In The Year Of Our Lord 2014: Year In Review

These are the 2014 Stories Of The Year as far as our one-square mile town is concerned. What started out in the online magazine 07204 (link) has been incorporated into Roselle Park News starting this year.

There were many stories that did not make the cut including the start of NJ TRANSIT’s one-seat ride (albeit just for off-peak weekday hours), the BOE campaign by newcomer Sundjata Sekou (who polarized while at the same time re-energized how people elect those who will decide how education is paid for), and Andrew Casais (who started and ended his public life in Roselle Park with the flags not flying half-mast on September 11th).

There were many others but the ones picked, even if they may not have been talked about much, created the history of our town and will shape the future of it.

Happy New Year Roselle Park. 2015, here we come.


10. An Ovation

For years the Roselle Park High School auditorium has not kept up with the times. Looking more like the inside of a closed movie house with broken worn seats, audiences still came year in and year out to watch musicals, holiday shows, and other events – the quality of the seats did not match the quality of what was being presented onstage.

That is, until this year.

After years of going it alone, the Friends of the Roselle Park High School – a non-profit started by parents of high schoolers – got a helping hand by the current Roselle Park Board Of Education (BOE) and the auditorium got a renovation with new seats, carpet, and acoustic padding.

The BOE plans to rent the auditorium to outside organizations in order to offset the cost put into bring the school system’s most prominent inside venue into the 21st century.


9. Lives (Or ‘A Lifeline‘)

Roselle Park had a year of firsts in 2014, and one of them was passing an ordinance to address feral cats in the Borough.

For years, there have been people who have been more than annoyed by feral cats infesting their neighborhoods and there have been those who have tried to take care of them, albeit secretly. It all culminated last year when an anonymous flier was distributed that someone was killing cats in the Bender Avenue section of town.

No legal action came of it but this year, Councilman-At-Large Carl Hokanson spearheaded the passing of a law that will regulate and monitor feral colonies. There were those who were against legalizing the feeding and care of homeless cats and those who wanted to stop hiding what they had been doing for years. Councilman Hokanson held information sessions to educate people and answer their questions – both for and against. In the end, council passed the ordinance to try and humanely deal with cats that have been abandoned instead of having them trapped and sent to a shelter to be killed.

The success of the ordinance will reveal itself in the coming years by seeing how many people sign up to legally register themselves as caretakers for the homeless feline population in Roselle Park.


8. SID Vicious (Or “Legal Organized Crime”)

After almost a decade on the books, and a smattering of activity until 2012, Roselle Park’s Special Improvement District (SID) was abolished by council in November of this year.

The municipality’s attempt to help the downtown business district – many say – started off on the wrong foot by imposing an additional 3% tax on businesses – it was called an assessment – in what is commonly known as the T-District (Westfield Avenue from Walnut to Locust and Chestnut Street to a little before the train station).

It lumbered along with lack of interest from property and business owners. Add to that audits were late, SID meetings were poorly attended, and an effort to expand the SID beyond the T-District (when it could not even interest its current membership) was met with less than enthusiastic reception from the business community, and you can see why council voted to abolish it last month. One business owner even compared the SID to nothing more than ‘legal organized crime’ where business and property owners pay the equivalent of protection money since the SID produced no tangible productive results.

There have been claims by a few that abolishing the SID would be a detrimental blow to businesses, but perhaps scrapping a plan that did not think outside the box might allow for a new initiative where businesses feel that they have a say not only about their establishments but in in the direction of the downtown without being forced to pay the government extra to do so.

Ideas of tax abatements have been floating around where businesses pay an amount less than they pay now in taxes with the promise to use some of those savings to improve their establishments. It would give the municipality a larger share of taxes and give businesses some relief in their payments while improving the community. Who knows, maybe someone might want to ask businesses what they think would help them instead of having others tell what they think is best.


7. Roselle Park vs. The Constitution

Quite a number of Constitutional issues were dealt with in the Borough this year.

There was a lawsuit against the Roselle Park Police Department that was settled where they were accused of conducting an illegal search when responding to a noise complaint that ended in the arrest of three men for possession of marijuana after claiming to have a search warrant and being allowed into the premises by the suspects. Even though the original amount sought of $1 million ended up being $35,000, a bad precedent was set in settling for any amount since the United States Supreme Court has previously decided that police can lie to suspects.

Then there was the Heart Of Worship Church who is suing the municipality for, among other things, violating its Constitutional rights regarding land use laws that prohibit discriminate against religious institutions.

Additionally, there was the repeal of two ordinances on the books which violated two Constitutional rights – one being free speech and the other being discrimination based on age.

The free speech issue was in the form of requiring a time limit on political speech in the form of signs which had previously been addressed in New Jersey case Gause v. Borough of Hawthorne.

A teen curfew, the second issue, had the Borough trying to rectify its unconstitutional wording by copying another municipality’s (Wanaque) curfew ordinance; the only problem with that was that Wanaque’s ordinance had been repealed the very week Roselle Park was to adopt it. Subsequent research had the municipality discuss the matter with the RPPD, who stated that the ordinance was not necessary.

