Tensions Boil Over at Township Committee Meeting Over Complete Streets Referendum Proposal

Cassie Fishkin, owner of Tinga Taqueria speaks out during the Township Committee meeting. Credits: Karen E. Hughes
Millburn Township Committee Credits: Karen E. Hughes
Sarit Catz addressing the Township Committee during public comments. Credits: Karen E. Hughes
(L to R) Mayor Cheryl Burstein, Alex McDonald - Business Administrator and Committeeman Robert Tillotson. Credits: Karen E. Hughes

MILLBURN, NJ - One item on the Township Committee meeting agenda stormed to the forefront on Tuesday night, a resolution calling for a referendum on the Complete Streets project dominated the meeting. The project has polarized the community with vocal proponents on both sides. The resolution brought forth by Committeewoman Dianne Eglow, called for a non-binding referendum question and interpretive statement on the November general election ballot. 

The question read:

Shall the Township Committee discontinue the Complete Streets project in order to consider other alternatives and measures to evaluate traffic and pedestrian circulation and safety in the downtown? 

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The interpretive statement that accompanies would accompany the referendum question read:

The Township Committee of the Township of Millburn in Essex County state of New Jersey wishes to gauge the public sentiment regarding the continuation of the Complete Streets project, a publicly funded project in downtown Millburn. A yes vote is an instruction to the Township Committee to cease the Complete Streets project and explore alternative designs and/or plans for the remaining portions of downtown Millburn. These other measures may include, but not be limited to the use of various planning and traffic professionals whose responsibilities will be to guide the Township Committee in working with business of downtown Millburn, and the public at large, to ensure a vibrant downtown Millburn. A no vote will be an instruction to the Township Committee to continue the Complete Streets project as currently proposed and planned.

New Jersey statute 19:37-1 governing referendums states that the referendum language must be filed with the county clerk 81 days before the election. Under that provision, the Township Committee had three days to file before the August 18 deadline. 

Eglow, who campaigned on a platform to halt Phase 1 and re-evaluate Phase 2, said, "The public has voiced their concerns about the Complete Streets project. This township committee has not acknowledged these concerns. Therefore I believe a public referendum is necessary in order to drive this township committee to address the public concerns." 

After a reading of the proposed resolution, Mayor Cheryl Burstein announced each member of the committee would have an opportunity to comment on the open motion. 

Burstein opened giving a brief background of the Complete Streets project dating back to 2013 with the Environmental Commissions recommendation to the Township Committee. The Millburn Complete Streets policy was officially adopted in 2014. "Since we now have the first phase of the project behind us, the time is right for us to discuss, deliberate and debate whether we want to continue that policy and if so how we want to implement it," Burstein said. 

Noting that referendum and interpretive statement language is intended to come from the Township Committee collectively, Burstein questioned the timing of the motion and its intent stating, "In short this should have been brought to the committee no less than three months ago to begin the discussion. Instead, since the question is required to be brought to the county by Friday [August 18], we are faced with a purported exigency that is self-made."

Burstein added that she found out about the proposed motion from the press before receiving the information from her fellow committee members. She concluded stating, "I can not help but believe that this is nothing more than a politically motivated ambush where the Township Committee is being painted into a corner and be bullied under the threat of political retribution by those who disdain the process that has served this town well for decades."

The mayor came down firmly against the motion stating, "I believe it is important that we have public discussion on Complete Streets. I do not, however, believe that the referendum as suggested is appropriate."

Committeeman Sam Levy next expressed his thoughts on the proposed referendum. His first objection focused on the language of the question and interpretive statement, "You would have to frame the question in a certain way that does not deliver a desired answer, and you would have to frame the interpretive statement in a way that does not deliver a desired answer. And to do that in two or three days with a consensus of the five of us and perhaps with public input, would present a major challenge." He went on to outline the number of opportunities the public had to comment on the Complete Streets project from inception with previous administrations to the present day stating, "so we, as a township committee are not at a loss for public participation or public presentation about your views or any other views on Complete Streets."

