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."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Highland Park Democratic Committee's Decade of Disgrace

In its last two screening processes, one held in October to fill a Borough Council vacancy, and the other held this month to replace Mayor Frank, the Highland Park Democratic Committee has unequivocally shown its determination to retain its closed processes and reckless disregard for its bylaws to the very end of the decade.

This is in no way a criticism of the individuals nominated for these positions by the Democratic Committee. It is solely directed at the Committee's leadership, which has recklessly disregarded the law time and time again over ten years, and at the small clique that keeps this leadership in power.

When Councilman Lou Pichinson resigned in October, the Democratic Committee, as usual, was supposed to hold a screening, or interview of interested candidates, and then choose three to recommend to the Borough Council. The Council would then select either one of the three people named or someone else entirely.

Screenings are supposed to receive advance publicity so anyone interested can come forward and present themselves. The October 2009 screening had no such publicity. On a Friday afternoon, October 9, the evening of which began a two-day Jewish holiday where many observers do not use electricity, Democratic Committee leaders sent a 5 PM email changing the scheduled meeting date from the following Monday, October 12, to Sunday, October 11, one hour after the Jewish holiday ended. This means even Committee members observing the holiday were very unlikely to find out about the inconvenient change of meeting date. It also means there was zero advance publicity to recruit interested candidates.

Furthermore, several Committee members who just happen to not be Frank supporters never received the email announcing the Sunday night meeting. Somehow, their names were misspelled in the email message sent to all Committee members--not the first time this happened--so they never received the message at all. The result was that the Sunday night meeting was attended by only 12 out of 26 members--two short of a quorum. Without a quorum, the Committee is not permitted to take any official action. Yet they did so anyway, ignoring state statute and their own bylaws.

This month, the Committee held a screening for the mayor's position and once again, there was no advance publicity. The only public notice was a brief in The Home News Tribune on the same day as the screening. This is insufficient advance time for those who might be interested to re-arrange their schedules.

The Committee then proceeded to name only one candidate, former Councilman Stephen Nolan, instead of the three required by law--in spite of the fact that at least one other candidate was interviewed at the meeting.

When Mayor Frank finally chose a date for her resignation, instead of sending a press release to the media, she sent an email to members of the Democratic Committee. This is unheard of and brings home the fact that from the beginning, she has treated the party Committee as her own personal political organization. This is in stark contract to Democratic mayors of other towns, who have stated publicly that they never interfere in party committee business.

As is often the case, I received phone calls from several reporters the next day, all of whom complained that the Committee leadership refused them entrance into the meeting and refused to give any comment on the proceedings. They were quite put off by this, and noted that in every other town they cover, Democratic Municipal Committees always hold open meetings and rarely refuse to give any comment to the press.

I enlightened them by noting that the Highland Park Democratic Committee now has the dubious honor of having gone an entire decade without holding a single open meeting. Committee leaders have even shut elected members out of the decision making process, at times conducting votes about candidate selection over the phone, never holding a meeting at all and only calling selected Committee members known to be loyal to Mayor Frank.

The central goal in journalism and in democracy is the public right to know. While various media outlets are presenting "The Decade in Review," I decided to enlighten Highland Park voters with a chronology of the Highland Park Democratic Committee's Decade of Disgrace to Democracy, replete with backroom deals, closed meetings, and complete lack of transparency.

July 6, 2000: Utilizing pressure from a state-level party boss who was later sent to federal prison on corruption charges, Mayor Frank forced a majority of the incumbent Democratic Committee members to resign, leaving the Committee without a quorum. With pressure from the same party boss, she then argued that since the Committee had no quorum, state and county leaders had the right to fill all the vacancies. Of course, she insisted those vacancies be filled with a specific list of people she had compiled, all of whom had volunteered on her campaign. When several of the remaining Committee members objected to these strongarm tactics, they were told by a higher level Democratic Party official that if they resisted, he would "fight you with an army of lawyers."

While the forced resignations should never have happened, the right thing to do if there are too many vacancies to make a quorum is to hold a special election. That is what should have been done in 2000 but never took place. Frank's supporters were handed incumbency through bullying tactics rather than by vote of the people.

The day after this meeting, I confronted Mayor Frank at Borough Hall about the undemocratic nature of the proceedings. Her response was to attack the previous Democratic chair and Committee while at the same time slandering Council President Leon Cohen. "Why didn't they run you?" she asked of the Democratic Committee's choice in the spring of 2000, before she forced her takeover. "Why did they run a sick old man instead?" I was shocked by her characterization of Cohen, a brilliant man when it came to budgets and a dedicated Councilman, as "a sick old man," and planned to confront her publicly about this statement at the next Council meeting. Unfortunately, Cohen died suddenly the next day.

Mid-July 2000: After Cohen's sudden death, the newly-formed Committee held a screening to fill the vacancy, with no advance publicity whatsoever.

Fall 2000: Mayor Frank inappropriately and repeatedly referred to the Democratic Committee as "my Democratic Committee" and to herself as "the titular head of the Democratic Party." At one point, she made this statement to the daughter of vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.

2001-2002: The Democratic Committee inappropriately held its meetings at the office of Mayor Frank's husband's energy consulting firm, Gabel Associates. Not only did this amount to a clear assertion of "this is my turf" by the mayor; it also meant screenings and meetings were held in a place that was not handicapped accessible. The building has no ramps or elevators; holding meetings there essentially meant "no people who use wheelchairs need apply."

