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, January 31, 2008

Delivering Nothing

When a US president delivers the annual State of the Union address, it has become part of the process for the party in opposition to present a response. Democracy thrives only when voice is given to all points of view, when the fact that there is more than one way of looking at critical issues is acknowledged.

In the spirit of that tradition, what follows below is a response to the mayor's speech "Delivering on Promises," published in the Winter 2008 edition of the Highland Park Quarterly. That speech reflects exactly why this mayor and her agenda are wrong for Highland Park.

As usual, she begins with herself, with a self-congratulatory statement about her position as mayor. From there, the first person language changes from "I" to a nebulous "we," but this is not a "we" that is inclusive or even in acknowledgment that other visions for the town's future exist. Mayor Frank's use of "we" is focused solely on her vision, her agenda, and the contributions of her hand-picked people . From the tone of her presentation, an outsider would think this is a politician who received 100 percent of the vote instead of 1,622 out of a total number of 8,000 registered voters.

The blatant blurring of partisan political rhetoric in a report supposed to detail government accomplishments is stunning. The mayor says she wants "to reflect" with the public "about that change that voters demanded eight years ago," a partisan, biased, self-serving, offensive statement that presumes the only people living in this town are those who fought for her. She later continues the illusion--or should one say delusion--with the claim that the people of this borough have come together "to work out a common vision" that just happens to be her personal vision as opposed to a conglomeration of the many different visions put forward for Highland Park by citizen activists over the past decades.

Sorry, mayor, but not everyone fought for you and the change you wanted. Forty-five percent of Democratic voters opposed it back in your precious 1999, and 45 percent of Democrats continued to oppose it in 2007. And since this town almost never had a contested general election over the last eight years, the majority of voters, who are not affiliated with any party, have never had a choice of leaders in the November general elections.

The world did not begin eight years ago, and neither did the borough's environmental and green efforts. Highland Park has been a model community in the environmental arena for decades. Long before Frank came onto the scene, Mayor Jeff Orbach fought for and succeeded in saving the Highland Park portion of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve from development. Mayor Jim Polos initiated the Eugene P. Young Environmental Education Center and obtained the initial $500,000 in county funding for it. Mayor Polos also was one of the first to set out a bold vision for a greenway from Donaldson Park to Johnson Park.

Yes, this town played a leadership role in being green long before it was a hot issue, but the fact our current mayor ignores is we did so long before she came onto the scene.

When we enacted ordinances to protect steep slopes and stream corridors, it was because of the effort of the late Richard Marx, an independent council candidate in 1999 who wrote one of the original ordinances, and subsequent persistent lobbying by citizen activists of all political persuasions.

If we are such a green community now, why have we not rezoned the borough-owned Meadows below Buck Woods from residential to conservation? Why did we spend $1 million on tiny Centennial Park but make no effort to raise the funds to purchase the thriving four-acre ecosystem known as Buck Woods? Why did we let Jack Morris cut down 40 trees illegally in Buck Woods with impunity in 2005? Why did we not do more to prevent the Parker Assisted Living Facility from clearcutting a huge area of mature trees to build its facility?

Why did the borough's 2003 Master Plan change the YM-YWHA property from being zoned quasi-public to riverfront residential, paving the way for another high rise at this site?

And why are we claiming to be playing a leadership role in promoting environmental sustainability when numerous municipalities across the state, as well as Middlesex County itself, are taking the exact same initiatives at the same time we are, with the only difference being their leaders are not "packaging" themselves in green wrapping paper for the sake of photo ops, maximum press coverage, and political promotion for their mayors?

If there is one laughable statement in the mayor's overt propaganda statement, it is the labeling of the 2007 opposition campaign as the "old guard." That term was first used by communist regimes in the former Soviet Union in an attempt to distance themselves from their predecessors. Dictatorships specialize in propaganda, so it is not surprising the mayor would take a page from their books.

