Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey issued a statement providing further details on her decision to resign her seat. That statement is included below. The councilwoman also addressed some additional questions in order to provide insight into a series of events and decisions that, in less than 24 hours, would have the second highest-ranking member of council and the only woman serving as an elected official call it a day over a single word.
By way of history, in Roselle Park the name change from ‘Christmas’ to ‘Annual’ occurred about two decades ago sometime in the mid-1990s in response to a court case involving Jersey City and a holiday display that contained religious symbols – a crèche (nativity scene) and a Hanukkiyah (menorah) – on municipal grounds.
Bringing things up-to-date, at the December 3rd municipal meeting, Council-At-Large Charlene Storey objected to having the ‘Annual Holiday Tree Lighting’ ceremony changed to the ‘Annual Christmas Lighting Ceremony’ after the name change was proposed by Mayor Carl Hokanson. The majority of council approved the change and Councilwoman Storey left the meeting soon after. This morning she submitted her resignation.
Speaking with the councilwoman she stated that Thursday night’s resolution came out of nowhere. She said, “I felt sandbagged. It was not on the agenda and when the mayor and I spoke about it a couple of days before, it was mentioned in passing, among other matters, and the impression was that this was going to be done next year. There were bigger things to be worrying about right now and this was something that could wait.”
As for the reason as to why it was done now by the mayor, the councilwoman stated she does not know the reason. Mayor Hokanson stated that, as mayor and master of ceremony, he wanted to change the name this year but that it was too late to change the date back to the first week in December, as had been the custom; so only the change of date would go into effect 2016 but the name change would be starting this year. There may have been confusion with the councilwoman believing that both would be done next year when they talked he always wanted it done now and even had suggested it when he was council-at-large.
The councilwoman stated that she was going to start looking into other towns and begin researching different aspects of the proposal. She would then, hopefully, be able to develop a dialogue with the mayor and council over the next year so as to have enough time to properly think the decision through. But once it was voted on, the councilwoman decided that removing herself from the dais was the best decision instead of staying and possibly saying something that would exacerbate matters. Regardless, that action removed her voice and the voice of those she represents by not commenting, contributing, or voting on other matters that concern the residents of Roselle Park for the remainder of a meeting that conducted the people’s business.
Then came her decision this morning and all that it would bring, from the personal (her exit from Roselle Park politics) to the philosophical (discussions among residents through social media and face-to-face about inclusiveness and political correctness).
In addressing the criticism from residents that this was a case of political correctness gone too far, the councilwoman responded that it is easier for some to be dismissive of other’s beliefs than to treat beliefs that are not their own just as seriously. She said that for those who do not celebrate Christmas, this is not about being PC but about being inclusive. She remarked, “If the town wanted to display different religious symbols in Michael Mauri Park that would be nice. It would be inclusive.”
She speaks highly of Mayor Hokanson, saying, “I think Carl is going to be one of the best mayors, if not the best mayor, Roselle Park has ever had. He is on his way to creating change that needs to happen. This was just an unfortunate severe split.”
Adding to a point that Mayor Hokanson has made numerous times with regards to welcoming Roselle Park’s diversity which has grown over the years, Charlene would like to see that diversity reflect itself in government. She commented, “I would like to see more diversity on council. I would like to see more women in our local government. People are waiting in the wings. We need those who have lived here all their lives who know Roselle Park inside and out but we also need this who chose to come to Roselle Park. We need both because new ideas are important for moving forward but knowing where we have been is also necessary.”
The councilwoman mentioned that if there was a diverse council currently, such a proposal to change the name would not have passed or even been brought up. If residents feel that their beliefs are not being take into account to feel inclusive, such things might prevent them from getting involved in other aspects of the community, which might include running for elected office. She explicitly stated that she does not believe that the decision to change the name of the event was made with any malice, just that it was not thought through with a broad view.
Even though she is leaving government in an official capacity, Mrs. Komar-Storey plans to stay involved. She said, “You can represent people in different ways and, in some ways, you are free to speak more openly as a resident than you are as an elected official.”
