Council Votes To Accept Kneeling Soldier Donation At Library

By a vote of 3-2, council voted to retroactively accept the Kneeling Soldier Memorial donation at the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library (RPVML). Resolutions 197-16 and 198-16 were voted on as one vote by council – 197-16 accepted the donation and 198-16 accepted its placement in front of the library.

This is the latest – but not the last – in a controversy that had the spouse of Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey seek legal assistance from the American Humanist Association (AHA), an organization that Ms. Storey is a member of, which – in turn – sent a letter threatening litigation to Mayor Carl Hokanson to have him – as a public official – remove a wooden memorial of a silhouetted soldier kneeling in front of a grave marker in the shape of a cross that Mr. Hokanson donated, as a resident, to the library without going through any proper channels to have it discussed, accepted, or installed.

The meeting started with more than 130 people inside council chambers and barricades outside in the municipal parking lot to accommodate protesters who never showed up. There were also reporters, cameras from various news outlets, veterans groups, members of the American Humanist Association (AHA), an attorney from the First Liberty Institute, and the general counsel of the New Jersey Intergovernmental Insurance Fund (NJIIF).

The public comment portion had 25 people comment on the Kneeling Soldier Memorial.

Those who spoke on the subject ranged from regular residents, veterans, former members of council, a sitting member of the Board Of Education (who spoke as a private citizen), trustees of the Knights Of Columbus, parishoners of the Church of the Assumption as well as the Community United Methodist Church, former municipal employees, a member of the Roselle Park Loves Arts (RPLA) committee, the Vice President of the Roselle Park Library Board, and the Chair of the Roselle Park Democratic Committee (RPDC).

There were points made on both sides that encompassed one speaker’s research on the history of crosses as grave markers, two offers to donate similar memorials with symbols of other faiths, comments citing the United States Constitution in opposition and defense of the memorial, positions stating that the memorial is a piece of art and removal of it would constitute censorship, comments denouncing the Councilwoman and her husband, statements by those who stated they were Jewish with one person saying they were not offended and another offering a similar memorial with the Star of David, and one donation of $100 to help in defense of the memorial if there is litigation.

When the time came to discuss the resolutions before a vote, it was noted that both the councilwoman and the mayor would be recused from voting since they both had a financial interest in the outcome of the resolutions.

Third Ward Councilman Ryan Kelly spoke first, stating that he was not offended by the memorial and that he had no issue with it. In speaking about the potential litigation and those who objected to the memorial, Councilman Kelly added that those people’s opinions matter even if he did not agree with them. He remarked, “Make no mistake about it, I think that the humanist organization and those who chose to sit around and wait and sue and disrespect our military and fallen veterans, I think they are no better than the Westboro Baptist Church.”

In his closing comments, Councilman Kelly said, “As a legislator, as a legislator, it would be irresponsible to vote to keep the sign amidst the chaos. That does not mean anything other than it states. It would be irresponsible to keep the sign because we would, in fact, increase our risk or exposure to litigation . . . We can still condemn the actions of those we disagree with without going to court, creating additional lawsuits, [and] increases tax in town.”

Fifth Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley remarked, “I too am very sorry to see this turn into what it has. The last thing I want to see is the town become divisive over such a thing. I have to say I agree with you, I think this was handled poorly on both ends and this could have been avoided. But I’m just going to talk facts because as Finance Chair, I have great concern about this.”

He proceeded to comment on the three possible outcomes he saw regarding going forward.

His first scenario had the municipality not removing the memorial and going to court to defend it. In that instance, Councilman Shipley expounded upon it by saying if NJIIF did agree with the position that the memorial does not violate the First Amendment, the insurance carrier would defend the municipality fully and pay any awards minus any deductibles. If NJIIF does not agree that the memorial is constitutional, then the municipality would have to defend itself and pay any financial damages if the AHA was victorious in court. If the AHA did not win, the municipality would still incur costs of a legal defense.

The second scenario had the memorial remain and the matter proceed with litigation. There would be a court-mandated period of litigation. This might have, at some point, NJIIF recommend that the claim be settled before going to court and the memorial would be taken down as a stipulation. If the municipality did not agree to the settlement, it would proceed with the case on its own and be responsible for court costs and any financial awards given to the AHA if it lost. If it won and the memorial were to stay, the costs for court would still be incurred and the premiums to NJIIF could increase.

The last scenario had the municipality remove the memorial.

Councilman Shipley closed his remarks with, “I disclose this information to inform the governing body and the public of the process and its potential financial impact to the borough . . . I also offer this information to make the public aware that if we do settle during litigation and there is a monetary payout to the American Humanist Association, we are only feeding and funding the same organization we are fighting.”

Councilwoman Storey then spoke, even though she could not vote, “This is not about veterans as we have said over and over and over and over again. This is about religion.”

The councilwoman spoke about taking time to personally visit every cemetery in France that had a burial spot of a solider from Roselle Park who died in combat during World War I, adding, “Please don’t talk to me about disrespecting veterans.”

She then recounted the timeline of the mayor asking a member of the Library Board of Trustees, who is Jewish, if he found the memorial offensive and then proceeding with, apparently, gaining the approval of the Library Board in an illegal public meeting (as stated by the Vice President of the Library Board during the public comment portion) and then having it installed by the Department of Public Works (DPW), all without any formal approval or oversight.

She finished by saying, “If it is not religious, what is the problem with putting up, virtually, the same monument but without the cross? If the cross is the sticking point then that is reflecting a religious concern. I put my hand on the Constitution to support the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution does not stop at the boundaries of Roselle Park.”

First Ward Councilman Eugene Meola then spoke, “I, too, have questions about this but I remember somebody telling me when I was running for office, you have to make an attempt to do what people in your ward are going to ask you to do . . . They put us up here to do it and this is why I have to say that I don’t agree with it. I understand why you feel this way [but] I can’t stand with it. But I do respect you very much.”

Councilman Shipley did ask why the Diversity Committee was not asked about the donation since that, supposedly, was the reason for its creation. He also touched upon a pattern he had begun to notice, that this is the third issue between the mayor and the councilwoman regarding religious debates. The first was the mayor changing the name of the Holiday Tree Celebration to Christmas Tree Celebration. The second was the exemption of construction-related fees to only houses of worship which, later on in the meeting, was expanded to included all 501(c)(3) non-profits. The councilman said, “I don’t know what’s going on because these things are divisive between you and the mayor and that’s not good. Something’s got to be worked out because this is dividing the town as well as the council. This is just what I’m seeing.”

At this, the councilwoman talked about how she tried to approach the mayor about the fee exemption and the mayor basically brushed her off by stating that he was for it and she was against it. It was also at this time that the mayor, who offered no comments during the public comment portion nor the council debate, gave his version of the conversation, adding that the councilwoman stated she would be moving to Florida after she left council.

Once discussion was complete, the vote was taken for both resolutions and it was approved with councilmembers Elmarassy, Meola, and Petrosky voted in the affirmative. Councilmembers Kelly and Shipley voted against the donation. As stated previously the councilwoman and mayor recused themselves from the vote.

The next scheduled municipal meeting is Thursday, September 1st, at 7 p.m. in council chambers of the Roselle Park Municipal Complex located at 100 East Westfield Avenue.