Sunday, August 31, 2003

Flip flops in backing referendum on MYAA ballfield initiative

By Chris Neidenberg

In a major switcheroo, Democratic mayoral nominee -Councilman Thomas Richards - has endorsed holding a voter referendum this November on the hot potato issue of whether the borough should fund the Maywood Youth Athletic Association’s (MYAA’s) request for Memorial Field stadium lights.

Problem is, Richards’ “bright” idea was opposed by the governing body’s four other councilmen attending the work session that preceded the July 23 council meeting, including his own running mate, Councilman Dr. Tim Eustace.

Others in opposition were Richards’ Republican mayoral opponent, Council President Thomas Gaffney, and Republicans Fred Zigrest and Daniel Petrie. New Democratic Councilwoman Lorraine LaPietra was not sworn in until the council’s subsequent regular meeting.

In a rather curious move, the council that night switched the work session to its third-floor caucus room in the mammoth new John A. Steuert Municipal Complex, as residents awaited the start of the regular meeting downstairs. Thus, residents not bothering to venture one floor upward to see the work session missed the entire debate. It marked the first night that the council – which always holds its regularly scheduled stand-alone work sessions upstairs – refused to hold a work session preceding a regular meeting in the larger meeting room.

Borough Clerk Maryanne Rampolla told Truth Hurts that the council simply decided to switch the location of the work session that one evening.

Richards’ endorsement was a coup of sorts for Rich Hennion, owner of the Another Facet jewelry store on West Pleasant Avenue. Hennion is a leading opponent of putting night lights on the field’s west side baseball diamond, aimed at increasing the MYAA’s scheduling flexibility. He has submitted a petition from residents opposed to the idea.

In announcing his sudden support for the referendum, Richards cited a local newspaper report indicating that about 130 people – as of July 23 – signed Hennion;s petition backing what would actually be a non-binding referendum the council would not be bound to accept. Additionally, an informal mail-in response poll in the same newspaper showed overwhelming opposition.

The councilman explained that the borough has used referendums in the past as tools to gauge public sentiment on matters such as garbage collection, and perhaps the community’s most famous question: the cleanup of thorium-tainted soil (in 1991).

Yet the thorium example clearly offers strong evidence that the council will ignore the voters’ views no matter how strong the sentiment.

Over 90 percent of those participating supported a question demanding the complete cleanup of all the borough’s thorium while keeping further outside contamination (in Lodi and at the Ballod property in Rochelle Park) from coming through Maywood’s borders. The council, including Gaffney, subsequently allowed the federal government to do just the opposite of what the public (as expressed in this referendum) wanted : permit the feds to truck contamination in from Lodi and Ballod, while letting the feds delay release of the bulk of the municipality’s own cleanup plan (for at least eight years).

Though out of elected office for a good portion of this period, Richards essentially supported the council’s anti-referendum efforts on thorium that, critics complained, significantly weakened the borough’s position. Richards served as an adviser to the governing body as chairman of the municipality’s now-former Environmental Legislative Action Committee.

Richards himself previously supported the lights. His latest position on the referendum is a definite “switch”.

That’s because the veteran councilman – who has long coveted the borough’s chief executive slot after two prior unsuccessful runs – was clearly unsympathetic to the question when residents during meetings in November and December publicly suggested giving the people some voice in the matter.

He joined his colleagues late in 2002 in adopting a roughly $800,000 bond ordinance that included the lights initiative (roughly $300,000). The council has assured residents that installation will not proceed unless it is significantly reimbursed by grants monies and/or donations.

I would have thought the referendum would have served a purpose,” Richards told the audience. “It would have given us a clear understanding of the position in the community.”

The councilman added: “I was disappointed with (the council majority's) position on that, but I will go on record for it.”

In fact, no official vote was taken on a lights referendum during the public meeting, and Gaffney did not comment. In the past, Petrie has voiced opposition to committing bond monies to the endeavor, citing what he has characterized as Maywood’s precarious financial situation.

Eustace acknowledged to the audience his past support for holding a referendum (as a candidate in 1994) over whether the new five-month-old municipal complex should ever have been built – a matter the council never really considered. Eustace – an early backer and one of the strongest supporters of installing ballfield lights for the MYAA - apparently now feels letting voters offer an opinion on this issue is inappropriate.

Richards’ change of heart on the referendum, interestingly, comes about three months before the mayoral contest against Gaffney. Earlier in this same mayoral election year, now-former Councilwoman Jeanne Matullo tried painting Richards as the hero in negotiating a settlement with National Wholesale Liquidators allowing upset Maywood tenants - lacking parking space - to park at the Lodi business overnight. This, despite the fact that Maywood Democrats – always under the grip and spell of Richards whether he’s been on or off the council – did nothing previously to help those tenants when their party had the majority.

