems of which the public is largely unaware.

First, the mayor claims the borough has appointed, past tense, an Ethics Board. However, no such board has of yet been appointed, in spite of the recommendation having been made one year ago. Ethics Boards are required to be balanced with members of both parties, yet last year, the mayor recommended replacing Republicans with Independents on it because there are so few Republicans in town. I am a Democrat, but I find this disconcerting. If an Ethics Board is required to have representatives of both parties, then that is what ours should have. Making changes due to political expediency puts the whole endeavor in question. So does misleading the public by stating that an action has been taken when it has not yet been done--and appears timed to coincide with next year's election.

The composition of the Task Force on Ethics and Good Government also raises questions. Virtually every single member of the group is a supporter of the mayor who has faithfully displayed her signs and the signs of her candidates over the last seven years. This is not illegal, but its insularity and clear political bias detract from the objectivity such a group should embody. Even more problematic is the fact that the vice chair of the Task Force, Gerri Callahan, is the wife of an employee of Mayor Frank's husband, Mike Ambrosio, who received $6 million in no bid contracts from the state Board of Public Utilities Clean Energy Fund--the same $100 million fund that has come under heavy criticism for having little to no oversight and for doling out contracts to former employees and friends of the BPU leadership. Callahan's presence on the Task Force at the same time that serious questions are being raised about Ambrosio, who also serves on the Democratic Municipal Committee, Board of Directors of Main Street Highland Park, and as head of the Green Communities Task Force, is troubling at best, raising shades of the fox guarding the henhouse.

The ordinances also are far too limited in their scope. For example, the prohibition on nepotism should include a prohibition on hiring relatives of declared candidates for local office, not just relatives of people already in office. This is New Jersey, and it is all too easy to imagine deals being made where family members of candidates are hired before the election takes place and then grandfathered in once the candidates are actually elected. This is a serious loophole which has been brought before the council on several occasions but has never been addressed.

Then there is the statement by the mayor that she and the candidates she supports take no money from developers. This statement is highly disingenuous and very misleading. Why? Because the mayor and council members do take money from the Middlesex County Democratic Organization. In 2005, the Middlesex County Democratic Organization gave several thousand dollars to the Highland Park Democratic Municipal Committee. It is common knowledge that developers are the largest donors to the county party. Jack Morris, Michael Kaplan, etc., and the entire network of contractors involved in land development are the major contributors to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization. Until recently, so was John Lynch, whose donations many candidates and office holders are now returning or giving to charity. Are any Highland Park officials doing this with money previously received from the county party that originated with Lynch?

In light of this, I asked the mayor and council at the October 3 meeting to take a pledge not to take any money from the county party from now on. They refused to do so, stating the idea is "irrelevant." So they are effectively saying that taking money that clearly passes from developers through an intermediary (the county party) to them does not equate to taking money from developers. The outrageousness of this position is obvious, and it is an outright insult to the voters of Highland Park.

The mayor and council want everyone to believe they are pioneers in enacting ethics and good government ordinances. However, many municipalities in the state have already adopted such ordinances; many already have Ethics Boards, and most addressed pay to play at the end of 2005, as required by the state. It is true that so far no other municipality has banned dual office holding, but that is largely because their attorneys have advised officials that such a law must be enacted at the state rather than local level and that a local version would not stand up in court.

Mayor Frank is adept at presenting a neatly packaged appearance of good government centering on herself and marketing it as the most innovative on the planet. However, Highland Park voters are smart enough to look beyond the surface of a well packaged product and peel away the layers of deception. When they do, they will find a far more questionable and dubious reality.