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."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shooting the Messenger

In the fifth Harry Potter book, Harry and his mentor Professor Dumbledore try to warn the wizarding world that its nemesis Lord Voldemort is back, but unfortunately, the powers that be in that world choose not to believe them. Instead, they demonize Harry and Dumbledore, portraying them as liars, unstable, etc. because they do not want to believe their words are true.

Here in Highland Park, some of the mayor's supporters have taken a page from Harry's detractors. They claim that somehow, the campaign literature of the Wolf team in the June primary was "negative," "full of lies," "evil," etc. And those of us who worked on the literature are described as "angry," "vindictive,"and sometimes "evil" ourselves.

There is only one problem with this argument, which is this. Every single one of the accusations against Mayor Frank in the Wolf campaign's literature is true.

Frank did preside over the loss of $400,000 in tax deposits and then proceed to cover for two guilty borough employees, one of whom was allowed to work at the scene of the crime after being indicted.

Frank was fully aware of the terms of the cell tower agreement and then swore falsely that she was not.

Frank did refuse to enact statutory protection for local homes and businesses against eminent domain. The only reason her administration did not use it is because they couldn't. The property owners whose lots were placed in the redevelopment zone effectively pre-empted the administration by sounding the alarm and alerting the public and the media to the fact that eminent domain might be used.

Frank did play a role in former Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons' loss of her county job in late 2004 and her forced resignation in 2005.

A huge, unresolved conflict of interest remains in the fact that she has positioned herself as a leader in promoting green technology while her husband owns an energy consulting firm that accepted no bid contracts from the BPU's Clean Energy Fund and that benefits financially by getting consulting jobs through her efforts.

Frank formed an ethics task force made up entirely of her own supporters including the spouse of the previous head of the Green Community Working Group, who at the time was an employee of her husband's firm and being paid through Rutgers to consult on the borough's green initiatives.

Frank approached the employers of several of her opponents and asked that they fire those employees. I and my 2005 running mate were victims of this bullying. Thankfully, neither of our employers caved to these demands.

Frank presided over the largest municipal tax increase in Highland Park history--an increase of forty percent. And she has overburdened the business district with an additional tax--an assessment is, after all, a tax--averaging an additional $2,000 a year.

And in a move worthy of a totalitarian dictatorship, Frank filed a false police report against me in an attempt to intimidate me from seeking public office and brand me as some sort of criminal. Again thankfully, our Police Department recognized a political stunt when they saw one.

Why bring this up now that the election is over? The answer is that none of these issues has gone away. These things actually happened, and election or not, the public has a right to know about them, as do the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Frank's supporters claim that opponents including myself will "ruin the schools," which is absurd. The Borough Council has nothing to do with running the schools, which are governed separately by the Board of Education. Everyone of our 2007 team--and our 2008 team--is a staunch supporter of public education. Her claim is a lie, and once again, the public, especially parents, have the right to know.

Once again, I am immensely proud of the 2007 race and my role in it. I have no intention of changing my personal or political style, both of which are sources of great satisfaction and reward. I am proud to be the type of politician who will not be bullied or intimidated from telling the truth as I know it. Through informal participation in campaign trainings, I have shared my strategies and experience as a watchdog and a muckraker and encouraged other aspiring political activists and candidates to not be afraid to shine the light in all of the public realm's dark places (and here in New Jersey, there is no shortage of them).

Instead of shooting the messenger, borough residents should take the time to think and investigate on their own whether any of the so-called "negative" accusations against Frank are true. Because if they are, we are being governed by someone who has consistently ducked responsibility and has shown herself unfit to hold public office.

Frank was right in one statement she made on the night of the election. To quote her own words, it's not over.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Eminent Domain on the Retreat

A funny thing has been happening on the way to redevelopment here in New Jersey. In just a few months this summer, government's use of eminent domain to seize property and hand it over to private developers in the name of "redevelopment" and higher ratables has sustained one defeat after another in rapid succession.

First, of course, there was the June ruling by the State Supreme Court that "underutilization" or "not being fully productive" may not be used a sole criterion to declare a property blighted and therefore potentially subject to eminent domain, in response to the case Gallenthin Realty vs. Paulsboro.

On July 19, Essex County Superior Court Judge Marie P. Simonelli threw out Newark's attempt to declare its Mulberry Street area as "blighted" or, more euphemistically, "in need of redevelopment." The 14-acres area has been improved with a mix of residential and commercial buildings and several parking lots. There are 166 lots, and all but seven are owned by private businesses or individuals. The area is located approximately one block east of the Newark Arena project presently under construction on Broad Street. The Court concluded that the city had not presented substantial credible evidence of blight as required under the state Local Housing and Redevelopment Law. In this case, the Court also noted the existence of "allegations of impermissible favoritism given to politically connected developers" (eminent domain attorney Bill Ward).