Our candidates who ran in 2007 are new, energetic, dynamic citizen leaders, most of whom have never held public office before. Mayor Frank and her supporters have repeatedly spread the lie that our money came from a former mayor and a former borough attorney. Nothing could be further from the truth. But she cannot acknowledge that there is a grassroots movement in town other than her own, a group that raised our own money, a group that worked hard going door to door to mobilize citizens to elect a mayor, council, and Democratic Committee that respect and represent the views of all in town, not just one clique, a group that earned nearly 1,250 votes in last year's primary and won several committee seats.

There is nothing entrenched about the opposition in Highland Park, nothing that looks backward instead of forward. Mayor Frank is stuck in either 1999 or 2020. We want to address the affordability issues, the crippling burden of property taxes, and the wasteful spending on expensive consultants for redevelopment happening here, now, in 2007, 2008 and 2009. We want to make it easier for businesses to thrive in town by removing the $2,000 annual burden of the BID on business and property owners, most of which goes to pay salaries and expensive consultants. We want open government to be more than just words that apply only to the mayor's friends.

The people of Highland Park do want good, clean government. But your administration, Mayor Frank, is not it. Your administration is one that has again and again showed contempt for the Open Public Records Act, through repeated delays and stonewalling of public records requests and open berating of those making those requests. It is worthy to note that this administration has two outstanding complaints before the state Government Records Council and is also being investigated by the Office of the Public Advocate for improper designation of redevelopment areas. Frank's mayoral campaign also is under investigation by the state Election Law Enforcement Commisson for illegally taking $500 from an LLC.

Last spring, Councilwoman Fern Goodhart promised that council meetings and agendas would be put on the borough's web site, as is done already in many other towns. Nine months have passed, and nothing has been delivered. Some towns are now placing the text of ordinances approved on first reading on their web sites as well. Why aren't we? Where other governing bodies make sure to have at least one public comment session early in their meetings, our mayor and council continue to delay public comment until the meetings' end, making it harder for senior citizens and those who have to get up early for work the next day to stay long enough to have their say. And when people do come up and express dissenting views, they often are faced with an attitude of contempt and ridicule by those at the dais who think they know better than the average citizen.

When $400,000 in taxpayers' money vanished, but the mayor waited five weeks to report it to the police, was that good and open government? When a Tax Assessor indicted for misapplication of those funds was allowed to continue working for a week at the scene of the crime, was that good and open government?

Leadership in ethics? Then why are five out of seven members of the Ethics Task Force open supporters of the mayor? Why does the mayor want to, in contravention of the law, skip appointing Republicans to the Ethics Commission as required? Why have no ethics laws been created to cover Main Street and the Redevelopment Agency, as former Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons recommended?

Mayor Frank claims the borough has worked hard to find savings to control property taxes? Then why were several new positions with full salaries and benefits created? Why are thousands of our tax dollars going to politically connected PR firms to politically promote Frank through press releases and publications like the Quarterly? Why are we spending $35,000 a year on a Redevelopment Agency Director and over $100,000 on Main Street salaries? Why have we paid the mayor's friend Jennifer Sennick for at least four separate revisions of the streetscape plan?

The administration will fight the way it fought Verizon over the cell tower? Remember, that's the same cell tower for which the mayor signed a contract and then lied about not knowing what was in that contract. The administration will fight for openness? Remember, this is the same administration that never bothered to consult with a whole group of business owners before placing their properties in a redevelopment study and therefore at risk of being taken via eminent domain.

The administration will fight for a "common vision" opposed by only "a few exceptions?" Let's not forget that vision is one of increased housing density on Cleveland Avenue, Raritan Avenue, River Road at the Cenacle site, and likely the YM-YWHA site. Higher density is not the right direction for a small town like Highland Park. We are not Brooklyn, nor do we want to be. Higher density is not "smart growth" in spite of all the rhetoric that claims otherwise. Higher density means more school children, more funding needed for schools, and more infrastructure. It means traffic congestion far worse than the already bad situation we have today with 25,000 cars traveling daily down Raritan Avenue.

