In The Year Of Our Lord 2016: Year In Review
By Saul Qersdyn
Published: December 31, 2016 @ 11:00 AM EDT
Roselle Park – version 115 – started 2016 having survived a Christmas tree controversy and plans for new development. It ends with a menorah and plans for more development. As the next chapter starts, here is the annual review of the events and people that carried the borough through 365 days.
- Alphabet St. (or “The ABCs Of Politics In Roselle Park Schools”)
The trilogy of politics creeping more and more into the lives and taxes of Roselle Park residents begins with the Board of Education (BOE) election. Politics in Roselle Park is nothing new. A review of previous Republican appointments, party line passing of laws, and even a former mayor now questioning everything that he never questioned while in office are evidence of that. But now, for the first time in Roselle Park, a political party explicitly supported and funded the non-partisan Board Of Education (BOE) elections.
BOE candidates Kimberly Powers and Jeff Regan each had their campaigns funded by the Roselle Park Democratic Committee (RPDC). The RPDC paid for their signs, chaired their committees, and violated a few campaign laws along the way. Jeff Regan threatened this newspaper with harassment for asking questions and Kimberly Powers never answered questions either from the press nor residents wanting answers as to why she ran. Now Ms. Powers will be on the board with no one knowing anything about her other than she was funded by a special interest, in this case, a political party.
Independent complaints have been filed with the state regarding the election violations but the fact that a political party took such efforts to have people on the board is a question that no one (who might know) wants to answer.
- Witness 4 The Prosecution
The year started off with the governing body, in January, rejecting two bids for municipal prosecutor, one for $0 and the other for $19,000. Why? Well… Then a second bid was put out with a maximum of $15,000 for the position. For a second time, both bids were rejected – one for $0 and the other for $17,000. Why? Well…
As the year closes out, Roselle Park has yet to appoint a municipal prosecutor, the governing body simply held over the previous appointment of Russell Huegel from 2015 for another $15,000. Mayor & council chose to do this as opposed to having Richard Huxford do it for $0 as part of his firm’s $50,000 fee as Borough Attorney. Even that amount is less than the previous Borough Attorney charged just to perform that professional service.
There have been numerous reasons given to spend more money for a municipal prosecutor and none of them have anything to do with the rate of prosecution or fines collected (which were higher with Mr. Huxford). One reason was that the governing body wanted to move away from having one service provider have multiple positions in the borough. In a time of shared services when local government, including Roselle Park, repeatedly state they want to look for cost-cutting measures to save taxpayers money, this argument is a ridiculous one. Additionally, if such were the case then Neglia Engineering, the firm that acts as both the borough engineer and Municipal Land Use Board planner, would not be awarded one of those contracts – but they have. Another reason given was that there were legal concerns that restrict a borough attorney from being a municipal prosecutor – the only problem with that position is that New Jersey law, NJSA 2B:25-4(g)(1), allows it. Yet another argument raised was that if Mr. Huxford were the prosecutor, it would interfere with his time as borough attorney since court is held on Thursdays, which is the same day as municipal meetings. Actual history contradicts that premise since there has only been one time in the last decade where court ran overtime and delayed a municipal meeting.
Throwing out all these weak arguments leaves only room for the suspicion of a political appointment since Mr. Huegel is a Democratic councilman from Fanwood and Mr. Huxford used to be the chair of the Roselle Park Republican Municipal Committee. And now the bids for 2017 are in with Triarsi, Betancourt, Wukovits, & Dugan – the firm that Mr. Huxford works for – again including the services of municipal prosecutor for $0 if he is appointed as borough attorney and Mr. Huegel asking $18,000 for the position of municipal prosecutor. In contrast to the last Request For Proposal (RFP) put out by the municipality in 2016, the 2017 RFP does not have a limit of $15,000. So, if appointed again, the decision by the governing body to spend $48,000 over three years – which could go to a Christmas Holiday Parade or fireworks or other events – will go to someone other than the person who – up until 2015 – had been satisfactorily doing the work of a municipal prosecutor for free.
- Strange Relationship (More Political Contributions?)
“[It’s] good for both parties . . . so I think it’s good.” That is what outgoing Fourth Ward Councilman Mohamed ‘Gino’ Elmarassy said on the dais earlier this year when asked why he wanted to do away with a local law that restricted the political contributions of those seeking to provide professional services in Roselle Park to under $300. Add to that the fact that Councilman Elmarassy openly admitted that he did not come up with the proposed change in the law; it was an attorney friend but the councilman refused to mention who this friend was or why he (or she) wanted to change the local law.
