BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The battle between the Bridgewater Township Council and the Somerset Patriots over fireworks and eagles appears to have come to an end.
The council voted unanimously Monday to allow fireworks celebrations following Patriots games at TD Bank Ballpark on Aug. 24, Aug. 29, Sept. 6 and Sept. 21, along with corresponding rain dates.
Nearly a dozen of the more than 60 members of the audience spoke about the Patriots, and in favor of the fireworks. The town’s governing body had been taken to task at its meeting two weeks prior by Steve Kalafer, Patriots chairman emeritus, for originally tabling the fireworks resolution due to concerns that had been raised about nesting bald eagles in the area of TD Bank Ballpark.
The stadium, which has been the Patriots home since the franchise began playing in 1999, is located on East Main Street, across from the Bridgewater Promenade shopping center, and seats over 6,000 spectators for baseball.
Council president Matthew Moench spoke preemptively before the public portion of Monday’s meeting, and said he felt the situation might have been better served with a phone call. He added that he had learned a lot about eagles in the interim.
“We have residents with concerns,” said Moench, “and it’s our job to balance those issues.”
He also said the council is responsible for the more than 45,000 residents in Bridgewater.
“I hope you know the residents have a voice,” he said, “and that sometimes we (the council) pause to gain more information.”
Moench thanked Kalafer for the material he had provided to the council, and added that he expected to approve the fireworks resolution that night. He called the “war of words” that Kalafer had had with the council unfortunate, and said he believes the town and the Patriots should continue to have a good partnership, just as they have had for the past 20 years.
Kalafer called out from the audience about silencing him, and Moench said he had taken offense to the council being called “corrupt” and “a Soprano state,” which he added was “unbelievably inappropriate.”
Patrick McVerry, the Somerset Patriots president and general manager who has been with the club since its inception, said he is proud of the team’s relationship with local government, and that it is "important to the Patriots.”
McVerry said the Patriots have long employed local residents, including teenagers and individuals with special needs, have celebrated anniversaries and graduations at the ballpark and have publicly honored teachers, nurses, first responders, the military, veterans and other groups at games. He said he plans to be with the Patriots for many more years, and asked the council to contact him directly “so we can continue to celebrate and honor the residents of Bridgewater."
Patriots co-chairman Jonathan Kalafer said the “audacious questioning of power is as American as apple pie, baseball and fireworks.” He said he had been in public service himself and served as a high school teacher for 15 years, and that he hadn’t taken personal offense to challenges and insults he endured along the way.
“I hope we can move forward and work together in the future to make the community proud,” he said.
Patriots co-chairman Josh Kalafer said the great thing about government is that it exists to serve the people, and added the fact of the matter was that the Patriots were “about a lot of things,” including inclusiveness and togetherness. He said he believes in government and the system, and believes the council feels the same way.
Former Bridgewater resident Gary Shiman, a member of the Patriots advisory board, told the council the “rush to a decision had not been supported by the facts,” and that an effect on the Patriots would be felt in local businesses, including on fireworks nights at the ballpark.
Also talking the podium, accompanied by team mascot Sparkee, was Patriots Manager Emeritus Sparky Lyle, who recalled the early days of the franchise when he had been responsible for gathering baseballs at the ballpark, among his managerial duties.
“I’ve got to tell you, I never saw an eagle, although I had some trouble with ducks,” said Lyle, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the rival Long Island Ducks franchise. “This (Bridgewater) is my second home, and I hope we can end this amicably.”
Steve Kalafer said he wanted to stop “manufactured issues,” and thanked council vice president Howard Norgalis for a conversation they had had after the previous council meeting. He then charged that Moench hadn’t started out in a peaceful fashion Monday night.
Kalafer also said that the effects of the past meeting has been felt at games, with about 500 fewer people than usual showing up in at least one instance and groups canceling outings to the ballpark, the “consequences of taking a rumor.” He said he applauded the government, and that he wanted both good and fair growth that didn’t pander to interests.
Bedminister resident Tom True said he has a lot of clients in Bridgewater who are involved with the Patriots, and who live in the shadow of the ballpark.
“They want fireworks,” he said.
An avid outdoorsman, True also said there are no eagles in the area, that they are also diurnal or daytime animals and that he hopes the council will “do the right thing.”
Other speakers asked the council to work together, and to work with the Patriots on allowing fireworks. Bridgewater resident Steve Keller said he is not someone who is heavily involved in politics, but just wants to see the issue resolved.
“I just want to take my grandkids to see the fireworks,” he said.
An Edison resident said her disabled son, who worked for the Patriots for many years and learned his work ethic from Kalafer, had just purchased his own home that day.
“It’s not about fireworks,” she said, “It’s about getting along.”
The council then brought up the fireworks resolution, with Councilman Filipe Pedroso making a lenghty statement just before casting his vote.
“This issue really blew up,” he said. “It should have been a non-issue.”
He explained that no motion had been made to kill the resolution, and that if there had possibly been bald eagles in the area, the council had to be prudent about the matter.
“Tabling a resolution is not a denial,” said Pedroso.
A perturbed Pedroso said that if the council had gone the other way and summarily approved the fireworks without doing its due diligence, it would have been assailed by others who would have complained that the governing body was not protecting bald eagles. He added that a lot of things that happened afterwards had been caused by comments made by Kalafer on radio and the Internet, and Pedroso called that “really unfortunate.”
He added that after the resolution had originally been tabled, there had been no word from the Patriots for two weeks, and that the first time the council had heard from Kalafer was at the start of this month when he and his staff brought 18 boxes of legal bills to the council meeting. Pedroso also said the matter could have been resolved “without much issue.”
He said the Department of Environmental Protection had informed him that there were no bald eagles in the vicinity of TD Bank Ballpark, in a letter that Pedroso had posted both on his Facebook page and his personal website. Moench later said that, according to an additional confirmation from the DEP, the nearest eagles to TD Bank Ballpark are 9 miles away, and that the prohibition radius is a half-mile.
“I’m pleased the Patriots are here,” said Pedroso, and that he supported the spirit of working together.
“We wanted to do our due diligence,” he added, which was why the resolution had been tabled.
He also reiterated that the tabling didn’t affect the fireworks displays in question, and should have just been “housekeeping by the government.”
Pedroso added that “ridiculous comments” had been made, and that if anyone – town residents or Patriots personnel – had facts to support corruption or vengefulness on the part of the council, to “bring that forward,” as he would like to hear it.
The council ultimately voted, 5–0, to approve the fireworks resolution.