Congregation Shomrei Torah has been trying to build a synagogue on the 40,000 square foot property they own in Clifton for over a decade.
Faced with very vocal opposition (in part from an organization called “Protect Our Neighborhood, Inc”) and municipal officials that bounced their application back and forth since 2008, the congregation was forced to bring multiple lawsuits asking that their application be considered and other limits imposed on their plans be declared arbitrary. Eventually, Clifton settled with Shomrei Torah in 2017, allowing them to build a synagogue, but requiring them to significantly reduce the square footage inside. In that settlement, the congregation explicitly “retain[ed] the right to pursue litigation against the City of Clifton for a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.”
Which the congregation then did.
In 2018, Weil, Gotshal & Manges (of suing Mahwah for banning eruvs fame) sent a letter to Clifton on behalf of the congregation asking for attorneys fees from the previous lawsuits pursuant to RLUIPA, which they said had been violated as the city had imposed arbitrary limitations on Shomrei Torah’s building and had treated them differently than other building applications brought before the municipality. The letter cited comments made about the wider Orthodox community in public hearings and variances for other houses of worship that had been approved without controversy.
While both towns have come to the same inevitable conclusion, that an eruv will stay on the telephone poles through a small area of the municipalities, the actions of their elected representatives demonstrate the role effective leadership can play during times of change.
Montvale’s residents received notice before any agreements were finalized
Montvale Mayor, Mike Ghassali shows photos of potential lechis to residents and displays a map of potential routes for the eruv.
Below is a photo of Mayor Mike Ghassali at the Town Council meeting which took place on January 31st. He spoke to the residents about the reason for the eruv’s path into NJ. He talked about home values, stressing the fact that they didn’t change in towns with an eruv. He went over the options the Borough was discussing with the Eruv Association. He indicated the homes potentially affected under each plan. He spoke about the experiences of Tenafly over the course of their eruv litigation. He showed maps of the potential paths for the eruv, as well as photos of possible lechis under consideration. He provided answers to questions.
This is how government should function. Leaders are responsive to the people they represent. This meeting took place a couple weeks before an eruv settlement was signed. You can watch the presentation Mayor Ghassali gave to residents here:
Transparency in Upper Saddle River
At the start of the eruv controversy in Upper Saddle River, the council and Mayor brought Bruce Rosen (the attorney that handled the Tenafly Eruv action for the Township of Tenafly) to speak at the public meeting on August 3rd. You can hear him speak in the clip below. He stated that “courts are hostile to towns that try to stop eruvs”. He spoke about the eruv case in the Hamptons. He talked about the holdings of the Federal Courts and he answered questions from residents. Residents asked about whether they can put crucifixes on poles. They asked about the non-resident status of the eruv association. He answered the questions about standing and provided legal advice to the municipality in public.
I really encourage you to watch the clip below.
Transparency in Hamptons Eruv Litigation
The actions taken by Montvale and USR were not novel. When the Hamptons Eruv Litigation took place, the Township tried to be upfront with their residents, as well. You can see thousands of pages of court documents including legal declarations here on the West Hampton Beach web site.
Mahwah Operated in Secrecy and Seclusion
Compare the behavior of Montvale, USR and Westhampton with that of Mahwah. Starting in July, the Council had kept information from residents. Despite repeated requests from residents at meetings, the council refused to provide information about its actions. Why weren’t summonses issued? Why weren’t ordinances enforced?
Some of these answers became readily apparent through Open Public Records Act request, although the council’s president, Mr. Hermansen complained about their use at council meetings.
Votes to appropriate money for attorneys were tabled and postponed, eventually to be held at 10am on a weekday.
The Council, at the direction of Robert Hermansen spent hours in closed session while the public waited, desperate for information. When the council returned, they delayed and offered postponements, pushing meetings to the next day. It was a veritable war of attrition as the council waited for interest to wane before moving on.
Eventually, a Town Hall was announced by Robert Hermansen and information, at long last, would be offered to the public. On the day of the meeting, the event was cancelled. The reason offered, after several days was that the Township was still enmeshed in litigation. This makes little sense, as it was in the same litigation when the meeting was announced.
There’s a reason that attorneys ask clients not to speak while they are in the midst of litigation. Sometimes they can say things, especially truthful things, that destroy the case they are trying to make.
Mahwah Councilman David May came before the Bergen County Freeholders last week with a proposal to create a “county-wide eruv”. If you want to see why this is a half-baked idea that shouldn’t have been presented, you can see my first post here, which has a set of open questions Mr May refuses to answer, despite his repeated requests for dialogue.
But now, despite his efforts to say that this concept is unrelated to the civil rights lawsuits brought by the State of New Jersey against the Town and his council individually, Mr. May is coming under criticism for such an ill-suited idea, clearly intended to shift the conversation away from the elephant in the Mahwah council chambers.
One of those criticisms came from Jacob Sasson, an attorney with previous experience teaching the First Amendment, on Facebook (you can read our similar criticism here).
This is an astute observation by a professor that is knowledgeable in the subject matter.
Then came the reply:
“An eruv is barely noticeable attachment to telephone poles”.
Why exactly are these Civil Rights lawsuits against Mahwah happening?