Levy then highlighted his concerns as to the implications of the proposed referendum for the Township Committee after a public vote. He questioned the outcome if the committee were to press forward with a modified Phase 2 even if the referendum was on the ballot and the results came down against continuing the project. "Some on this panel may purport that to be a disregard of public opinion and that erodes the confidence that the public in a township body, in a governing body and it is very important to protect the credibility of this institution, to protect the credibility of its members, and protect the credibility when we govern a certain way," Levy said.

Levy noted that the ad hoc committee and the Township Committee was already considering alternatives and changes and that multiple changes had already been made to phase 1 and the proposed phases 2a and 2b. He also brought up the delay pushing the issue off till a November vote could cause more frustration among the community. 
"We have heard from the community, many in the community, that one of the main problems with phase 1 of complete streets is the length of time it took." Levy concluded stating, "I do not intend to second or support that resolution."

Committeeman Robert Tillotson, a member of the Complete Streets ad hoc committee, commented next. "I too was a little surprised when the referendum was put forth, but perhaps I shouldn't have been." He spoke about the changes the ad hoc has made and their ongoing discussions regarding changes to Phase 2. 

Tillotson took issue with the call for a referendum outlining the three times in township history the measure was used; once regarding ceding from Essex County and twice on the issue of changing the form of government in Millburn. He stated that this could open the door to using a referendum for a wider spectrum of issues and could render the Township Committee ineffective. "We've been elected to represent everybody in this community, whether they have an opinion or not. Our job is to make these decisions." Tillotson had strong words on the proposed action, "This referendum, in my opinion, is divisive. This pits group against group."

Declaring he will not support or second the motion, Tillotson made his position on Complete Streets clear ahead of the coming election, "And you know what the referendum is in November? Vote for me or not, vote for Cheryl [Burstein] or not, and I won't speak for Cheryl, but you can be assured that if you vote for me, I will continue to support Complete Streets. I am all for public safety. I am all for safe streets." 

Members of the public were cautioned from public comment. "This is not a dialogue," stated Mayor Burstein bringing the chamber back to order.

Committeewoman Jodi Rosenberg sought to reassure the public that the committee is hearing their concerns. "We are paying attention, and we do hear you, " Rosenberg said. While she applauded Eglow's zeal to bring the community to the meetings and increase involvement in the process, but ultimately disagreed with the referendum resolution. "I don't believe that the referendum is the appropriate way to handle this."

Rosenberg pointed to a vote earlier in the year by the Township Committee on continuing the Complete Streets project, "This is something that we all voted, all of us, voted in February to continue with Phase 2A to continue with Complete Streets, if that was not something we wanted to do, back in February, we would not have directed people to spend money. If we are going to consider something we need to know what is the cost, what is the alternative, what is it that we are saying no to."  

Rosenberg called for everyone to show respect for one another and differing opinion in an effort to work together for the greater good, "We all love Millburn, let's come together and do it the right way."

Eglow asked to speak after the other committee members finished their remarks. She began by replying to Mayor Burstein's statement and reiterating her contention that the residents feel that their concerns aren't being heard. "I am sorry you feel bullied by this Mayor, but I think I'm speaking for the residents who feel they have been bullied continuously."  

Dismayed by the direction the committee took on the proposed referendum, Eglow concluded, "I thought it was a very appropriate tool and I'm very glad that I brought it forth tonight." 

At the end of the committee's comments, an audience member asked if they would take public comments before a vote. The mayor indicated that the public could comment during the public discussion portion of the meeting. Public discussion is on the agenda at the end of each meeting after resolutions, ordinances, new and old business is dispensed.  

Community members erupted in a variety of exclamations deriding the timing of public comments set for after a vote. One audience member called for a committee person to make a separate motion to open public comments early. The mayor asked for a motion on the resolution, which was moved by Eglow. A call for a second went unanswered, aside from Eglow offering a second on her own motion, and the resolution did not go to a vote. 

As the mayor attempted to move on to the next item on the agenda, members of the gallery again erupted After a few minutes of yelling; the mayor called a fifteen-minute recess. 

Upon returning, the committee continued to deal with items on the agenda without further delay. Burstein announced during old business that an ongoing discussion component on Complete Streets was being added to the agenda going forward to continue the dialogue and debate. Members of the public commented on both sides of the Complete Streets issue during public discussion.  

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