In Lodi, a trial court rejected the city's designation of a residential trailer park as blighted. New Jersey Appellate Judges Kestin, Payne, and Lihotz affirmed the decision of Superior Court Judge Richard Donohue throwing out the resolutions of the Lodi Planning Board, Mayor and Council that blighted approximately 20 acres in the Route 46 area. As a result of this decision, Lodi's Governing Body unanimously decided to drop any appeal of the case. Had the properties of Brown's Trailer Park and Costa Trailer Court been subject to eminent domain, more than 40 residents would have been displaced from their homes.

On July 11, another three-judge appellate panel reversed a decision of Judge Lawrence Lawson, A.J.S.C., Monmouth County, which had affirmed the Borough of Belmar's blighting of waterfront property belonging to Freedman's Bakery in HJB v. Borough of Belmar.

In Maplewood, Essex County Superior Court Judge Donald Goldman vacated a blight designation for two properties, one owned by Carolyn Evans and the other owned by Richard Rio of the Rivco Group LLC. In this case, "the court rejected Maplewood’s argument that the suit was premature because no plan for redevelopment has been adopted and no condemnation was imminent. Maplewood’s argument is typical of the disingenuous blather presented to property owners who oppose a blight designation under the 45-day time constraints" (eminent domain attorney Bill Ward).

The bottom line, according to attorney Michael Kates, Esq., is "Now we know that you can't simply say that you can redevelop on the basis that you're not getting the highest return on your land." - Michael Kates, Esq., as reported in the Star-Ledger (July 25, 2007).

In Camden, a lawsuit brought by the residents of the Cramer Hill Neighborhood as a result of the city's attempt via eminent domain to acquire several parcels of land containing residential homes resulted in the Appellate Court Division's reversal of an earlier trial court decision in favor of the takings. It is noteworthy that Camden sought to use the Fair Housing Act rather than the Local Redevelopment Housing Law (LRHL) after the trial court threw out Camden’s redevelopment plan. The Cramer Hill Neighborhood encompasses more than 162 city blocks containing more than 4,000 homes, most of which are well maintained, historic, and attractively landscaped.

In Perth Amboy, a blight designation was reversed by the New Jersey Superior Court because the city did not provide enough evidence to justify the designation. According to the court decision, "You can’t just say by reason of dilapidation you’re in an area of redevelopment. You have to indicate how that’s detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of a community. And in order to demonstrate that … that’s where the evidence comes into play. That could have been demonstrated or possibly demonstrated through zoning violations, building code violations, fire reports, something of that nature. Again, that wasn’t present in the report. (381 N.J. Super at 275)."

As of mid-August, there have been a total of seven court decisions in New Jersey that focused on the determination of blight and the use of eminent domain. According to eminent domain attorney Bill Ward, "decisions in Lodi, Bloomfield, Newark, Belmar, Camden and Maplewood demonstrate that the courts will not accept or give deference to municipal blight declarations which are not supported by substantial, credible evidence. The message is clear: the New Jersey courts are looking at these prerogative writs actions and expert testimonies through the lens of Gallenthin. As a consequence, municipalities that present evidence less than required by Gallenthin are subject to losing their blight designations and redevelopment projects" (eminent domain attorney Bill Ward).

The implications of these decisions for Highland Park are clear. Properties that are not vacant or abandoned, that house residents or businesses who have no violations of building codes, fire codes, or zoning laws, may not be declared "in need of redevelopment" and subsequently taken by eminent domain because government officials believe they have a better use for those properties that would produce more tax ratables. This reasoning was exactly that stated by the Highland Park Planning Board in its 2005 declaration of a patchwork of properties on Raritan Avenue as being in need of redevelopment. It is exactly the reasoning used by the mayor's designee on the Planning Board, former Councilman Steve Buzbee, in arguments he has made dating back to 2001. And now it is clear it will not hold up in court.

Neither will the argument that the town has no specific redevelopment plans and/or intentions of imminent condemnation of these areas hold up in a court of law. Mayor Frank often makes a point of noting that eminent domain has not been used, that no declarations of taking have been issued, and that Highland Park will "do" redevelopment differently than other towns. Whether or not a declaration of taking has been issued, a designation of blight makes a property permanently vulnerable to being seized at some point in the future.

As for "doing redevelopment differently," those very words have been pronounced by mayors and council members across the state and country. They could be coming from the same script, written by firms such as Jaffe Communications who specialize in "selling" redevelopment to the public. Every town purports to be different, yet in the end, the results are the same. An oral promise stating the borough hopes to never use eminent domain yet refusing to rule it out by statute means about as much as an oral contract between buyers and sellers or between employers and employees.

Equally encouraging, various state agencies are now investigating over 70 improper blight designations in New Jersey.

For local businesses and residents who want to stay in Highland Park, things are definitely looking up.