In repealing both those laws, the municipality restored the rights of individuals, however unpopular such a decision might be.


6. A Town’s Worth (Reval, Part I)

A townwide revaluation has not been done in Roselle Park for decades.

After years of being one of Mayor Joseph Accardi’s objective, it finally became a reality because of Councilman Andrew Casais. Had it not been for him, who, as the finance chair, worked with the Chief Financial Officer to work the numbers, the townwide revaluation would most likely not have happened. This was on Mayor Accardi’s wish list ever since he took office and every year it was never supported because he never built a consensus. This year, the mayor really only had one ally on council, Councilman Casais, who built consensus among his fellow council members which unanimously voted to approve the townwide revaluation.

This is not to say that it was a smooth ride to get to the vote.

There was an anonymous flier that was distributed earlier in the year giving misinformation and panic among some resident. Some in the governing body accused Fifth Ward Councilman Michael Yakubov of being involved with it as a political tool in his run for mayor but in the end everyone played nice and voted to stop tax appeals that were impacting all residents in their taxes (the less those who win appeals pay, the more everyone else pays to make up that loss).

Next year will see the beginning of the actual revaluation and to be sure there will be questions and trepidation during both the information sessions that were promised by council as well as the actual assessing of residences.

In the end, it is expected that everyone will be paying their fair share with – as the old adage goes – some taxes going up, some taxes going down, and some staying the same.

Part II, and possibly Part III, of the revaluation will be on subsequent years’ lists.


5. 293 West Clay Avenue

In what could be considered a major part the legacy of Mayor Accardi’s single term, the property – or more accurately – the property owner at 293 West Clay Avenue, showed the state of the municipality’s interaction with the business community. Already involved in a lawsuit from 2012, the property once again was a matter that involved the mayor calling the police to see what they could do to stop a church service which happened to be the blessing of a church. The police stated that it was a code enforcement issue and wanted to stay out of being the ones to stop a religious service.

A suit was filed by the office of William Courtney, the church’s attorney who, by the way, also happened to be the property owner’s attorney – George D’Agostino. There are those who believe that Mr. D’Agostino has used the property and businesses (a woman-owned business and a church) to engage in a years’ long property line dispute against the business next door at 301 West Clay Avenue, which is owned by Gilda DeIorio, the mother of former mayor Joseph DeIorio. All this even though the origin of the property line dispute between the two lots dates back all the way to even before Mr. D’Agostino purchased the property at 293 West Clay.

Earlier in the year the Municipal Land Use Board voted to not only interpret “Easy Fitness With Jeannie” as a gym but included parking issues as a reason for denying the application (although it was not mentioned in the application). Former Roselle Park Mayor Joseph DeIorio even testified against the business during the hearing.

Later this same year, the Heart Of Worship Church had its Waiver for A Site Plan denied by the zoning officer for ‘parking issues’ although it turned out that there were none based on rental space being used by the church. Once again the MLUB, which was chaired both times by Diane Kurz, denied a business – this time a church – use of the property. It took involvement of the Union County Court to allow a stay while the matter begins to work itself through litigation.

As the year ends, this property has involved the outgoing mayor as well as the former mayor (who had sued Mr. D’Agostino). It also appears that it will see Diane Kurz, the face of the Land Use Board who, be removed from the Board in that she will not be re-appointed to the MLUB.

Perhaps with a fresh start, some kind of new page can be turned in this matter to see things with fresh eyes to move things forward in some direction other than a courtroom.


4. A May-December Romance

For the first time in almost half a decade, residents of Roselle Park once again stood along the sidewalks to see a Memorial Day Parade march up East Grant Avenue and turn onto Chestnut Street to end at the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library. The town got a piece of its history back with people waving and smiling and enjoying each other’s company while being part of their hometown’s history.

A little known factor in the parade was that a major section of the parade route – East Grant – was in need of repair. It had gotten so bad that fire trucks were not to use it when responding to a call. Now, it was repaired and the parade took place. There were other reasons for the parade being absent which had to do with temporary budget constraints five years ago and a lack of participants. But now, hopefully, the parade will continue for years to come and show everyone the quaint little tree-lined hometown that Roselle Park really is when you take time to get out of your car and walk around.

Then, just this month, for the first time, the fire department did something that made people – for the second time in a year – realize what a great little town this is, by having Santa visit families the weekend before Christmas to deliver presents. Parents, as well as children, waited expectantly for good ole Saint Nick and will treasure the experience of having Santa show up at their door long after the presents that were delivered are forgotten. Also, the Roselle Park Police Department (RPPD) did its own version of delivering presents, along with donating to the food pantry to really help families needing something so simple as food this time of year.

A new tradition seems to have started in Roselle Park and an old one got new life; and to think, you will be able to tell future generations, “You know, I was around when the parade came back” or “I remembered when Santa came to visit houses”.

Maybe the Fourth of July carnival can come back along with Christmas caroling and a Christmas parade. One never knows.