And the mayor can hardly take credit for bringing new businesses into town, as the business turnover during the last eight years has followed the same pattern as it has for decades. Yes, new businesses came in, but many also were lost, including favorites such as Victoria's Resale Boutique, Chapter One Coffeehouse, and Blooms.

And when the YM-YWHA, which has served generations in this borough for 52 years, faced closure, this administration showed a complete lack of leadership in working with its leaders to keep the Y in town. Middlesex County offered to purchase some of the property for open space, leading to a situation where a smaller high rise could be built along with a new Y, but the borough did nothing to help make this possibility succeed.

Are 45 percent of Democrats, 400 Republicans, and several thousand independents "a few exceptions?" What about the large numbers of people who have repeatedly written letters and held protests asking for a referendum outlawing the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment? What about the many business owners who feel unrepresented by this administration and put up signs for the opposition? It seems as though to this mayor, we don't exist.

Decency, civility, and inclusion? The voters definitely want this, but this administration has not shown any of these. If you doubt this, ask former Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons or one of the many people Frank unjustly had fired, such as the former recreation director or Irene Glinsky, the council's secretary for six years. For those who dissent with Frank, there is no decency, civility, or inclusion. That is why there was no room for Sal Raspa or Nancy Wolf on the Democratic ticket in 2001 in spite of their many accomplishments on behalf of this town. That is why opposition candidates, such as myself, faced Karl Rove style swift boat attacks accusing us of being racists, liars, anti-children, pro-developers, crazy, etc. Sorry, mayor, but decency, civility and inclusion have to apply to everyone, not just the people you like.

Change is not always a good thing. Many of the changes brought by Frank over the last years have been steps in the wrong direction, steps towards gentrification of our town. Her "hard fight" and "difficult start" was built upon slanderous lies falsely defaming people who had honorably served on the governing body for years. Her claim that the current council represents the borough's diversity rings hollow. Where are the senior citizens? Where are representatives of the business community? Where are the tenants? Where are the low income residents? Why is every council member in roughly the same age and income demographic?

Frank forced her changes on the Democratic Committee through bullying tactics, engaging county Democratic leaders to pressure incumbent committee members to resign so they could be replaced with a list hand-picked by her. When remaining committee members protested these heavy-handed tactics back in 2000, they were told by county Democratic leaders on behalf of Frank that any resistance to these changes would be met with well-funded efforts by "an army of lawyers." The committee, of which she proudly refers to herself as "titular head," has repeatedly flouted the laws and procedures it is supposed to follow and has not held a single open meeting for the better part of a decade.

For eight years, we have been hearing promises and rhetoric. But promises and rhetoric are not reality. Leadership that forces a vision of one person on a whole town and ignores those who see things differently is not effective or ethical leadership. Plans that claim to represent a public consensus while ignoring the sentiment of whole segments of the population are not accomplishments to be celebrated.

Mayor Frank was wrong for this town in 1999. She was wrong for this town in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007. She is wrong for this town in 2008. She has promised much but delivered nothing more than divisiveness, self-promotion, bullying, increased taxes, reduced services, a high school style clique mentality, and empty promises.

To this mayor, I say, you have no mandate. You won nothing. The vision you tried so hard to impose on our business owners between First and Second Avenue is thankfully dead, not because of your efforts, but because citizens spoke up and demanded justice. And we will do so again whenever any business is threatened with eminent domain, whenever an attempt is made to impose density too large for this town, as with the Dornoch proposal, and whenever the voices of those you wish would go away are ignored.

These are the promises of the voters you refuse to hear. We will continue to fight for our vision of an affordable, small town Highland Park that cares about all its residents and businesses. We will continue to keep democracy alive and thriving by running candidates challenging yours in every election. We will not allow Highland Park to become an exclusive, upscale community or your version of Westfield. We will hold this administration accountable at every turn regarding openness and accessibility. So you can expect to have to fight just as hard as you did eight years ago and every day since because there are enough people who genuinely believe your direction is wrong for Highland Park and who are willing to act on that belief.

