Letters to editor: July 9, 2020
Support for the Hayat family
The Social Justice Coalition of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair strongly rebukes the actions of a white woman in calling the Montclair police to report an alleged assault by her black neighbor, Fareed Hayat, over a permit dispute. In light of the long history of white people’s false accusations of unwanted physical contact by black men, which often — and still can — cost them their lives, we support Mr. Hayat, his wife, as well as all people of color around the country in their right to live their everyday lives in dignity and peace. We applaud our Montclair neighbors on Norman Road who, when called to corroborate the claim of assault, rejected the baseless accusation and provided us a model of anti-racism in action.
The UUCM Social Justice Coalition calls on members of the Montclair faith community to take a pledge that, in the case of a nonviolent offense, we will think seriously about the implications of making that call or otherwise filing a police report immediately.
We also encourage people of conscience to contact your state senators and urge them to pass S2635, sponsored by Sen. Nia Gill and introduced into the Senate on June 29, that establishes as crimes the false incrimination, filing a false police report as a form of bias intimidation, and false 911 reporting with the purpose to intimidate or harass based on race or protected class. A similar bill passed the Assembly on June 18.
At a time when the nation is waking up to the realities of systemic racism, we urge all people of conscience to take action now to limit the use of police in matters that can be settled safely and without risk to the health and life of our neighbors.
The author is co-chairwoman of the Social Justice Coalition of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair.
Game changers in police hiring? No
I have been following the media, both print and TV, with politicians suggesting that police be licensed, and that a college degree be a requirement to become a police officer, as it would reduce the chances that he or she would become involved in shooting deaths while responding to tense situations.
Respectfully, I don’t believe this to be true. During my tenure as chief of police of the Montclair Police Department, I sat in on all interviews of prospective candidates. In my opinion, while a college degree was valuable, I did not believe it to be a sole requirement.
What I was looking for in a candidate was an honorable, ethical and professional demeanor, with interpersonal skills, who had the traits to become a well-rounded police officer. It is also my belief that requiring a college degree will ultimately affect the diversity of a police department, especially with the high cost of college in today’s society for those who cannot afford to attend.
As far as a license requirement, police departments are not like the Division of Motor Vehicles; a license would not guarantee a dedicated, honest, bias-free police officer.
When I became a police officer on Dec. 5, 1960, I was surrounded by a dozen or more World War II veterans with no college degree or license. In my many years of policing, I can tell you these men — too many to mention — were some of the best to ever have served the MPD.
The average training in New Jersey is 21 weeks. After the academy, a recruit is generally assigned to work with a training officer for a period of time. I suggest that the academy expose the candidates through extensive training on issues of diversity and deadly force, and extend the time spent with a training officer.
The next issue is that our politicians must help enhance the law enforcement profession, instead of tearing it down.
Politicians who pass legislation have absolutely no idea what policing is all about. They are sending up the white flag of surrender, throwing the cops under the bus. In addition, they have no concept of what really happens on the streets of America. I invite them to suit up for the next three or four months and accompany cops on their routine patrols, and see what it’s like to be scrutinized on every move they make by people with cellphones and cameras documenting their actions.
Upon retirement from the Montclair Police Department, I became partners with Nutley PD chief Bob DeLitta in forming Russo & DeLitta Law Enforcement Consultants, representing towns, police departments and individual officers accused of misconduct while performing their duties. Before we took on a case, Chief DeLitta and I would go over the facts of the case, and if the facts merited it, and we both agreed the cops were wrong, we refused the case.
A large portion of our investigations involved the New Jersey Joint Insurance Fund, which represented cities and their police departments being sued. The majority of our cases ended up in a settlement, with others ending up in a Superior Court proceeding where we offered expert opinion testimony on behalf of the defendants.
Unless you are specially trained, things are not always what they are first deemed to be. Don’t judge the actions of police unless you have all of the facts, and not just what is reported by the media.
I support peaceful demonstrations for those who believe they have been unjustly abused, but I also support police departments across America, who must serve and protect the citizens of our great country from rioting, looting, destruction, burning and death.
Thomas J. Russo
The author is a former chief of the Montclair Police Department.