And he tried it twice in one year. You have to give it to him for openly admitting that he wanted the law repealed not for the benefit of resident but the benefits of politicians. Still, even though both attempts were shot down and Councilman Elmarassy will not be returning for a second term, this requirement has been removed from a state checklist that monitors if municipal governments are following best practice standards which means that someone, at some time, will try again to remove the limit contributed to a political candidate. This will open up the potential for corruption. Hopefully, residents will remain aware enough to speak out against special interest influence in the services provided to the residents of Roselle Park.
This is a story so good someone should write a song about it. So, a small group of students from a small traditional high school in a small town in New Jersey went all the way to the finals of the Technology Student Association (TSA) National Championship in Nashville, Tennessee – and won first place.
Having won trophies in seven categories at the 2016 State High School Conference at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in April, the 17 Roselle Park High School (RPHS) students who made up the Roselle Park Technology Student Association/Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (TSA/STEM) Exploration Team qualified for the nationals. At the state level, the team took 3rd place in Architectural Renovation, 2nd place in Dragster Design, VEX Robotics, and Video Game Design and won 1st place for Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Music Production.
With donations from the community, the team made it to Nashville and took first place out of all high schools who participated in Music Production. Christina S. Rodden and Sabrina Lasalle wrote a song from scratch and took it from riff to completed composition and won first place.
The fact that they not only qualified for a national competition but won after winning on the state level shows that – as Jacob Magiera repeatedly says – Roselle Park has talent. So a heartfelt congratulation goes to Aib Acob, Angel F. Castillo, Casey J. Crown, Saavi R. Dhingra, Joshua A. Franco, Samantha M. Graves, Laura D. Howell, Sabrina Lasalle, Sebastian Leo, Christian L. Luciano, Ricardo Mendez Luna, Manuel Luna-Ramirez, Garrett C. Maney, Brandon M. Mishoe, Jonathan Perez, Christina S. Rodden, and Julian D. Victoria for getting Roselle Park recognized for their efforts on a national level; and also to all the parents, friends, teachers, and advisors from the community who helped them along the way.
- Moonbeam Levels (“Let There Be Light?”)
In April, a storm brought down a light pole at the Roselle Park High School athletic complex. Residents, including Board Of Education (BOE) member-elect Joseph Signorello, came to a BOE meeting asking that the fields be closed down for safety concerns while the other light poles are inspected. They even criticized the board and administration for waiting one day before officially closing the fields.
A report was commissioned and a first round inspection of the bases of the poles determined that several light poles were structurally unsound. A second report was conducted on the tops of the poles and it was determined that so many of the poles were at the end of the useful life that they should be taken down. The estimated cost to replace the light poles was in the hundreds of thousands all the way up to $1,200,000.
It was after then that some residents – including BOE member-elect Joseph Signorello – came back to the BOE asking if the lights could stay up, if even for just a little while. BOE member Loren Harms, who personally wants lights for night games, repeatedly stressed that safety was the board’s number one priority over night games and would not keep them up.
Then talk came of how the replacement light system would be paid for. Currently, the board is facing issues with buildings that need to be repaired. The direction chosen by the BOE was to put the matter up for a referendum to have taxpayers decide if they want to pay to replace the lights. Portable lights were used for the season but the decision of when, or even if, the lights will be replaced remains something that will impact the future of the borough – both in a quality of life and a financial way. Alternatives are being pursued to see how funding can be raised to pay for the lights but it appears that a referendum of some sort will be on the November 2017 ballot for the school district.
- Starfish & Coffee
In September of this year, before a blue line was painted down Chestnut Street as a show of support for law enforcement, Roselle Park’s police officers offered residents an opportunity to sit down for a cup of coffee. Beyond the feel-good, publicity-ready event that it could have turned into, it was a chance for the public to sit and talk with those appointed to keep everyone safe. Although not a large turnout, those who attended got to stop by and actually shake hands with RPPD officers and say thank you. There were those who brought their children. There were even those who came to complain . . . and they were heard. There was a civil exchange. No shouting, no posturing, no taking sides, just conversation.
Hopefully, such a community event will happen again and, hopefully, more residents will take advantage of going beyond the image of a police officer and meet the people behind the badge.
- The Future
Meridia At Roselle Park is the first major development to happen in Roselle Park in decades. Roselle Park’s most famous ghost house, the site of the old Domani’s restaurant on West Westfield Avenue, was designated as An Area In Need Of Redevelopment at the beginning of the year. Nine months later, a developer was appointed by the governing body and a 213-unit residential development was approved. The mixed-use project had its first floor focused on having a restaurant.
