Meryl Frank's "Intoxicating" Sound and Fury
To the end, ex-mayor Frank engages in the propaganda dissemination that so marked her ten years in office, still repeating the same lies denigrating the previous council, exaggerating her level of support in town and her so-called accomplishments in office, and hanging on to the nebulous claim that she built a movement for good government in Highland Park.
In a January 5, 2010 Home News Tribune article, Frank errs in her first sentence by describing her “first few days in office” as tumultuous. The reality is, her entire tenure in office was tumultuous, except for a brief hiatus in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Let’s start from the beginning, with the spin that the council “walked out” on her and tried to change the borough’s rules to strip the mayor of her power. Our borough system of government is one of weak mayor, strong council; it has been so since 1905. That means all appointments require council consent. The mayor does not vote except in the case of a tie, and the mayor’s position is largely ceremonial, limited to presiding over meetings. Frank’s first act in office was an attempt to subvert that system and appoint a borough attorney on her own, without council consent. This was blatantly illegal, and it is why the Borough Council chose to adjourn the meeting.
Frank’s decision to use this issue as a stage to make her look like a victim is why council members chose to leave in protest. Far more than 300 people were present at that meeting, and at least 100 followed the council members, counter to Frank’s claim that all of the audience stayed. Not only did a good number of us not stay; we were also joined by Congressman Frank Pallone, who was attending the event, and who made sure to spend time with both groups.
Is Frank proud that she nearly caused a riot on the day of her inauguration, that the Senior Center had to be surrounded by police, that pushing and shoving occurred in a frightening spectacle of mob mentality?
Appointments to positions such as borough attorney, planner, administrator, etc., are usually worked out in advance of the annual reorganization meeting. If there is no agreement among members of the governing body, the decision can be postponed to the next meeting in January. But Frank didn’t or more likely wouldn’t do this because she wanted a public spectacle.
More than that, what she wanted, well before taking office on January 5, 2000, was to oust all the incumbent council members and replace them with people loyal to her. In December 1999, via a mass email system organized by her campaign, she sent multiple messages for one purpose alone—to inflame the public against the council over non-issues. She turned a decision to cut a secretarial position for budget purposes into an act aimed deliberately against her. She sent mobs of screaming supporters to yell at council members about nonsensical topics, such as the building of a wall near the mayor’s office to create another office space, a purely logistical decision. “Tear down that wall!” her campaign supporters shouted, ironically, it turns out, since she had the wall rebuilt several years later after the council complied with her wishes and removed it.
At one of those December 1999 meetings, her supporters made their intentions very clear. “First we’ll get two, then two more, then two more,” one was heard saying, regarding an organized plan to oust all members of the existing council. The problem is that instead of waiting for elections to come around, Frank deliberately incited her supporters to embark on a slanderous campaign against the council that essentially involved a lot of yelling and screaming over nothing.
Once she took office as mayor, Frank continued to send her inflammatory emails before every council meeting, urging her supporters to harangue the council. Her mayor’s reports were designed to stir the pot, again taking the most mundane of issues and lacing them with paranoia to vilify the council. At one point, when a council member criticized one of the PTOs—her base of support—for leaving the Senior Center in a mess after an event, she twisted his comment to make him appear to be disparaging the borough’s schools, which he most certainly was not doing.
Then there were the repeated appearances on WCTC, and the co-opting of reporters, whom she turned into her own PR agents. The first principle of propaganda is “a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth.” Frank proved herself adept at putting that principle into action. For example, she falsely claimed the council refused to work with her on finance and budget issues. Having spent time at Borough Hall myself, I know that statement is false because I was there when the late Council President Leon Cohen offered to sit down and discuss budget issues with her “any time.”
Of course, in the current Home News Tribune article, Frank fails to mention the rallies and demonstrations against her redevelopment plan that were held in 2004 and 2005. She brought people together all right—united in efforts to oppose forcing any business to move via the use of eminent domain for redevelopment. She says, “the best training for a mayor is listening?” Funny, she didn’t seem to listen to the many people who wanted a referendum on outlawing eminent domain for redevelopment or those who complained to her that they couldn’t afford her tax increases. Her listening was always selective.
She says the downtown had a few empty stores and cracked sidewalks when she took office. It still does. Stores have come and gone, as they did long before she came onto the scene and as they will long after her tenure in office. Small businesses have a difficult time surviving in Highland Park, and her additional $1,000-$2,000 a year BID tax does not make things any easier for them. We still have cracked sidewalks and roads all over town in terrible condition. We lost valuable assets to this town including Chapter One Café, Pyramid Books, Victoria’s Resale Boutique, Dresses for Less, the bicycle shop, and most significantly, the YM-YWHA. Yes, we did get Main Street, but we lost the Chamber of Commerce. So at best, Frank leaves the downtown breaking even.
Party chair Bruce Morgan claims Frank united different causes of the community and brought people of different races and age groups together. A look at borough history shows that active grassroots efforts toward these goals were in place long before Frank ever took office, from the 1970s fight to end de facto segregation in our public schools to 1990s forums and workshops against racism and economic inequality. They were led not by elected officials but by citizen leaders like the late Vickie White.