No ‘news desert’ here
Congratulations to Jaimie Winters of the Montclair Local, for winning the Stuart and Beverley Awbrey Award. This award honors hard-hitting investigative journalism. Jaimie won first place for her Montclair Local articles about the future of Lackawanna Plaza. The judges commented, “This is what community journalism is all about — taking an issue and staying on top of it — meeting after meeting, development after development, and in this case, a lawsuit. Nice work informing the public.”
Well-known media critic Margaret Sullivan, a columnist for The Washington Post and author of a new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, once asked me if the local media had impacted the Better Lackawanna movement in any way. I gave credit to our local media and in particular Jaimie’s reporting for consistently informing the public, not just with top-line facts but with details and context, so readers understood why we were appealing.
As we did our community outreach, ultimately signing up more than 200 people who asked to join our appeal, it was striking how well-informed people were, down to the details. They understood our appeal was based on flaws in the Planning Board’s approval process, not simply the needless destruction of historic structures. At its core, the Lackawanna Appeal is about democracy and government accountability.
Freedom of the press is the First Amendment because it is the foundation for democracy. Democracy requires a well-informed electorate taking action. Our form of representational government means you must convey your concerns to your elected representatives; it’s not enough to simply show up every few years to vote. Montclair is changing rapidly. If you silently wait four years to simply vote again for township officials, you may barely recognize the town, and it will have happened on your watch.
Montclair is incredibly fortunate to not suffer in the “news desert” that is plaguing communities across America. Don’t take this for granted. Read the Local, SUPPORT the Local, and attend Township Council and Planning Board meetings, to ensure our elected and appointed representatives know YOUR views.
Thankful that leaf blowers
go quiet for three months
Something to celebrate! We have just entered three months of peace and quiet in our lovely community. Leaf blowers are legally banned between now and Oct. 1, when leaves actually begin to “fall.” Hurrah for birdsong not having to compete with one of the most annoying, unhealthful and destructive noises our convenience-at-any-cost society has created. Since these three months are short and precious, feel free to give your neighbors a friendly reminder if they seem unaware of the respite. And if you would like to add your name to a growing number of Montclair citizens who are concerned about the effects of leaf blowers on the health and safety of blower operators, on climate change and on noise pollution, you are welcome to email us at email@example.com.
Farewell from outgoing Councilman McMahon
This being my last regular council meeting I thought I’d share a few things in retrospect. I’m breaking personal precedent as, while I’ve always considered what I wanted to say, I generally don’t write it as a speech. I’m also generally succinct. Not today.
I love Montclair, always have, never aspired to be anywhere else. I have loved serving Montclair these last eight years. It has been an honor and a privilege, often a joy, occasionally a sorrow and sometimes a frustration. I debated internally for quite some time whether to run again or not. It was difficult. My great uncle, James J. McMahon, as many of you know, was a three-term commissioner back in the ’30s and ’40s. So, I had that intrafamily competition roaming through my brain. In the end I decided that a collective 20 years of McMahons was probably enough and it was time for other voices to be heard.
We all know Montclair has a unique, diverse, intelligent, opinionated and passionate populace. Montclair is also blessed with a workforce that is unrivaled. I would like to mention just a few that I have had the pleasure to work closely with over the years. My list is by no means complete, so don’t feel left out if I neglect to mention you, I appreciate all of you.
On the financial end of things, I think we are leaving this town, even under the current conditions, in about as good a place as it could be. Our AAA bond rating and $60+ million-dollar debt reduction is not to be ignored. That wouldn’t have been possible without the council and without our world-class CFO, Maja — Padmaja Rao, our financial guru Bob Benecke, John Lauria, Ray Carnevale and many others. Great work! I can and will take credit for finding our brilliant and driven tax assessor, George Librizzi. He’s my second-best find.
In the public safety sector, I have known John Herrmann for an eternity. We are lucky to have him as a chief and I’m honored to call him my friend. We are also lucky to have his deputies, Brian Wilde and Rob Duncan. I’m going to miss my interaction with them and our firefighters, many of whom are also friends. John Thomas, I get you!
Police Chief Todd Conforti, you’re just a wonderful human being. You and Deputy Chief Wil Young have a tremendous force, as partly evidenced by the relative lack of police problems we’re having in these trying times. Lt. Stephanie Egnezzo, I didn’t always agree with you but I always respected you and enjoyed the time we spent on various matters.