There are those who feel the process was a little too fast while others thought development in Roselle Park for too long was at a standstill, paralyzing the borough.
As the year closes, the developer has started to demolish the lots it purchased but a potential issue that has been described as something that ranges from a small hiccup to a major problem is on the horizon. It has to do with water pipes underneath the property and their incorrect placements on a survey.
Residents should keep informed of its progress as well as other projects, including Sullivan and the old Leberco Laboratories. An eye should be kept on developing retail space as well as apartments because besides living in the community, people – both in and out of the borough – will need to shop in town.
- The Cross
At the end of July, Mayor Carl Hokanson – acting as a private resident – donated a wooden silhouette of a soldier kneeling in front of a cross grave marker. Without asking permission from anyone on council, he ordered the Department of Public Works (DPW) to install the donation in front of the lawn of the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library. Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey – acting as a private resident – and her husband, Greg Storey, questioned the constitutionality of the cross/plus sign/lowercase letter ’t’/grave marker part of the silhouette and basically threatened that if the entire memorial were not removed, things would get worse.
People took sides, names were called, lawyers were called, accusations were made, and things got ugly.
Was it a sincere gesture of support for the military that was taken out of context by a councilwoman hellbent on payback for last year’s Christmas controversy? Was it a political ploy by the mayor to one-up a councilman who might become a potential future mayoral candidate whose house has a similar display on his lawn? Was it an overstepping of authority by a mayor who used his position to cut corners and push something he personally wanted through without regard for its impact on the borough? Was it a cheap second-hand addition to a beautifully renovated, well-maintained library lawn that already had elegant stanchions honoring our military? Was it even a cross?
To answer the last question first, even though there were those who claimed it was not a cross but a work of art and that art should not be censored, Carl Hokanson called it “Kneeling Solider At Cross” in writing – repeatedly – when he donated the silhouette.
The other points are the undercurrent of what followed when hundreds of people showed up to the August 18th meeting. During the public comment portion of the meeting, people spoke of keeping the memorial, people spoke of having it removed, people spoke of possible solutions, and people spoke about supporting veterans. Still, not one civilian took a moment out of their time on the microphone to actually thank those veterans in attendance.
By one vote at the August meeting, council voted to retroactively accept the donation and its placement on public property. Then came the lawsuit. After all the talk of ‘going all the way to the Supreme Court’ and defending religious freedom and the Constitution, the memorial was removed in early October, hoping that would end any litigation. It did not.
Beyond the shouting and finger-pointing and chest-thumping on both sides, a few things got lost along the way.
First was veterans, but more on that later.
Second was how the matter was handled by both Carl Hokanson and the Storeys. Mayor Hokanson did not follow protocol when he had the silhouette placed on public property. People focus on the religious aspect of it as opposed to the actions taken in context. If the mayor had placed a “Black Lives Matter” memorial in front of the library, would there be the same support for freedom of expression or an outrage if someone asked that it be taken down? Would people demand a “Blue Lives Matter” memorial? The issue was not the memorial but how a sitting mayor took care of something without council, from his council or counsel. But he was not the first one to put a donation on public property this year. Councilwoman Storey was the first one to do that when she, without approval from the Library Board of Trustees or the governing body, decided to have bookhouses installed at the library. The donations were different but the actions were the same.
Then came the reaction of Charlene and Greg Storey. They wanted the entire silhouette removed. Mr. Storey said so in his letter to the mayor. There was no request to have – what he felt as – the religious symbol corrected to a grave or another symbol like boots cradling a rifle and helmet that would make it universal. He wanted it removed completely. Having it taken down was what was hurtful to most. While people like the Stories focused on the cross, others focused on the man in uniform kneeling over a fellow soldier. Had the position been to leave the soldier and change the cross to something else, perhaps things could have gone differently, or not. The recommendation was made later during the two-month back-and-forth but the first request was to remove it altogether.
Then came the lawyers for both sides. People who were not part of the community who were going to come in, pursue their agenda (be it secular or religious) and walk away, leaving a debris of a torn community in their wake.
And then, finally, was the fact that on November 11th, in front of the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library, on the day set aside to honor veterans, the lawn – without the silhouette – was empty compared to the August meeting where a roomful of people declared their support and respect for veterans. Taking away the actual veterans and the members of the marching band, less than 50 people showed up on Veterans Day at the library named, in part, for them, to actually thank them.
