Three Memorial Donations To The Library On Hold

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Published: September 15, 2016 @ 4:00 PM EDT

Three donations made to the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library lawn have been put on hold by the governing body indefinitely.

Two of the donations are similar to the “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial donated by Mayor Carl Hokanson – acting as a private resident. This donation was installed in front of the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library by the Department of Public Works (DPW) by Carl Hokanson – acting as mayor. The installation of the wooden memorial resulted in Greg Storey, spouse of Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey, contacting the American Humanist Association (AHA). The group, in turn, sent a letter to Mayor Hokanson threatening legal action if it was not removed. On August 18th, before a standing-room-only audience, council voted to retroactively accept the memorial by a vote of 3-2. Mayor Hokanson and Councilwoman Storey recused themselves from voting.

The first donation was made by Robert Domanski and it depicts the silhouette of a soldier kneeling in front of a Star of David. The memorial is made out of wood just like Mr. Hokanson’s donation. Mr. Domanski, at that August 18th meeting, had publicly stated he would be donating the memorial. This announcement was welcomed and supported publicly by members of the governing body as well as several other residents who spoke in support of the “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial that evening.

The second donation came from Tom Roché at that same meeting. His donation is a wooden silhouette of a soldier kneeling in front of the American Atheists emblem. This symbol is recognized by the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) – a department managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – as an emblem of belief for placement on government headstones and markers. Arlington National Cemetery has the American Atheists symbol, in addition to over 60 other emblems, placed on grave markers.

The third donation, until now, was made as an anonymous one. It is a brass/bronze statue of what is commonly referred to as the Battle Cross. Despite its name, it is not religious. The Battle Cross is a U.S. Army helmet resting on an upside M-16 (or M-4) rifle stuck into the ground with military boots on either side of the service weapon; some depictions have a dog tag hanging off of the rifle’s rear grip. In support of full disclosure, this third donation was made by me as a private citizen.

During the September 1st Mayor & Council meeting, the subject of the three donations was discussed by council as part of a new agenda format called a workshop discussion. This was after the donation of the Battle Cross statue had been placed on the agenda for that meeting, then removed by the mayor. When asked about the reason for its removal from the agenda that was published by the Borough Clerk’s office on August 29th, Mayor Hokanson stated, “It was changed to the fact that it would be discussed tonight for approval for the next meeting.”

The mayor was referring to the new procedure for non time-sensitive matters being discussed at a workshop discussion before being placed on the agenda as a resolution. Mayor Hokanson made the statement even though at the August 18th meeting when Borough Attorney Richard Huxford stated, “The agenda will be in place for the next meeting but the timeframes as to putting stuff on the agenda which would need to be discussed . . . the preceding meeting, won’t come into effect until the second meeting in September.”

When asked a second time, the mayor just reiterated that it was placed on the agenda as a workshop item without providing further detail.

“The question I had since we did have donations or requests for donations come forth [is], is it as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no’? How are we evaluating these?”, asked Councilman Kelly when the matter was brought up as a workshop discussion on September 1st, “I feel as though there is an elephant in the room with these three. We can’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on any of these. There’s more to it than that.”

The Borough Attorney provided information on the donation letters and the specifications of the three donations. Mr. Huxford added, “From the legal perspective, I would like to get a formal response from the JIIF before we go forward. That would just be my only hesitation before going today.”

At no point in the discussion did the governing body mention issues other than the one related to the religious interpretation of “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial that would have prevented a vote or motion to accept any or all of the donations.

The New Jersey Intergovernmental Insurance Fund (NJIIF) is the municipality’s insurance carrier. NJIIF was involved in a closed session matter regarding the acceptance of the “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial and possible litigation at the August meeting.

Mr. Huxford stated he expected an answer back from NJIIF by the second week of September.

Councilman Shipley remarked, “My greatest concern right now is . . . looking at the potential costs of all these things in light of the pending litigation. I’m in favor of waiting on this to see where they stand before making any [decision].”

First Ward Councilman Eugene Meola stated, “That being the case, let’s table all of these new donations until we get the final decision. And then we’ll decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ . . . If it comes negative then we’ll deny them. If it’s positive we’ll accept them. We’ll wait for the answers from the JIIF.”

Councilman Meola made this statement on September 1st even though at the August 18th meeting he did not support a suggestion to postpone the vote on the “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” donation until NJIIF could be consulted for their position regarding potential litigation.

“I have no problem with any of these,” stated Councilman Kelly referring to the donations, adding “I guess I don’t know if I’m misreading it or the only one seeing it but our action or inaction on these kind of puts us in a [situation]. We knew at the last meeting moving forward that this was happening . . . as far as the donations [and] not having a decision on them, I don’t know, would be in the best light.”

“The thing is, unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a donation because now we’re looking at pending litigation over this and this could affect it,” said Councilman Shipley, “It’s unfortunate that it’s tied up with something else. It could have further implications and I’d like to make a decision or have something put before us where we know exactly what we’re dealing with and, at this point, I feel we don’t – at least I don’t.”

At no point in the discussion did the governing body mention issues other than the one related to the religious interpretation of “Kneeling Soldier At Cross” memorial that would have prevented a vote or motion to accept any or all of the donations.

Although a representative from the NJIIF could not be contacted in time for this article, a previous conversation with Roger Byron, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute – a law firm that has offered to defend the municipality in case of a First Amendment lawsuit – was asked questions about similar donations for a subsequent article. During that interview, Mr. Byron was asked if donations mentioned at the August 18th meeting – where he was in attendance – would fall in line with First Liberty Institute’s position to defend the religious rights of all Americans, Mr. Byron responded in support, “Certainly it would. I think it’s a great idea.”

Asked if First Liberty Institute would have defended the municipality if the mayor had donated a kneeling soldier in front of a Star of David, Mr. Byron responded, “Absolutely.”

As of this publication, none of the three donations are on the agenda even though sources have stated that the governing body did receive a correspondence from NJIIF.

The next Mayor & Council meeting is tonight at 7 p.m. at the Roselle Park Municipal Complex located at 110 East Westfield Avenue.

Copies of the three donation letters are included below:

Download File (PDF)

Download File (PDF)

Download File (PDF)