The Montclair ambulance is not officially part of the town but it is a leg of the public safety triad and I’m proud of the way all three in this town work together along with the continuing support of the council.
Jason Santarcangelo, Esq., is our vacant and abandoned homes maven. He has taken that bull by the horns and waged a successful campaign to get them cleaned up and back on the tax rolls. One of many little known but important cogs in the wheel of government. Mike Reed is also part of that effort.
For me, one of the most interesting things was learning about just some of the incredible complexity involved within the infrastructure. I (we) have spent literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours with Steve Wood, Rob Bianco and Gary Obszarny. For those who don't know, Steve and Rob along with our engineers and the community services team are responsible for street paving, curb construction, plowing, garbage removal recycling, trees, etc., etc., etc. From my perspective the town looks damn good and they deserve a lot of the credit. Also a nod to Norberto at Neglia Engineering, who has been an active participant.
You usually only see Gary’s work when a pipe is being laid or a water main breaks. His work is, for the most part, underground. He is our water and sewer genius. I don’t use that term lightly. Every time I talk with Gary I feel like I’m getting a Ph.D. in water and sewer. Most of us assume there’s a pipe, water comes in and then disappears down the drain. In reality the complexity is staggering but fascinating.
Gary isn’t limited to the underground, though, we also thrust parking on his plate. Gary quickly garnered expertise in that field as well. Parking was a problem in my great-uncle’s day and is a problem today. With three decks coming on line and Gary at the helm I’m confident we’ll be in better shape soon.
As a member of the bar, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with our town attorney, Ira Karasick, as well as Joe Angelo in his various guises as prosecutor, assistant town attorney, now our municipal court judge. We spent many an hour engaged in discussion of some of the finer points of municipal law as well as a number of other relevant and irrelevant topics. Two of the finest men you ever want to meet and extremely smart able attorneys.
Angelese (Bermudez-Nieves) has also been a great addition to the law department, the manager’s office and now as clerk. Rick (Gearhart) and Tony (Fan), we couldn’t do these (virtual) meetings without you.
Deputy manager Brian Scantlebury: You have been my harbor in stormy seas, my confidant, my sounding board since the beginning of the campaign 8½ years ago. I thank you for sharing your wisdom and common sense. ‘Stay in your lane!’ is my favorite, oft-repeated quote of yours.
Five-and-a-half-years acting Manager Tim Stafford: The late Joe Martin led me to George Librizzi, my second-best find. He also led me to you, my best find. In my 68 years on the planet I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone more dedicated, more professional, more level-headed, more sincere whilst maintaining a world-class sense of humor. This work requires a sense of humor as well as a sense of irony and a sense of responsibility to the town. You have been a joy to work with.
To my fellow council members. We set a record. I believe that not only was Robert the first mayor elected two terms in a row under the Faulkner Act form of government, but we are the only council to sit eight years straight. It has been an experience of a lifetime. I thank you all for the good times and the bad, for our agreements and our differences. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say somewhere on the order of 95 percent we voted unanimously, so our differences, in the end, weren’t that great.
Mayor Jackson, Robert. When we first met, I asked what to call you and you said, “Cheryl calls me Robert.” I knew about Bobby Jackson, Bebe, Bob, but I also knew the gravity about what we were about to undertake and I thought Robert was apropos. So, Robert, sitting at your right hand in the seat last occupied by Roger Terry has been the honor of my life. By rough calculation we have been to 30,000 meetings together. You have conducted yourself impeccably through every one. Your wisdom, experience and financial acumen have been a boon to this town. More than that you have, if I may, a Buddha-esque quality. Frankly, you're kind of a cypher, as it’s hard to detect just what you are thinking, but you’re always thinking. When I describe you to people I generally say, “He may be the most egalitarian person I know.” Everybody is given a sometimes excessively fair shake and sometimes just enough rope. It has been a great eight years and I thank you for picking me for the journey.
Best of luck to all, particularly the new council members: Peter Yacobellis, Lori Price Abrams and David Cummings as well as the new mayor, Sean Spiller. It is a much different world from when we entered, and I don’t envy you the task ahead.
The author was a Township Council member from 2012 to 2020.