ROSELAND, NJ – Roseland councilmen Thomas Tsilionis and David Jacobs, who resigned on Feb. 19 after being widely criticized for a racist, anti-Semitic text message conversation, told the crowd at the Roseland Borough Council meeting on Tuesday that they are rescinding their resignations.
Both men announced that they would remain in their positions while resigning from the Republican Party.
This reversal of their decision did not sit well with Roseland Mayor John Duthie, who asked both men to resign from the council.
“Racism and anti-Semitism in every form and fashion must be condemned in the strongest way possible,” said Duthie. “There is no place for these prejudices in our society. There is certainly no place for them in government.”
Duthie added that elected officials must hold themselves to the highest standards.
“Any racist or anti-Semite who occupies a public office should immediately resign,” he said. “I would condemn any such elected official in the strongest of terms.”
Both Tsilionis and Jacobs were given the opportunity to defend themselves. Tsilionis began by apologizing for the text message, which he admitted was offensive if “taken out of context.”
“I do not have a racist or anti-Semitic bone in my body,” he said. “These texts originated between friends. There was no borough business discussed.”
In his attempt to “put things in perspective,” Tsilionis said that Councilman Richard Leonard only decided to release this “private conversation” that took place eight months ago to the press early this year because Leonard lost the vote to be the next council president to new council president Mark Vidovich.
“Political bullying has no place in Roseland,” said Tsilionis in explaining why he changed his mind not to resign.
Jacobs, who is Jewish, apologized for answering Tsilionis’ anti-Semitic text with a “jest that was negative toward Jews, inappropriate, insensitive and offensive.”
“I must meet a higher standard,” he said. “I am truly remorseful for what I did, and have been asked to resign. I will resign from the Republic Party, but I will not resign as a councilman.”
Both men indicated that they received an outpouring of support over the past week from friends and neighbors telling them not to resign.
“They told me if I resign, I would be letting them down, and they know I am not anti-Semitic,” said Jacobs. “Members of the Jewish community have told me I must not resign. A resignation will not fight anti-Semitism.”
Jacobs also agreed with Tsilionis that Councilman Leonard’s decision to release the text message to the press “was an act of bullying” because he did not support him as council president.
“I will not be bullied,” said Jacobs. “I will stand my ground. I apologize to the citizens of Roseland. My comment was not made with any malice towards any one. I am sensitive to racism and discrimination.”
He added that he was called anti-Semitic names when he was in school as a young man.
During public comment, where more than 30 people gave their opinions about this situation, Roseland Republican chairperson Mary Comito spoke about the party’s disappointment that the councilmen rescinded their decision to resign from the council.
“They both committed to us in private and in public statements that for the good of Roseland they would step aside,” she said. “We accept their resignation from our party, yet remain steadfast in calling for their resignation from the governing body of Roseland. Their actions were indefensible and inexcusable.”
As a reflection of the tension this issue has brought to the fore in Roseland, there was a large police presence at the meeting that took place at the Municipal Building on Harrison Avenue. Roseland police cars stretched out across the front of the building, and a police barricade was put up to ensure that the nearly 200 residents in attendance—both in the council chambers and in the halls—could not enter until a half an hour before the start of the meeting.
Residents who spoke about this issue during public comment expressed many diverse opinions.
Resident Emily Levine was among those who felt torn about whether the councilmen were making the right decision. She said that both councilmen seemed genuinely remorseful about what they said, but they should have known better than using hurtful, disparaging remarks against Jewish people.
On the other hand, Levine joined many others who questioned why Councilman Leonard waited so long to give these text comments to the press.
“The sharing of these texts doesn’t pass the sniff test,” she said.
Among the many residents critical of the councilmen was Roger Freda, who said, “The councilmen’s comments were disgraceful, and a slap in the face to every resident.”
“How do I explain to my daughter, who is six years old, that it’s not just okay to apologize and go to another table?” he said, accusing Tsilionis of only wanting to stay for his health benefits. “Do what needs to be done for Roseland, not just for your benefit.”
Councilman Leonard claimed that he was not pleased with how this whole issue has played out.
“I’m hoping we can use this incident to make sure we are an inclusive community,” said Leonard.