3. Full-Day Kindergarten

It started out with massive support. The first BOE meeting that the implementation of full-day kindergarten was announced had parents speaking out advocating for it. Then came the announcement of what that would cost, and that is when people really spoke out.

The price of having the school district implement full-day kindergarten was to have to cut back in library services at the elementary schools. At a subsequent BOE meeting, parents and teacher and librarians spoke out about how library research was essential to a student’s education, with some parents stating they would remove their children from the school district if libraries were done away with in Aldene, Gordon, and Sherman. Even Councilwoman Charlene Storey stated at a Mayor & Council meeting that she would have done that if she had children in the district.

What almost no one realized was that most of those libraries were visited by students only once a week for what was basically a book exchange. Only one of them had library research skills on its curriculum. Parents even did some research of their own on the importance of libraries as well as library research skills and how they were important even in the internet age. No one seemed to have gotten how funny it was that all that research on research skills was done online and not in any library.

Still, the Board listened to the concerns and what first started out as eliminating the libraries altogether became a compromise of keeping the books but losing the staff. Now library duties are left to volunteers and some staff while using technology to acquire books with real people sort them and shelf them.

So full-day kindergarten is a reality with the first year being the 2014-15 school year. How that will impact Common Core, the changes in standardized testing, and the general education of children will be seen; not immediately but in how we nurture those who will become this town’s, this nation’s, this world’s future.


2. Sign Of The Times

You ever hear the one about a councilman who got arrested for stealing campaign signs?

Sounds like the start of a joke but the story that made the most headlines this year was about Michael Yakubov being arrested for stealing Carl Hokanson campaign signs.

It was either a conspiracy or the crime of the century depending on who you asked.

There were calls for Michael’s resignation as well as calls for an investigation of the Roselle Park Police Department.

The story splashed across media with tabloid headlines of the councilman “Busted In Sign Gate” and having a local tv show do an ‘expose’ on the scandal. Such coverage of made a mockery of our town – just to put in perspective, you had reporters interviewing reporters for a news story.

All the while, real issues regarding taxes, quality of life, and a detailed plan for the Borough by either candidate, got pushed in the background. But to be honest with ourselves, these issues were always in the background, at least for some. It was more about a popularity contest than picking who had the best vision for Roselle Park.

For others though, they actually became informed by actually listening to what candidates stated they wanted to do for Roselle Park. There was a video of Mr. Yakubov’s questioning that was released by Roselle Park News as well as interviews with the candidates that were published in collaboration with WRPK Radio. Those interviews (in total) received more listens than the video received views.

But back to the signs . . .

After all was said and done, Michael Yakubov lost the election and pled guilty to the stealing of a sign but will have his record expunged after a year (or even six months). So, depending on where you look and who you ask, he did it but he did not do it.

Mr. Yakubov is still on council and with this thing about signs, the Borough has another piece of history added to it where every election hereafter will be compared in its ugliness (or maturity) to the time a councilman got arrested for stealing campaign signs.


1. The Roselle Park High School Debate Club

Fernando Dealmeida, Isabel Miguelez, Kristine Flores, Lucas Sosa, Luis Ortiz, Selena Montoya.

Not only were these six Roselle Park High School students the defining moment of the 2014 Mayoral Debate – for which they were moderators – but they were the defining moment of the year. Without much fanfare after having being called to serve as the moderators for a debate (which had not been held in years), the members of the school’s debate club rose to the challenge, constructed the debate questions, and carried themselves with poise, dignity, maturity, and respect. They did this all, by the way, in the span of seven days from when they were notified till the debate.

Representing the future of Roselle Park, most of whom could not vote in this election, they brought dignity to what usually turns out to be shill questions being asked to not find out more information but to try and trap a candidate into a corner. This was most notable during the second half of the debate when members of the audience asked questions, as opposed to the moderator’s asking theirs. That second half was when outbursts came from the audience. In a fitting example of the maturity of these young men and women showed itself when a 60-plus year old man and woman, who were sitting right behind the teenage moderators, started yelling out and heckling like some . . . well . . . unruly teenagers, while right in front of them, well-dressed teenagers sat maintaining their composure and did not take part in what could have become a shouting match.

Roselle Park got to see what the future could be (the first half) and what it has been (the second half) as far as politics is concerned. These young men and women gave notice that an often overlooked part of Roselle Park – the youth – are relevant and deserve to be heard. Having pulled such a feat off in a week, even though not perfect, was a great first for the Borough.  Jonathan Silberlight, the teacher who started the Debate Club, was also simply outstanding in his tutelage, concern, and reverent protectiveness for those under his care during the debate.

Fernando, Isabel, Kristine, Lucas, Luis, and Selena became the milestone from which all future debates will be gauged. More importantly, they were the epitome of what it means to be a Roselle Park resident and student. They all are the living example all of us should follow.

RPHS Debate Team

(Lucas Sosa, Fernando Dealmeida, Isabel Miguelez, Jonathan Silberlight, Luis Ortiz, and Kristine Flores)