Anyone wishing to help homeless veterans and their families can reach out to Mayor Carl Hokanson at (908) 666-7817 or Kevin Murphy at (908) 956-2863 to fill a backpack with essentials such as toiletries and clothes so it can be personally donated to those who served our country and are currently without shelter.
A Roselle Park school principal’s relative who does not live in town went to a public school in Roselle Park for five full months without the child’s family paying for it until proof was asked of that required payment.
A subsequent report revealed that even though financial hardship was claimed by the family, the entire $13,847.00 was paid within three weeks in February of this year.
Whether there was a conspiracy to allow someone in authority to use her position for personal gain by having her family intentionally avoid payment at the expense of taxpayers or whether it was a series of unintended oversights that cost taxpayers money for half a school year seems to be the issue.
The suspicion on one end was that the principal’s family wanted to save on childcare costs since the district they live in had an October 1st enrollment cut-off date to register and Roselle Park has a cut-off date of October 31st. The student had a birthday between the two dates.
The position on the other end of the scandal is that there was a contract signed that required payment after the principal tried to have it be tuition free. There was a verbal agreement between the principal and the school superintendent and business administrator to delay payment until some unspecified future date.
The only problem was that they never informed the Board Of Education, those elected to remain informed of such things.
Even after an investigation was conducted at the behest of the board who commissioned it on behalf of residents, not much information was provided to the public.
This newspaper had to sue the BOE to get a copy of the report that was done on behalf of residents. In specific, BOE President Chris Miller stated that the Board discussed the findings and recommendations. The actual report revealed there were no recommendations. Still, it was deduced that Superintendent Pedro Garrido’s lack of merit pay for 2017 and Business Administrator Sue Guercio’s lack of a raise for the coming school year were part of the ‘appropriate action’ taken by the BOE. But nothing else happened publicly by way of disciplinary action.
Chris Miller, the BOE President, defended the $25,000 bill associated with the scandal by rightfully stating that matters of personnel and privacy rights needed to be considered. But the main concern of putting measures in place to prevent such an oversight or attempt to undermine policy (depending on how you see it) has never been publicly addressed. There has been no policy change, no public mention made as to what steps have been taken to change how such arrangements are monitored.
Without that, the changes that are needed will be left up to residents who submit information anonymously in order to address problems and will leave governing bodies on the reactive – and defensive – end of things.
- Mr. Magiera
The man of the year, the story of the year, is Mr. Jacob Magiera. To set the record straight, his last name is pronounced with a hard ‘g’, as in government, no the ‘j’ sound, as in Jake. This has been a long time coming. Even though placed in 07204’s Story Of The Year in 2010, Mr. Magiera requires the proper recognition for his service to the borough.
Since 1992, the former councilman who has been treated as anything but, has been attending meetings for coming on a quarter of a century and asking questions of those who represent the borough of Roselle Park. While there have been others who have left office and said they would remain involved with meetings, Mr. Magiera actually did that. Before the internet or taped meetings, he went to meetings to ask questions. Why? When? Who? How? How much? What?
Even this year, Mr. Magiera was the reason that the tuition-free incident saw the light of day. This newspaper is the technological result of Mr. Magiera’s asking questions. He has survived four mayors so far, dozens of council representatives & Board Of Education members, hundreds of laws & policies, and been the eyes, ears, and voice of residents.
The fact that he is almost never referred to as ‘former-councilman’ while others who attend meetings once in a blue moon are given that consideration speaks volumes of how he is perceived by those in power. He is Jake, Mr. Majiera, Mr. Magiera, among other names whispered under breath. He is not one of them, but one of us. This was most notable when a former mayor had a plaque put at the first seat to the left of the dais of borough hall as the “Unofficial Seat of Jacob Magiera”. This was corrected when the current mayor, who himself now gets asked those uncomfortable questions, changed it to “Official Seat of Jacob Magiera”.
Some accuse him of doing it for attention but there are easier ways to call attention to one’s self than spend week after week, year after year, taking heat and getting stonewalled. What Jake wants is what we all want, to get answers and to have a government be as transparent as possible to the people it represents. Even though he asks questions that may make some elected officials uncomfortable, they are questions that need to be asked and answered.
Then there is his jacket that he wears to remember fellow veterans: “A Nation Which Forgets Its Defenders Will Be Itself Be Forgotten.”
The same could be said for Jacob Magiera and Roselle Park. He is here and has been here, defending Roselle Park against everything from oversight to incompetence.
Thank you Mr. Magiera.