Thinking beyond what some would call this exclamation point in her service to Roselle Park, when asked what was one highlight of her time on council, Councilwoman Storey paused a a moment and said, “You know, I wasn’t planning to go at this point so I have to think about it. I would say it was the work on the library lawn. I think that’s a good thing not just for the library but the town. When developers came through it was not a positive for Roselle Park. Now, I hope the renovations will have a broader positive impact on Roselle Park’s future.”
So now as a new day begins, a conversation has started not only between members of council but between residents that apparently needed to be had. Hopefully, the conversation among neighbors and friends can go beyond platitudes that are the equivalent of putting one’s foot down and instead continue with open ears on both sides of this issue. In the end, it comes down to perspective with those in favor of the name change want their beliefs taken into consideration and are starting to feel marginalized while those who feel marginalized want their beliefs taken into consideration.
Below is the statement released by Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey. It should be noted that in her reference to the Knights of Columbus, neither Councilmen Ryan Kelly nor Richard Templeton are members of that organization.
I am issuing this statement because I want to be clear about why I am leaving the Borough Council.
I submitted my letter of resignation today on a matter of conscience and principle. The Mayor and a majority of the Council chose last night to adopt a resolution that cuts non-Christians out of the loop on a public event in Roselle Park. This violates the oath we all took to uphold the Constitutions of the U.S. and New Jersey, which forbid government to get involved in religion.
Yes, Christmas is a cultural holiday as well as a religious one. And I like Christmas trees and the happy spirit that usually pervades this season.
But the Mayor proposed, and most of Council voted, to change a key word in the name of the Borough’s annual tree-lighting event from a neutral, inclusive term back to a religious one.
Had the name of this event never been changed to use a non-religious term, had it stayed with “Christmas” instead of being changed to “Holiday,” I could have accepted it as a cultural term. But to change it from a neutral term back to a religious one was clearly meant to put religion back into the public event. And to underscore religious division at this time in the nation and world is, to me, as wrong as wrong can be.
This isn’t a minor matter of “political correctness.” It is a fundamental issue of freedom of religion – one of the basic freedoms that tens of thousands of Americans, including my uncle, died to defend over the years.
This is also an issue of including people rather than excluding them. To quote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, government action endorsing religion “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”
All four members of the Council who voted for this are male, white, Catholic and members of the Knights of Columbus, a religious organization that every year posts a large sign urging, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” So I find it hard to accept that to them, a “Christmas” tree is a secular tree.
To be clear, I have no problem with the church putting up that sign. It’s a Catholic church. That’s what it does. But we’re talking about what a municipality does for an event funded and for the community. All the community.
I am a non-Christian and a non-believer. My husband and I are Humanists, as I’ve pointed out in campaign literature and in my bio on the Borough’s website. We believe it’s our duty to do good in this life as a matter of principle, not as a religious obligation.
There are also many other philosophies and religions outside of Christianity, and a growing number of Americans profess “none” when asked by pollsters what their religion is. Roselle Park is a diverse Borough. In fact, according to City-Data, “nones” make up 33.8 percent of the Roselle Park population – more than a third! And since the number of “nones” increases as you look at younger groups, that figure is only likely to increase.
And that 33.8 percent doesn’t include non-Christians such as Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.
Changing the name – and I emphasize “changing” – clearly disrespects them all and hijacks the tree lighting for one religion.
The Mayor’s introduction of the Christmas resolution last night came as a surprise to me. He and I had discussed the issue briefly several days before the Council meeting, and I had told him of my opposition. I had only begun to gather information on the issue, such as the fact that every municipality in this area calls it a “tree lighting” or “holiday tree lighting.” It was my understanding that the Council would consider the issue next year, not last night. It was not listed on the meeting’s Agenda, despite the Mayor’s insistence that the Agenda should be set two days before each meeting.
I’m sorry to leave the Council. I have enjoyed serving the Borough, and I’ve worked hard at it. But I believe the Council’s action on Christmas was unconstitutional and exclusionary, and, as a matter of principle, I don’t want to be part of it.