Mahwah, New Jersey. - Some portions of the Hasidic-populated areas in Rockland County, New York border the municipalities of Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale in Bergen County, Northern New Jersey. The following is a report of how the Township of Mahwah created an ordinance in June 2017 to ban non-residents from visiting Township parks; how exemptions to the ordinance was given without a council vote to change the language of ordinance, and how the law was suspended because enforcement of the law would have targeted Hasidim.
This report is based on emails and documents that OJPAC received in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request filed with the Township of Mahwah.
Concerns About Parks Use
On the afternoon of March 23, 2017, Richard Wolf the Chairman of the Environmental Commission of Mahwah, sent an email to Jonathan Wong, the VP of the Mahwah Town Council who also serves as Chairman of the Council’s Ordinance Committee. In the email Mr. Wolf relayed concerns from residents about the "inappropriate use of our local parks... Our experiences are similar to several surrounding towns in Northern, New Jersey." Mr. Wolf made three recommendations, the third being to "consider assigning priority to Mahwah residents for permits and parking privileges to encourage local usage of parks and open space."
Mr. Wong responded the following day that he will include this issue in the agenda for the then-next Ordinance Committee meeting. In his reply addresses, Mr. Wong added Robert Hermansen the president of the Mahwah Town Council who is aone of three members on the Ordinance Committee.
Almost a month later, on April 20, Mr. Hermansen forwarded the above email to a Matthew Neyland who from public records appears to be living a few houses up from the councilman. Neyland responded within 15 minutes that "this issue is growing and the first politician to get behind us is going to gain a lot of votes." Mr. Hermansen replied that "the ordinance committee is already trying to figure out what we can do... The mayor is having an issue with enforcement. He is also so attached to the County Executive. He does not want to do anything to piss him off. We are trying to figure out a way to get this done."
Neyland responded: He better get his crap together or there will be a new mayor. I have like 30 people already.
Hermansen: Oh dear God I hope so.
Neyland: When is he up for re-election?
Hermansen: He was just reelected that is why he does not care.
Town Officials Push for the Ordinance
Councilman David May emailed the town attorney Brian Chewcaskie on May 9th inquiring if he knew "where we are with the NJ Residents Only signs?" Within the same hour, the mayor wrote to Counsilman Wong that "we spoke about an ordinance which would allow Administration authorization to post "New Jersey Residents Only" sign[s] for all of our parks. Will you approve this ordinance so I can get these signs posted[?]" Later that day, Mr. Wong forwarded the Mayor’s email to Mr. Hermansen stating that this ordinance needs to be discussed.
Two days later, Councilman May asked the town attorney if there needs to be a new ordinance or if the Township can rely on existing statute. An answer came fairly quick that an ordinance is needed to which Mr. May answered "I guess we will be the first town to do so."
Quentin Wiest, the Business Administrator of Mahwah sent an email on the same day, May 11th, to Jerry Giaimis, the Business Administrator of Saddle River, saying "Mahwah is a Township that borders New York State. Have any border communities restricted your parks to NJ residents only?" Mr. Giaimis responded by citing case law which "would appear to prohibit such residency restrictions in NJ... I am not a lawyer, but I researched this issue and confirmed it with my attorney very recently."
On May 15th 10:21 in the morning, Councilman May sent a more formal email to the council members (Wong, Hermansen, Wysocki) serving on the Ordinance Committee requesting that an ordinance be crafted that parks should be accessible to NJ residents. Mr. May also wrote "I hear that NY schools take bus trips to our parks and leave them with quite a mess. I ask that we put in place a use permit, also allowable via open space statute."
Two hours later, Mr. Wong the Chair of the Ordinance Committee responded that the request is on the agenda for the next Ordinance Committee meeting. It appears that only now, and not in March, is when the park law was properly processed in committee. Indeed, on June 8th, the Township of Mahwah introduced and on June 29th it adapted Ordinance Number 1806 which states that Township parks and playgrounds are open to the public but may be used by New Jersey residents only.