2000-2002: Mayor Frank, who is not a Committee member, not only sat in on all Committee meetings, but made accusations against incumbent Council members screening for party support, further biasing Committee members. In 2001, she urged Committee members to not support the two incumbents who preceded her in office, citing not their records but that they didn't put up her signs during the 1999 mayoral election. In July 2002, one month after receiving a respectable 40 percent of the vote in a Democratic Council primary, I screened for a Council vacancy. At that screening, Frank was so vociferous in her accusations against me, replete with fabricated incidents she claimed took place during the campaign, incidents in which she attempted to portray me and my supporters as racists, that several Committee members objected to her actions during the meeting. The Committee later voted to ban Frank from attending any future candidate screenings.

April 2001: In a clear conflict of interest, the spouse of a Committee member was given the party's support to run for Council. The Committee member in question should have recused herself from the vote, but she did not do so, and no one in the party leadership objected to her voting.

November 2001: After the Democratic Committee refused to support two very qualified incumbents, I led an impromptu write-in campaign for them in the uncontested general election. It was solely a protest. Yet after the election, the party chair expressed his outrage livid that the write-in candidates had received over 60 votes.

April 2002: The Democratic Committee held a screening only one hour after Passover ended, which that year was also during the Christian Holy Week, an extremely inconvenient time that practically assured a very low number of people would be able to attend. This was in spite of the fact that the screening could have been conducted any time over the last two months.

March 2003: Frank's chosen representative in her own district, the 8th, was forced to resign after writing an extremely controversial letter in The Home News Tribune, in which he explicitly stated he hoped Iraq triumphed in the war and that that triumph would result in the breaking up of the United States. His letter ended up being discussed statewide on NJ101.5 by the Jersey Guys.

Repeated complaints about screenings being held at Frank's husband's office led to the screenings being moved to the YM-YWHA in 2003 and then to Charlie Brown's restaurant after the Y closed in 2007.

December 2003: As an active Democrat, I spent several months attempting to work out some sort of reconciliation with the Committee in anticipation of the 2004 presidential election. Six months after asking the Committee to find a volunteer role for me other than that of an elected Committee member, the party chair said to my face, "we can't include everybody." When I publicly noted this telling comment in an April 2005 Home News Tribune op-ed column, the party chair responded with a column of his own filled with personal attacks against me, including the false charge that I asked him to overturn an election and give me a Committee seat--something I never did or would even think of doing.

December 2004: Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons voted against establishing a redevelopment agency, as she did not want anyone's property made vulnerable to potential use of eminent domain. She also voted against setting up a Business Improvement District (BID) after talking to many business owners and determining the additional tax would be burdensome to them. In response, she was told by Committee leaders that she would not receive the party's support to run for another term the following year. It seems the party chair either assumed he could read Committee members' minds three months in advance or felt certain he could control the decision they would make.

June 2005: Mayor Frank and her supporters attempted to subvert an election by repeatedly harassing a husband and wife whom we had recruited to challenge the incumbent Democratic Committee members in the 5th district. Committee members are supposed to be chosen via the election process. Yet Frank and her followers laid guilt on the two challengers, telling them "we already have people for those positions," a misleading statement that runs in direct contradiction of the democratic process. These two candidates were harassed so many times that they finally agreed to sign a postcard endorsing the incumbents without even reading what the postcard said. Within two years, they left town altogether.

June 2005: After the incumbent Committeeman in the 11th district was defeated by a challenger, the Committee immediately submitted his name to fill a vacant Council seat. Subsequent incumbents who lost their Committee races had positions created for them and were admitted to Committee meetings even while the general public was not.

September 2005: After Councilman Nolan resigned, the Committee held a screening, again to fulfill the statute of naming three potential replacements to the Borough Council. In spite of the fact that three people screened, only two names were submitted. I was the third person who screened and as usual, gave an informed presentation to the Committee. They chose to violate the law and name only two rather than even submit my name as one of the three or submit the name of someone else who didn't screen. This was the last of multiple screenings I took part in, as it brought home the futility of even trying to work with the Committee.

March 2007: The Democratic Committee held a screening for both the mayor's position and two council seats, all of which were up for re-election that year. However, before they even interviewed candidates, Committee leaders mailed out notices of a fundraiser for Frank and the incumbent Council members. How could the Committee have presumed in advance of the process what the results would be? If the Committee had already determined in advance who would get their support, why hold a screening at all?

2004-2008: In interviewing candidates, the Committee made support for the mayor's redevelopment project a key question. Those who had slightly different views about the downtown and redevelopment; for example, those who did not want any use of eminent domain, were immediately discounted as candidates.

Throughout the decade, the Democratic Committee did almost nothing to support county and state-level Democratic candidates in spite of the fact that this is a part of their duty as party representatives. Serving Frank was clearly more important than serving the county and state party and the party's ideals.

Committee leaders also filed incomplete Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reports over the course of the decade, leaving out major sources of their funding. In at least one case, no ELEC report was filed at all for a campaign in spite of the legal requirement to do so. In 2007, invitations to a fundraiser for Frank were inappropriately collected at Borough Hall.

During the entire decade, no screenings were conducted, and no public outreach of any kind was held to recruit people who might be interested in serving as their district representatives on the Democratic Committee. The only recruiting involved Frank personally selecting and contacting her own supporters, mostly parents active in the school PTOs. That means those who didn't have children in the public schools or were not involved with the PTOs never had a chance to even be considered for a committee seat.

All Democrats in Highland Park must ask ourselves, why is our party Committee the only one in the region that does not hold open meetings? Why does a group that talks the talk of open government and transparency not walk the walk? Why is the Democratic Committee in this town being allowed to break the law whenever they choose and act in ways reminiscent of New York City's infamous Tammany Hall?

Our party can do better than this. Let's commit to following the Democratic Committee's Decade of Disgrace with a new Decade of Real Democracy. If Democratic organizations in other towns can do this, we can too.