Coincidentally, during the same election year, Richards is now trying to portray himself as an advocate for the complete excavation of all of Maywood’s thorium tainted soil – when he previously questioned whether this was necessary. This stance also comes after the councilman spent years badgering and trying to intimidate members of the Concerned Citizens of Maywood – who advocated this cause many years before Richards ever cared to take it up.

In fact, Richards did not voice flat-out opposition to the lights at the time (July 23 meeting) , keeping him on the same page with Gaffney - at least up to that time.

Critical residents in the area of Coolidge and Grant avenues, as well as Spring Valley Road, fear that bringing night games to the region will seriously undermine their quality of life.

Though he – at least as of July 23 – still did not publicly renounce the lights, Richards' call for the referendum essentially makes him “all things to all people..”

He will carry that label during a campaign he so badly wants to win. That is, he can come across as some kind of people’s advocate to the lights’ opponents clamoring for a referendum, while not offending supporters of the MYAA’s push to install lights.

Gaffney’s continued opposition to holding a referendum, though more consistent than Richards’ position, makes him look more like “the bad guy” to those opposing the lights.

The joke on the voters, however, is that Gaffney and Richards are basically in bed with each other on most of the major issues.

Both Democratic and Republican mayoral contenders are, in fact, allies in the context of a Maywood political environment that has clearly become dysfunctional. .

They are perpetuating a myth that there are serious differences between the borough’s Republican and Democratic parties in running on separate tickets.

That’s because during a 2002 council candidates’ debate, Gaffney and Richards publicly shot down the notion that the two major parties currently have any serious differences, and have called for eventually changing the municipal charter to establish “a non-partisan” government. Whether either man will pursue this commitment after his election remains to be seen.

Given this stand, Gaffney’s and Richards’ running on separate tickets creates “the illusion” that there are major differences between the Maywood parties – at least for 2003. And neither man will really lose, since they will both retain a power base regardless of the final outcome.

The mayoral loser still gets to stay on the governing body dais – and try and exert his influence over it - for at least another two years.

Hennion, who works with Richards on a committee that is examining creating a Special Improvement District on West Pleasant Avenue, expressed his unhappiness with the entire council for canning his referendum push.

I think it is a disappointment,” he told the members. “I think it reflects poorly on all of you for mot listening to the people.”


The following petition is a ‘work in progress,' and will be considered complete if and when the project is rejected in its entirety. The mere ‘shelving’ of this project until it can be quietly put through, regardless of the guise, is not acceptable to these petitioners.”

Major point of contention: erecting 14 poles, ranging in height from 60 to 80 feet, with a total of 107 lamps (six to eight lamps per pole).

Concerns are three-fold:

A. Quality of life:- Objectors behind this petition claim instituting night play will bring more people into the area, creating traffic problems. (Note: the MYAA has contended that extending games into the evening will lead to no great influx of people or a discernable increase in traffic, though one of its aims is to schedule games at a time when more parents can come out to see their kids.)

B. Financial - Regardless of how the project is funded, supporters of the petition argue, funds from a state or federal grant could be better put to use use for another recreational project. Hennion and his supporters argue it would be far more economical to build a new youth center in the area that could appeal to all youths, not just those taking part in MYAA leagues. (Note: the MYAA leadership has argued that it services a significant portion of the borough’s youth population).

C. Ethics – Petition supporters cited various concerns in this area, including a perceived conflict of interest, given that Council Members Fred Zigrest and Dr. Tim Eustace are active within the MYAA, whether they have family members in the association or volunteer for its activities. (Note: Borough Attorney Andrew Fede has ruled that, under state law, Eustace and Zigrest could vote for this portion of the earlier bond issue since they will not in any way personally profit from installing the lights). Further, Hennion’s group alleges some sleight of hand, in maintaining that – based on field usage – the MYAA’s enrollment numbers might actually be down and the real agenda might be installing the lights to attract youth athletic programs in surrounding municipalities to join the MYAA in some alliance. Hennion’s petition asserts that the effect of this alliance would allow other towns to come in and use the lighted ballfield. Petition backers contend that no enrollment history was undertaken by the MYAA to determine if there is a real need for the lights. Other concerns raised include putting the lights in the same bond-ordinance with state-mandated items to help volunteer emergency crews, having the council – and not the MYAA – undertake the endeavor so the borough can skirt around going to agencies such as the Maywood Planning/Zoning Board for required approval, and claiming that no project will be undertaken without the availability of suitable grants monies while paying the municipalities engineering firm (Neglia Engineering) to draw up plans and specifications.

For more on the MYAA's position on Memorial Field lights, please read, "Citizen's petition: 'Lights are a turnoff." For more on the history of the controversial initiative, and the fact that Richards previously said nothing on holding a lights' referendum, see, "It's 'lights out' on disputed bonding ordinance," and, "Council agrees to go into debt for field lights."

