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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Religion, science, and the solstice - The Boston Globe

Religion, science, and the solstice - The Boston Globe

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

In Memoriam: Harvey Brudner

On September 15, 2009, Highland Park lost yet another of our most active citizen volunteers--Harvey Brudner, former chair of the Highland Park Centennial Committee and for me and many, a valued personal friend.

Harvey had a PhD in theoretical physics and during his life, was president of Medical Development, Inc. in Jersey City, Dean of Science and Technology at the New York Institute of Technology, president of Westinghouse Learning Corporation, and research scientist at the Power Authority of the State of New York.

But beyond his intellectual brilliance and career accomplishments, Harvey was a kind, gentle soul, a good friend, a man who loved his community and history, an environmentalist, and a wonderful conversationalist.

Fascinated by Joyce Kilmer, Harvey served as president of the Joyce Kilmer Centennial Commission in New Brunswick. One of his favorite poems, if not his all time favorite, was Kilmer's poem "Trees." If Highland Park is a green community, it is because of people like Harvey leading the way. In 2004, he organized a beautiful ceremony in which a descendant of the oak tree that inspired Kilmer was planted in front of the Highland Park High School. That baby tree has grown significantly over five years and stands as a gift from Harvey to our town, hopefully for generations to come.

I first met Harvey when he was appointed chair of the Highland Park Centennial Committee and asked me to attend meetings and volunteer for the project even though I was not a formal appointee. I was happy to do so and learned a lot about the history of our borough and the region in the process. Harvey had so many wonderful ideas about how to celebrate Highland Park's centennial in 2005, some of which came to fruition and were very successful.

Unfortunately, early in the borough's centennial year, the mayor dissolved the Centennial Committee abruptly without adopting the resolution required by law to dissolve such a body. The move was part of her war against a former councilwoman who opposed her redevelopment plan; that councilwoman was the liaison to the Centennial Committee and a friend of Harvey's. He and those who had spent a year and a half working on the borough's centennial suddenly found themselves completely excluded from the project as the mayor took complete control.

The irony is that she has sought designation for Highland Park as the state's first green community while here was a man who put trees at center stage of our centennial celebration only to unfairly have his position snatched out from under him for solely political reasons.

But his reputation was never damaged by this. Every year as my annual birthday party approached, people asked if the "Tree Man" was going to be there. That's the unofficial nickname that became attached to him--the "Tree Man."

And he was the Tree Man, especially in the way he literally put this special tree at the high school first. In 2005, at my suggestion, he ran for the 10th district Democratic Committeeman position along with a slate of candidates led by me and George Valenta running for Borough Council. A group of us campaigned door to door in the district, and Harvey inevitably would start talking about the tree and a first anniversary celebration of its planting a week after our primary. The rest of us had to keep reminding him that our main purpose was to campaign for the election!

At the time, the situation seemed quite funny, but in retrospect, it tells a lot about who Harvey was. Elections come and go; people enter and leave office, but the need to put the Earth first is always paramount. What is more representative of the Earth's and nature's endurance more than a tree?

Interestingly, Harvey ended up getting an even 100 votes for the Democratic Committee seat, and those on our team could not help notice the synchronicity of that--100 votes for the chair of the Centennial Committee in Highland Park's centennial year. Although he did not win the seat, Harvey's strong showing helped pave the way for a victory in winning back that seat by our team in 2007.

Harvey was always one of the first people to whom I would go seeking signatures for yet another petition to run for office, whether Council or Democratic Committee. Knowing I am a freelance writer, he would give me writing and editing jobs publicizing his research. That research was completely mathematical, centered on the Pythagorean theorem, and here I was, an English/journalism type, writing and revising something I barely understood. But that hardly mattered in the larger scheme of things because our real connection was that of friends helping one another.

Every year on the second Sunday in July, Harvey was the first person to show up for my backyard barbecue birthday party. While many people attended some years but not others due to vacation plans, he was there every year and became popular among the many guests we had over that time. When I took up astronomy as a hobby and began circulating petitions opposing the demotion of the planet Pluto, Harvey was one of the first to sign, and we had some provocative discussions of astronomy and cosmology.

It has not quite sunken in that next year, he is not going to show up in my backyard at exactly 3 PM on the second Sunday in July.

Harvey was also a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. He was a genuine "good guy." At his funeral, all who spoke emphasized the same qualities of his--kindness, generosity, gentleness. More than just being an intelligent and accomplished professional, he was a wonderful human being. And he will be terribly missed.

2009 has seen far too many losses both locally and on the world stage. Here in Highland Park, we are all diminished by the loss of Harvey Brudner.

There is a prayer that reads, "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree. He shall grow mighty like the cedar in Lebanon." These words are Harvey. His legacy will live on in this borough and beyond as our own towering oak tree.