Frank even made up her own revisionist history. Following a forum on human rights in December 1999, informal conversation turned to the upcoming millennium celebrations. The mayor-elect made an erroneous statement attributing the celebration of New Year's Day to "the circumcision of Jesus." As someone with a special interest in the millennium, who also studied Middle East Studies, I knew this was a fallacy, as the Roman calendar had begun on January 1, the date new consuls took office, as far back as 153 BCE. Julius Caesar kept this date when he reformed the calendar in 46 BCE. When I presented her with this information, she refused to admit she was wrong. I guess it had already gotten to the point where if I said "tomayto," she said "tomahto," and didn't want to be confused with the facts.
The only people Frank brought together were those who consented without question to making her the center of the Highland Park universe. Even her group pictures with the council illustrate this. All of Frank’s choices for council members happened to be tall, in contrast with Frank, who is 5’1”. In photographs taken with the council, she positions herself in the center, surrounded by much taller council members, evoking an image of the sun surrounded by its orbiting planets.
Two weeks after taking office, President Barack Obama acknowledged he made a mistake in one of his nominations for a Cabinet position. In ten years, Frank never once said the words, “I made a mistake.” Obama could do in two weeks what Frank couldn’t do in a decade.
At some point in discussions with her supporters, logic broke down entirely. No one could explain exactly why she was the answer to all of the town’s problems, or even articulate any specifics of her claims that the previous council was “corrupt.” Frank drew a line in the sand with her statement, “you’re either with me, or you’re against me”—ironically, the very words used by Stalin. And if you were against Frank, no amount of service or volunteerism for the town made any difference—you were persona non grata. Frank’s cult of personality in a strange way echoed fundamentalist religious strains who preach that only faith in the savior can earn one divine grace, that good deeds without such faith are as worthless as "filthy rags." In Frank’s case, that faith had to be in her.
Those who weren’t for her, and even those who supported her only to have her turn on them, were demonized and discarded like garbage. She viciously turned on one former supporter, blindsiding her by organizing a slate against her when she came up for re-election on the Board of Education. She slandered former borough officials, even falsely accusing one of stealing from the Democratic Party. And she made statements embarrassing to all women, such as attributing my support for the previous mayor to my having "a crush" on him (totally false), outrageously claiming the council “wouldn’t treat me this way if I had a penis,” and, in an true-to-life re-creation of middle school pettiness, making statements like “how will Laurel ever get a boyfriend?”
And while she unilaterally declared Highland Park the state’s first green community—even when other towns were taking the same or stronger environmental initiatives—what did she really accomplish in this area—solar panels on the roof of Borough Hall that don’t work? Or is it artificial turf on the high school athletic fields? Buck Woods has not been preserved and is still owned by developer Jack Morris. Below Buck Woods, the borough Meadows, or former landfill, which Highland Park owns, is still zoned residential even though citizens on numerous occasions asked that it be rezoned for conservation. The Environmental Education Center sits on contaminated land, severely restricting its use. Under her leadership, the Master Plan adopted in 2003 recommended rezoning the YM-YWHA property as riverfront residential, a change from its historical zoning as quasi-public. If and when a condominium development goes up there, we’ll know who to hold responsible.
When Parker Homes decided to build an assisted living facility off of River Road, Frank argued heavily for preservation of a cottage on the site but did nothing to save any of the 500 mature trees cut down. Frank also increased the maximum building height for Raritan Avenue from three to four stories, a change that could increase traffic congestion and destroy the character of our small town.
Open and transparent government? Where are the online meeting agendas and minutes Frank promised? Why was she the first mayor to restrict each individual's public comment to five minutes when none had done so before? Why are no public records available in digital form? Why has the Democratic Committee not held a single open meeting in ten years?
Highland Park starts the new decade in pretty much the same shape as it started the previous one.
Frank’s one true statement in the recent article is her admission that she found power “intoxicating.” Yet whatever power and authority she thought she had were mostly an illusion, not just because the mayor’s position in our form of government is largely symbolic, but also because she was unable to enact her vision for the town and unable to use that vision, which inappropriately blurred the two very different issues of going green and redevelopment, to propel her to some form of political stardom.
Her proud “2020 Vision,” conveniently released two months before her 2003 primary, called for a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, and a 50-year plan for the downtown. The latter proposed extreme measures such as closing off one end of Dennison Street entirely and enacting metered parking. More than five years have passed since 2003, and where is her vision?
The answer is it is not here because it is wrong for this town. 2007 and the controversial primary that year marked a turning point, the beginning of the end for “2020” and the gentrification project Frank calls redevelopment. So much depended on revenue from the cell tower to fund the arts center supposed to be the pinnacle of her vision. The opposition may not have won the actual election that year, but we won where it counts. We turned her “victory” into a Pyrrhic victory—one that comes at too high a price. Anyone who doubts that should just ask themselves, whose vision prevails in the downtown today?
At its core, the problem was that people chose to put their faith in a person instead of in themselves and their own power. No one person, not even Barack Obama, can “save” us from the difficult problems we face. Choosing to not attend council meetings because “Frank will take care of things; it’s her job” is not democracy. Cheering and shouting the name of a politician the way people do for their teams at a football game are not democracy. Real democracy is acknowledging, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and not abdicating our independent thinking by placing power in the hands of any individual. Real democracy is following the example of George Washington, who was offered the crown and turned it down, on the principle of “in America, the law is king.”
At the end of it all, Frank’s reign was little more than a lot of sound and fury without much substance, very much like Shakespeare's description at the end of MacBeth:
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (and 2020)
creeps in its petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death (political death in this case).
Out, out brief candle!
Life is but a walking shadow,
a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Sic transit gloria Meryl (so passes the glory of Meryl).