At last night’s municipal meeting, council unanimously voted to reverse their previous decision to accept a donation of the “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial and its placement in front of the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library. This action is believed to have been taken to avoid or, at this point, put an end to a lawsuit filed against the municipality to have the memorial removed from public property.
The controversial donation of a wooden silhouetted soldier kneeling in front of a cross-shaped silhouette drew criticism and support regarding its religious symbolism. Some thought it was a tribute to veterans and those who died in service of their country while others felt it was unconstitutional due to the inclusion of a cross; and still others felt it should be considered secular claiming that the cross was not meant to be religious in nature but instead a grave marker.
Resolutions 246-16 and 247-16 reversed the actions taken in Resolutions 197-16 and 198-16 respectively. 197-16 accepted the donation of the “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial donated by Carl Hokanson in his capacity as a private citizen. 198-16 accepted its placement in front of the library which was installed there at the behest of Carl Hokanson in his capacity as mayor. Both those resolutions were retroactive since, by the time the votes were taken, the memorial was already in place at the library for almost three weeks.
Those original resolutions were passed on August 18th in front of a standing-room-only audience by a 3-2 vote with both Mayor Carl Hokanson and Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey recusing themselves from the matter and, thereby, not being able to vote. The mayor had a conflict of interest since he was the donor of the memorial and the councilwoman’s threat of litigation created her conflict in the matter. Mrs. Storey and her husband, Gregory, are members of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and that organization sent a letter to the mayor – on behalf of Mr. Storey – to have the memorial removed or risk possible litigation on grounds that the memorial was unconstitutional.
In stark contrast to the August 18th meeting, last night’s meeting was very quiet and absent of an audience of people wishing to speak on the issue.
Without any discussion from the governing body or comments from the public before the vote, the new resolutions repealing the decisions taken seven weeks earlier were passed by a 5-0 vote, again with the mayor and councilwoman not voting.
After the vote, during the second public comment portion of the meeting, Tom Roché, a resident who had offered a donation of a similar memorial with the American Atheist emblem after the August Mayor & Council meeting, asked about the municipality’s insurance carrier’s input on his and other’s donations to the library. His donation, along with two others, were put on hold pending information from New Jersey Intergovernmental Insurance Fund (NJiiF), also known as the JIIF. Borough Attorney Richard Huxford addressed the matter, saying, “It’s my understanding that the JIIF has concluded their preliminary findings. We don’t have anything in writing. I have a verbal from the JIIF indicating that – based on their investigation – they felt that if the borough decided to keep up the Kneeling Soldier that they would not cover the borough for any attorney fees that the prevailing side, the plaintiff, would have wanted. They also indicated that . . . any donations of a religious [nature], they would not protect the borough going forward.”
Mayor Hokanson stated that he had no comment at this time on advice of council due to the potential litigation. In discussing the matter as a closed session item last night, the issue was cited twice as possible litigation. It was stated after the meeting that it was referred to as such due to the fact that the municipality had not been served with the lawsuit as of the closing of business yesterday. It should be noted that service of process usually takes place some time after filing of a lawsuit and that federal rules have a procedure where a defendant can accept service without the necessity of a sheriff delivering the papers in the formal way that it has traditionally been done. This morning, David Niose from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center – a division of AHA – addressed that point by remarking, “Once a case has been filed, it’s not possible litigation anymore. It’s litigation.”
He further commented on the latest development of council rescinding its previous action, “As far as how the vote last night affects things, we really just need to assess it and consider all the issues and sub-issues. My thinking is that we can probably resolve this case fairly quickly if they agree that this kind of a monument is inappropriate and that they won’t try to put one up again. Perhaps some kind of consent decree would be appropriate here where we just basically write out an agreement on the issues that they won’t do this sort of thing anymore and then file that agreement, which is called a consent decree, with the court and have the court approve it.”
“The solution of moving it to private property is just what we suggested in August,” stated Charlene Storey when reached for a comment. She added, “Private property is private property and public property is public property. It’s two different things. This was just a case where the Consitution won because it’s always been about the Constitution.”
Mr. Roché publicly asked the governing body during his public comment portion if any private organization or individual showed interest in accepting the donation now that it was removed from public property. Mayor Hokanson responded that a local business establishment, as well as the American Legion, requested to have the memorial on their property.