Mahwah, New Jersey. - The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC) filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with the Township of Mahwah, a municipality in Bergen County New Jersey which borders New York, to understand how the Township enacted an ordinance in June of this year that would permit only New Jersey residents to be at Mahwah parks. The law was suspended the day it was so supposed to go into effect in large part because enforcement would have targeted Hasidim. (Read How Mahwah’s Park Law Was Created, Illegally Changed and Then Suspended.)
While reviewing the emails, a shocking pattern of a legislative focus on the Jewish community emerged beyond the park law. County, state and federal officials may need to intervene to protect the rights of the Jewish community and to protect the Township’s Chief of Police from retaliation by some in the Town Council who are not happy how the chief acted in regards to the Eiruv and the Residents Only law.
On July 19, 2017, 10:25 pm, Mahwah resident Brian Riback sent to Mahwah Councilman David May an email with the subject line "File, per your request." The attachment name was "201707-protect-mahwah.pdf." A half hour later, Riback wrote that he noticed grammatical errors in his file and said he will resend the file in the morning. On the morning of July 20 Riback emailed Mr. May with a link to a Google document. Almost two hours later at 10:42, Councilman May sent Riback’s chain of three emails to Mahwah Town Council VP and Chair of the Ordinance Committee Jonathan Wong. Early afternoon, Wong acknowledged to Mr. May that he received it.
Later the same day at 4:29 pm, Mr. Wong sent an email to Council president Robert Hermansen and to Council member James Wysocki (the two other members of the 3-member Ordinance Committee) and Mr. Wong also CC'ed Mr. May with the subject line "Mahwah Ordinance Committee Meeting Additional Document." Mr. Wong wrote, "In addition to the tentative agenda for the next Ordinance Committee meeting, please see below a document forwarded to Councilman May from a resident with recommendations and suggestions for other ordinances. The document must be reviewed and addressed because questions will be asked."
The two page document proposed ordinances that - without mentioning the words - target Orthodox Jews:
Buses should not be permitted to pick up or drop off at Mahwah parks;
Only five children under the age of 16 per group should be permitted at the park;
Food and beverages should be permitted at the parks only on Saturdays and Sundays
PVC pipes (used for the Eiruv) should immediately be removed;
Property tax should be higher for those households with children under the age of 16;
Increase tax on households with private school students who use public school transportation;
Limit the number of students that can be bused per household;
There should be no option to pay more money in exchange for more busing per household;
Prevent gender separation on buses;
Prevent soliciting at private homes;
Serving on the Mahwah School Board should be permitted only for those who either have students in the public school; worked as an educator at New Jersey Public schools for at least five years or has signatures of at least 100 parents with students currently in Mahwah public schools;
Set a cap on special education spending at private schools;
Prevent private homes or dwellings from being tax free except if it serves as orphanages; and
Home schooling for more than five students under the age of 16 at the same location should incur a tax.
If the content of the document is not concerning enough, note that this memo went from Mr. May to Wong a day before Mahwah ordered the Eiruv to be removed, and 9 days after the Chairman of Mahwah’s Ordinance Committee accepted the suggestion from Mayor Bill Lafotet to start discussion on a No Knock law because, according to the Mayor it “has become a real issue in Lakewood, NJ.” Lakewood of course has a large Jewish population. All this was a mere week before Mahwah’s ordinance banning non-residents from parks was set to go into affect. (The ordinance has been suspended because its enforcement would have targeted Hasidic Jews.)
In summary, a) the email subject line from Riback to Mr. May saying a “file per your request”; b) May’s forwarding it to the chair of the Ordinance Committee on the same day that Mr. May received the revised version; c) Mr. Wong processing the document withing hours of receiving it; d) Mr. Wong writing to other members that “the document must be reviewed and addressed because questions will be asked”; and e) Mr. Wong putting it on the agenda for the then-next Ordinance Committee meeting which was just 4 days away, suggest that Mahwah lawmakers likely had discussions about Jewish-focused Ordinance before and outside these email exchanges. Hence the “file per your request” subject line; the same-day rushing of the document by council members May and Wong, and the guidance by Mr. Wong that it “must be reviewed because questions will be asked.” Rarely if ever has an ordinance document from a citizen been put on the agenda for a meeting a mere few days later.
Only Jewish-Related Laws are up for Review
The July 24-26 Ordinance Committee meeting to which the Riback Document was added was already focused on the Jewish community; certainly when it came to reviewing ordinances for passage. On the written agenda for the meeting was a review of three Ordinances and all three of them were related to the Jewish Community:
A) “No Solicitation Ordinance and No Knock List” which other municipalities with growing Orthodox Jewish populations next to them have passed.
B) Banning all attachments to utility poles
C) Require permits to use Mahwah parks for groups of ten or more people and consider giving priority for these permits and parking privileges to residents of Mahwah.
The second ordinance - “banning all attachments to utility poles” - was put on the agenda before Mahwah’s Eiruv letter went out July 21st and it was on the agenda for the July 24-26 meeting. This suggests that Mahwah officials knew that Mahwah’s ordinance banning signage on utility poles does not include PVCs which are used for Eiruvin hence the need to pass an ordinance banning any usage of utility poles. Furthermore, Mahwah Police Chief James N. Botelli sent an email July 23 in the evening to the Township’s engineer - the one who sent the Eiruv letter - and to the Mayor with the subject line “Zoning Violations - Eruv Installation.” The Chief said “it sends somewhat of a mixed message to the community when the Township has its own banners/signs affixed to Orange & Rockland utility poles along East Ramapo Avenue and surrounding Veteran’s Park.”