There is an old saying that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism." And there are not, as you claim, "only a few exceptions" who dissent and embrace a vision different from yours. There are many of us in this town, and we're here for the duration regardless of whether or not you choose to acknowledge us. We are building a movement for the people based on substance instead of flimsy rhetoric. We are not any type of "old guard." We are citizen watchdogs, and we will make what you call "tries for it," namely attempts bring regime change to this town, again and again, for as long as it takes.

This mayor promises rhetoric and delivers nothing. We promise to fight for real change, real progressive values, and no matter how long it takes, we will deliver. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

We will deliver.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rules? What Rules?

In their latest move to fill a Borough Council vacancy earlier this month, the leadership of the Highland Park Democratic Municipal Committee has once again shown their utter contempt for the rules and procedures that are supposed to govern party operations.

Fern Goodhart, who won a three-year council term last year, accepted a job offer in Washington, D.C., meaning she cannot serve her new term. As the law requires, she took office at the Borough Council's reorganization meeting on January 7, 2008 and then promptly submitted her resignation.

What occurred after that is highly problematic. At the very same meeting, the council appointed Padraic Millet to fill the vacancy, citing his as one of three names submitted by the Democratic Municipal Committee to fill the vacancy.

Under state-governed procedure, the party of the person who resigns an elected office must name three potential replacements within 15 days of the person's resignation. The council then has 30 days from that person's resignation to pick one of the three nominees submitted by the party.

Here in Highland Park, several rules were ignored in the process of filling the vacancy left by Goodhart. First, the Democratic Committee was never given the 15-day period to submit the three names. Second and far more important, the Committee never held a meeting or the required interview for the selection of the three nominees.

The chair and vice chair of the party simply submitted three names to the council before Goodhart had even formally resigned. Most Democratic Committee members were not even aware of the resignation. Apparently, chair Bruce Morgan and vice chair Diane Weinberg are psychic, as they knew in advance that Goodhart planned to resign and on their own submitted three names for her replacement.

This in no way is intended to disparage Millet, who is hard working and dedicated and has done his best in taking on his new responsibilities as a council member. It is solely directed at the leadership of the Democratic Municipal Committee, which ignored proper procedure and acted on its own without bothering to inform fellow committee members of the vacancy, hold an interview process to recruit nominees, or allow for the appropriate time periods the process requires.

Mayor Frank continues to pride herself and her administration as paragons of open government and transparency. But it is actions that count, not words. Here we see the exact opposite of openness and transparency--not even an attempt to appear to be following procedure. This is the way dictatorships and oligarchies operate, not the way democracies operate.

Even members of the Democratic Committee were outraged at being completely left out of the loop in this action.

This is not the first time the party leadership has ignored rules and procedures. The last time a council vacancy occurred, no interview process was conducted either. The chair simply submitted three names without even convening the committee.

And in the case of an earlier vacancy, when there had been an actual interview process, the committee chair named only two people to the council for consideration, refusing to name a third even though three people had interviewed. That third person happened to be me. While I am not angry or bitter about not being chosen, I do take issue with the fact that the chair so cavalierly violated the law by refusing to name all three people who interviewed.

Appropriately, formal complaints have been filed with the county Democratic chair, state Democratic chair, and Middlesex County Prosecutor regarding the complete contempt for proper procedure shown in this latest case by the Democratic Municipal Committee's leadership.

In light of this utter contempt for and ignoring of rules issued by the state and followed in every New Jersey municipality, party chair Bruce Morgan and vice chair Diane Weinberg should immediately resign their positions, so new party leaders who respect the law can be chosen.

Once again, we are reminded why it is so important for citizens to run for positions on the Democratic Municipal Committee. If you are a Democrat and believe the same rules should apply to everyone, please consider running for a committee seat when they are up for election again in 2009.