On July 21st, in a letter from Mahwah’s zoning officer to the Eruv Association, Mr. Kelly wrote that “the installation of an eruv would constitute a sign on a utility pole”. He further states that “[s]ign shall mean any device for visual communication that is used for the purpose of bringing the subject thereof to the attention of the public”.
Does the eruv qualify as a “device for visual communication”?
“An eruv is barely noticeable attachment to telephone poles”
– Councilman David May
If Mahwah, NJ thought exclusion and vitriol would be a cost-free endeavor, the past five months have shown them to be sorely mistaken. Ever since the Mahwah Town Council became embroiled in litigation over their creation of ordinances to exclude people they didn’t like from parks (a move they officially rescinded this past week), the topic of costs has been a staple at Town Council meetings.
Residents have questioned appropriated funds for the several law firms representing the Township in the lawsuits alleging claims of animus and discrimination which have been filed by the State of New Jersey as well as a Jewish organization.
And at the last meeting of the year, which took place this past Thursday, the question of costs continued to plaque the council. Resident Susan Steinberg, who has been an outspoken critic of the Council, again requested information regarding billing and whether extensions to contracts ending in December/January are forthcoming.
But there are now new entries to the costs ledger, Mahwah is now facing which came to light this week.
One additional cost discussed at the December 28th meeting dealt with a $759.87 expenditure by Mayor Laforet and another related to the $17,500 to be made available for the hiring of an investigator to investigate “personnel matters”. The Council President, Rob Hermansen questioned the $759.87 charge, which the Mayor said related to document production to comply with the subpoena issued by the NJ Attorney General. He subsequently voted against reimbursing the charge.
Come from the government, the government has sent me.
So what happens when Code Enforcement gets tired of spying?
A helpful reader has provided audio of a conversation where they were confronted at their front door by two Code Enforcement Officers over praying in their house, after being watched by them for weeks. Below are excerpts from this audio. It is worth noting that the two officers are professional throughout and the conversation is cordial, however we find the content disturbing.
Code Enforcement Head Ken Pieslak introduces himself, and tells the resident that prayer (shudder) has been reported in his house. Praying is somehow against the law, though Ken isn’t sure exactly which one; it has something to do with acreage and setback. From his description it’s almost certain he is referring to Jackson zoning code § 244-115, which sets the conditions for a building that is primarily an institutional church, including a 2 acre lot and 200 foot setbacks. Needless to say, this person’s house is primarily a private residence and thus not subject to these requirements.
Ken Pieslak: I’m Ken Pieslak, department of compliance supervisor.
Are you the owner? Okay.
We’re getting, we’ve received some complaints last week that on Friday, you’re conducting services in the house. And we don’t want to bother, we didn’t want to come Friday at sundown and bother you so we wanted to get a hold of you ahead of time, cause you may not be aware that we have a code that doesn’t allow it. It only allows it in certain zones and you need X amount of property and, be, 200 foot setbacks and so forth. And we can get you a copy of the code, I don’t have it on me right now, but we just wanted to make you aware that it isn’t allowed.
I mean, if you have something scheduled for tonight, we understand, we don’t wanna, it’s last minute, we’re okay with that. But anything in the future beyond that, you know, we’re going to have to give a notice of violation followed up by a summons and that sort of…
What was the actual complaint? Was it noise or parking violations that spurred this concerned citizen to action? Code Enforcement Officer Connie Sidor fills in the details: an anonymous tipster helpfully took a video of people praying in the house and reported it.
Connie Sidor: The complaint came in, and we have a video of, they say, 30 people going into the garage and holding some kind of service or something. So, the ordinance says you can’t hold, on a continuous basis, any type of church or religious service.
Forget about any useful legal advice (or lack thereof) the officers may have been operating with, doesn’t this fail a basic smell test? Does it really bear saying that people are allowed to worship in groups in the privacy of their homes? Substitute in another type of gathering and imagine the absurdity: getting a notice of violation for hosting a weekly Boy Scout troop meeting or a summons because you have invited friends over on successive Sundays to watch the Giants lose. Imagine the township showing up because someone sent them videos of you having dinner parties (“We have decided that you are a restaurant” says Ken). What country is this anyways that people record their neighbors praying and run off to report them?
Let’s be reasonable here, one cannot do whatever they want in the name of religion. In Sexton v. Bates for example, the construction of a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) was disallowed in a residential area in NJ. But our state constitution ensures that the right to gather and pray cannot be abridged by municipal zoning.
Transparency in government is very important. As the Secretary of the Teaneck Planning Board, I made it a priority to ensure that minutes of meetings were prepared and published in a timely manner because the public has a right to know what is happening.
But the folks in Mahwah, NJ don’t seem to share that commitment. When I requested minutes from the meeting where Ordinances 1810 (Peddling and Soliciting), 1811 (Police Director) and 1812 (Parks restrictions) were introduced, I was told that no meeting minutes were available.
It’s been 95 days since the meeting. Is there a particular reason that they feel the Open Public Meetings Act doesn’t apply to Mahwah? I asked the Council President at the last meeting and he said it wasn’t his responsibility. Passing the buck seems to be his preferred method of dealing with problems.
Are you trying to hide the hateful comments made from residents from the public view, Mr. Hermansen? Or is public transparency just not high on your list of priorities? Read More
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