LaPietra returns for vacancy after three-year absence

By Chris Neidenberg

Maywood Democrats took steps recently to keep the seat former Councilwoman Jeanne Matullo vacated in the woman’s column.

They did so by getting the Republican-controlled Borough Council to approve returning Lorraine LaPietra to the dais after a four-year absence.

LaPietra offered few words as she was quickly sworn in to start the July 23 regular council meeting. She will remain there until Dec. 31 - four years to the day when she departed from the council after her only three-year term.

Later, the councilwoman cited her support for efforts by Maywood and other communities at keeping large commercial airliners from landing at nearby Teterboro Airport, under new proposed federal regulations

"The reason I’m in this room tonight is because of that article on airplanes,” said a terse LaPietra, referring to a daily newspaper account that evening discussing the controversy.

Those rolling out the welcome mat included Borough Clerk Maryanne Rampolla and Republican Councilmen Thomas Gaffney, Daniel Petrie and Fred Zigrest. LaPietra thanked all for their remarks.

“I’d like to welcome back Lorraine,” said Rampolla. “It was a pleasure working with you in the past and I look forward to working with her over the next several months.”

“I too welcome Lorraine,” said Gaffney, a prior council colleague from the other side. “I’m glad you’re back, and hope you enjoyed your first meeting.”

Eustace moves over to chair the important public safety committee that oversees the police department, held previously by Matullo. LaPietra will replace Eustace as chairwoman of the general services committee (which oversees, among other things, the construction code official and Board of Health).

Like Matullo before her, LaPietra can be counted as being a safe Democratic vote on the governing body - if Richards and Eustace need her support on an issue.

In approving her to replace Matullo, who is moving to Florida for personal reasons, the Democratic Party had to submit the governing body three names in an order of preference. They had to be delivered within a certain time frame following Matullo’s exit.

A veteran school board member, LaPietra was elected with Eustace (during his first successful run) in 1994. At the time, the Democrats took advantage of a badly split Republican Party that developed when then-Councilman Richard O’Neil defected and ran as an independent due to a bitter dispute with the late longtime Republican Mayor John Steuert.

During her first tenure, LaPietra took credit for being part of a council that launched the Maywood Senior Citizens and Recreation Center off Magnolia Lane. She was defeated with Eustace in a re-election bid in 1997. A try at a comeback failed in 2001, when LaPietra and longtime Democratic Councilwoman Joan Winnie lost to current
Republican Councilmen James Petrie and Fred Zigrest.

In regards to the Superfund contamination and the ongoing effort to try finally cleaning it up, LaPietra pretty much shares Richards’ view that Maywood must basically remain a helpless ward of the federal government in seeking funds to clean up the radiological portion of the contamination.

She marched in lockstep with the party regulars on the matter during her prior council stint. During the period, she joined with the likes of Eustace, Winnie, now-former Mayor Thomas Murphy and then-Councilman Brandon Marrazzo, in paying little (at least visible) attention to the positions outlined by the Concenred Citizens of Maywood. This, even as they called for excavating and moving out all the borough’s contaminated soil – a position her party colleague, Richards, now embraces after years of apathy.

Liike some of her colleagues from that era, LaPietra attended at least one secretive meeting on thorium closed to the public – as arranged by then-U.S. Department of Energy Site Manager Susan Cange. The controversial Cange routinely held secretive meetings with local officials.

In bringing LaPietra back, the Democrats rejected a strategy they could have employed, to try helping 2003 council candidate John Savage, used by the Republicans in 2000.

That year, the GOP filled a vacancy with council candidate Al Ballerini, in an effort to increase the candidate’s profile. It didn’t work. Ballerini – who lost a disputed council election to Richards a year earlier in a strange chain of events that included mistabulated votes and an unusual second special election, also lost in 2000.

Council gave Matullo nice sendoff as former councilwoman heads to Fla.

During their June 25 meeting, council members on both sides of the aisle paid a fond farewell to Matullo, who has been employed as a stockbroker at Smith Barney in Paramus, and is moving to Florida for personal reasons. Matullo was elected during her inaugural council run with Eustace in 2000.

Richards led the charge in offering kind words, during a night when Matullo tried hard to perform her regular duties, without showing too much emotion.

“I’d like to sadly say goodbye to Councilperson Matullo, who’s been a friend of mine” said Richards, also friends with Matullo’s father, former resident and ex-borough insurance agent, Tom Matullo. “She certainly was a pleasure, and her family has been good friends of mine.”

Richards added: “She’s been a wonderful member of the council, she’s done a good job for this borough, and she’s a good stock broker.”

Republican Mayor Wayne Kuss presented a certificate of appreciation for the departing council; as Matullo closed on an upbeat and humorous note.

“That’s it. The drinks are on me after this,” joked Matullo, generating a burst of laughter from her colleagues.

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