The Township’s own use of the utility poles and lawmakers’ need to pass a new ordinance against using poles, drive a simple question: On what premise and motive did Mahwah move against the Eiruv? Futhermore, Keith Kaplan received confirmation from Mahwah that from January through early August of this year, not one Knocking complaint has been filed with the Mahwah Police Department. If so why was a knocking ordinance up for review in late July?
?Accusations of anti-Jewish Bias
Passing laws, such as those in the Riback Document, targeting an ethnic group is unconstitutional. In fact, on July 20, the same day that Riback’s proposals was fast-tracked by Council members May and Wong, the Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli sent a letter to Township leaders expressing concern about the park ordinance which was passed in late June and was set to kick in July 27. Emails obtained by OJPAC show that the Chief had repeatedly raised his concerns about this ordinance since July 7th.
In his letter formalizing his concerns, the chief lists three reasons why it would be problematic to enforce the law which bans non-Mahwah residents from visiting parks. Among the reasons, the chief writes:
“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." The focus in July by Mahwah officials on the parks; the Eiruv in an administrative and legislative capacity; No Knock and Riback’s document indeed show a pattern of Mahwah targeting one group.
The Chief had back up to his accusation. Jerry DeMarco of the Mahwah Daily Voice reported a week later that "[Mahwah] Township officials said they hoped the measure [to ban non-residents from visiting parks] would provide protection against what residents fear is an organized incursion from Rockland County of Orthodox families who've recently swarmed parks in Mahwah, Montvale, Ramsey and Upper Saddle River by the busload." The report did not specify who these Township officials are. (An updated version of the story says “incursion from Rockland County of Hasidic families” instead of Orthodox families as in the initial report.)
The Chief’s accusation of anti-Jewish bias in his July 20th letter was followed by a much harsher accusation in a July 30, 12:08 pm email from the Chief to Mayor, the Township attorney Brian Chewcaskie and to the Township Business Administrator Quentin Wiest. Chief Batelli wrote “Council President Hermansen directed the Mayor to ask me if I gave a group of Hasidic children a tour of police headquarters. This was done in the presence of another Council member and I believe the Business Administrator. During my tenure of Chief I have never been asked the race, religion or ethnicity of a group being given a tour and when [I] asked what difference the religion of a tour was, I received no answer so I will ask again what was the purpose of that question? Clearly some serious conclusions can be made when we are now questioned about religious backgrounds of tour groups.”
Will Civil Rights Officials Intervene?
The report by the Mahwah Daily Voice; the accusations by the Chief; the No Knock law being set in motion due to Lakewood; the speedy welcoming of the Riback Document; the July 24-26 Ordinance Committee meeting reviewing only Jewish related ordinances; the Township ordering on July 19th the removal of the Euriv’s PVC pipes; the Eiruv order coming despite officials likely knowing that the Eiruv is legal; the Residents Only Ordinance at parks almost going into affect July 27th but for a last minute move by the Bergen County Prosecutor, shows a pattern that the Mahwah municipality takes action aimed at the Jewish community; thus making these actions - whether administratively or legislatively - potentially unconstitutional due to their intent of targeting one group.
It is hopeful that county, State and Federal-level civil rights authorities will move to suspend these ordinances and administrative action until further review, and will also consider installing a monitor on Mahwah for a while to observe how the municipality operates. The sequence of events and accusations may also merit a civil rights violation proceeding by State or Federal authorities whereby they can also compel people involved to reveal more information.
Protecting the Chief
One of the PR problems Mahwah’s political officials had with its late July move on the Eiruv was the fact that a month earlier the Mahwah Police Department provided a security detail for the crew that installed the Eiruv. It is SOP for police to provide this service once and after the Eiruv Association presented to PD its permission from the utility company to indtall the PVCs pipes; insurance, and an agreement to pay the MPD for the detail. This complicated the narrative from political officials that putting up the Eiruv was done without them knowing and illegally.
But this is one just one of two problems council members had with the Chief. As Alfred Doblin of North Jersey Dot Com wrote a few days ago, the Chief is in the doghouse “because Batelli sought guidance from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office about enforcing another Mahwah ordinance [the parks].” Indeed, late July emails show lawmakers agitating against the Chief and the Chief expressing frustration as to why lawmakers suddenly raise “problems” about his department.
This suggests that lawmakers may try to terminate the Chief from his job based on hyped up accusations in retaliation for him not going along with the Township’s anti-Jewish moves. In fact, the council passed a No Confidence resolution in a 6-0 vote against the Mayor in late September because he took to TV ten days earlier and admitted that there a knocking problem does not exist in the town hence there is no reason to pass a No Knock law; (which got into motion after he recommended it in July). Counsil members passed the No Knock law the same night that they reprimanded the Mayor in September.
A State or Federal-level monitor; fellow Chiefs, Police Unions, editorial boards and upstanding citizens need to protect the Chief from potential politically-motivated actions by the town council.
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