Farewell to an amazing citizen of Highland Park and more importantly, a friend.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Meeting Needed for Master Plan Revision

How many borough residents are aware that a revision of our Master Plan, which outlines a vision for how and where to develop, has been discussed and set for a final vote on Thursday, December 17? How many are aware that the revision was discussed at a November 19 Planning Board meeting? My guess is, not very many since only one member of the public showed up to provide input that night.

Somehow, I don't think lack of interest or apathy is the problem. More likely, the borough's perennial lack of publicity for important events is at work again. Legally, the Planning Board fulfilled the minimum requirements to provide advance notice of its meeting to the public, with advertisements in the Home News Tribune and Star Ledger and a notice on the wall at Borough Hall.

But being open and transparent means doing more than the bare minimum required by law. Newspaper notices are written in their legal sections in very small letters and easily missed. Why didn't the Planning Board issue a press release to these papers, which would have gone into their community sections and reached far more people?

The borough just published its fall edition of the Quarterly. Why was there no article summarizing the proposed Master Plan revision and stating that a meeting on the revision would be held on November 19 at Borough Hall? Why did the borough never put notice of the Master Plan revision or this meeting--and a copy of the draft revision--on its web site? Are these things so difficult to do, or is it just that no one bothered? Or, given the large crowds that attended the meetings on the redevelopment plan, was publicity deliberately kept to a minimum so the administration could quietly amend our Master Plan with no one aware of what is being done until it is already a done deal?

Furthermore, the November 19 meeting was held within a week of the Thanksgiving holiday, a time when people are either planning vacations or family events and not paying as much attention to public affairs. That alone makes this date a poor choice, and the same applies to December 17. What is worse is the Planning Board's denial of a citizen's request for a second meeting to allow more time for public input and comments.

Copies of the Master Plan revision are available from the Borough Clerk. While borough officials refused to provide a digital version of the document, the citizen who attended the meeting did that work on his own, taking the time and effort to scan it into a Word document. That document is now posted on the Files page of my Friends of Laurel newsletter at under the name Reexam of MasterPlan.doc. Unfortunately, Yahoo does not allow access to the files for those who are not subscribers to the newsletter. I have a copy of the Word document that I am happy to email to anyone who cannot access it via Yahoo. Just email me at or and ask for a copy of the 2009 Master Plan revision.

Unfortunately, anyone who wants input into this document outlining the direction of development in our town is going to have to act quickly. According to the Planning Board chair, written public comments may be sent to the Planning Board at Borough Hall, but must arrive by the deadline of Monday, December 7.

For many people, reading the long document and writing comments will compete with shopping and holiday preparations. This is why we need a second meeting Planning Board meeting to solicit public input after giving citizens the time to read and absorb the whole document. I implore the Planning Board to reconsider its decision, hold a public session at its December 17 meeting--at which the Board is now scheduled to vote on adopting the document--and postpone the vote until its January meeting. What harm can possibly come from a one-month delay whose sole purpose is to make our government more open and transparent? If the mayor can postpone her resignation by nearly a year, certainly the Planning Board can postpone its vote for one month.

The borough knows how to do publicity when the mayor and council want it done. Not providing adequate publicity and advance knowledge about something as serious as the future of our town, in a document reviewed only once every seven years, is a tremendous disservice to every resident in the borough. Rushing to adopt a plan in a manner that cannot help but appear arranged to minimize public participation is a slap in the face to every business and resident of Highland Park.

The timing of this rushed process cannot help but raise questions. Mayor Frank, who announced her resignation in February, has still not resigned. Is this rush through of the Master Plan revision an attempt by a lame duck mayor to impose her vision on the town one last time as a parting gift?

Don't forget that the previous Master Plan revision is the one that selectively stated certain businesses don't belong in the downtown, the one that called for riverfront residential development on the Y property and townhouses on part of the Rite Aid property, the one that advocated formation of the BID and Redevelopment Agency, the one that allowed a change of zoning to permit four-story buildings on Raritan Avenue.

The Master Plan and any proposed revision is of major importance. All who can should obtain a copy, review it, and mail comments to the Planning Board at Borough Hall. In your comments, please add the request for an additional meeting so people can comment in person. Those who attend the December 17 meeting should repeat the request, as it is never too late for the Planning Board to hear the voice of the people and change its mind.

Is our government open and transparent? Saying so does not make it so. There is no point in talking the talk if we don't walk the walk. Where and how development occurs in Highland Park should be the decision of the people, not of a tiny group in a closed-door process.

Zoning laws are informed by the Master Plan. No one should be under any illusion that adoption of a Master Plan revision will not have a real, on-the-ground impact.