The Ordinance Gets Changed
The Ordinance was to take effect July 27th, but the ordinance as proposed created problems. Namely, would guests of Mahwah resident be able to visit the parks? What about people who don't live but work in Mahwah? Concerned residents emailed lawmakers asking these questions. Mahwah Police Chief James N. Batelli emailed the mayor Bill Laforet; Department of Public Works head Glenn Dowdson, and other officials on July 7th echoing the above concerns and asking what’s the rule for guests of Mahwah residents and employees who work in town. Township attorney Brian Chewcaskie responded to the same group later that day that “a guest of a resident would be permitted. As to employees, the ordinance would prohibit the use of parks.”
A few days later DPW head Dowdson emailed the township Mayor, Police Chief, Attorney and Business Administrator a proposed sign which read:
Township of Mahwah Parks & Playgrounds are open to New Jersey Residents Only
Ordinance No. 1806
Guest of a resident are permitted use
Employees of local business are permitted use
The attorney responded that he "would take out the word use after permitted" and on the same day July 12th, Chief Batelli emailed the mayor, the attorney and others to once again express concern about enforcing the ordinance.
On July 17th, the DPW head once again emailed the language of the sign asking if it is OK to use. On July 19, Council President Robert Hermansen responded to an email question from a Sylvia Ripps regarding guests, saying "We will allow outside residents to be in the park with Mahwah residents; the signs say so."
Most notable here is that the attorney clearly advised that employees would not be exempt yet the proposed signage for the ordinance gave them employees an exemption. Basically, Township officials were exempting a class of people from an Ordinance without voting on the exemption.
The Chief’s Letter
On July 19th, the chief emailed the mayor and the business administrator again expressing concern about the ordinance. The next day, Chief Batelli sent a formalized letter listing some of the concerns he has with the ordinance:
1) The Chief noted that the language on the sign making exceptions to guests and employees is "not part of the written Ordinance that is enacted by [a] governing body" therefor enforcement is impossible. Basically, Township officials changed an Ordinance without voting on it.
2) The Chief noted that Police Officers can take action only under probable cause or observing someone violating the law but there is no way - except for using race, religion or outward appearance - to know if someone is not a New Jersey resident. Using bias-based profiling, is against New Jersey law noted the chief.
3) The chief wrote that "in one [Facebook post] an elected Township official talks about the parks and playgrounds being closed to out of State residents and then five sentences later in the same thread posts about taking measures to stop the Eruv's from being installed in the Township. The Eruv's are linked to one specific religion and posting about the Eruv's and the new Ordinance regarding parks in the same post would lead a reasonable person to conclude or argue that there is a relationship between actions being taken by our governing body as it relates to Eruv's and the new restrictive Park Ordinance... If these posting give the impression or appearance [that] this ordinance is designed to a specific group because of race or religion, it becomes problematic in terms of enforcement and potential bias-based profiling complaints."
On July 24, the mayor emailed the town attorney asking that he "work through the details of this ordinance" because "without the proper guidance we cannot enforce the ordinance." Apparently, the Ordinance would have gone into effect on July 27th despite these issues but for the Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal responding to the Chief's letter and ordering the Mahwah Police Department not to enforce the law because, among the reasons listed, it would require bias-based profiling against Hasidim.
On July 27th, the Mayor emailed the County Prosecutor accusing Mr. Hermansen of wanting to put up the sign as a “deterrent” against people visiting the parks despite knowing that the law is suspended. Over the next few days, Mr. Hermansen was still going back and forth with other officials how to change the signage language, again despite the law being inherently impossible to enforce and despite the language of the law not being aligned with the proposed languages of the sign.
By July 30th, Chief Batelli leveled a bombshell accusation against Mr. Hermansen that OJPAC reveals in our follow up writing: Mahwah Government Documents Reveal a Legislative Focus on Jews.
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