SUMMIT, NJ - The Summit Common Council met virtually on October 6, and while the business agenda was fairly brief, the meeting ran well over two hours largely because of public input. Much of that commentary was aimed at Ward 1 Council Member Danny O’Sullivan, with Council President Marjorie Fox turning over part of her president’s report to him so that he could address a “divisive tweet” he’d posted last month.
“Before he reads it, I would like to emphasize the deep commitment of all members of Common Council, regardless of political affiliation, to this community. We work together every day on behalf of all citizens to govern fairly and effectively,” Fox said.
O’Sullivan’s September 23 tweet, since deleted. read:
“If you’re a member of @GOP, if you’re a @GOP candidate, if you’re voting for any @GOP candidates, you are a member of the Trump cult. And you probably never thought you could be duped into joining a cult. #youcantteachstupid”
O’Sullivan, a Democrat, subsequently tweeted on October 3 -- in part five of a five-part message -- that, "In the future, if I choose to express my political views or promote candidates that I would like to see elected, I will do so in a positive and respectful way." In addition, the words "The views expressed are my own" have, since the controversy began, been added to his twitter bio.
Speaking at the meeting, O'Sullivan said, “About two weeks ago, I posted a comment on my personal Twitter account that was influenced by the political climate on the national level and the current presidential race. I don’t think anyone who knows me is surprised by my sharp interest in our presidential race. However, I know many interpreted my post as a harsh judgment on all members of the Republican party, and in reading it later, I realized that is exactly how it read. I deeply regret the implications of that post and I apologize. Over the course of these days, I’ve had meaningful and sincere conversations with people from all over Summit. I am thankful to everyone who took time to share their thoughts and their feelings with me and who helped to increase my growth and my understanding. It is a hard lesson to learn how one tweet can be so hurtful. I ran for council to be a unifying voice and to bring people together on the issues that matter to all of us. Whether it is my committee work as chair of the community programs and parking services, my work on the admin committee, or as council liaison to the recycling advisory, technology advisory, community programs advisory, or on the newly formed ad hoc committee to deal with JCP&L, all of my work is singularly focused on what is best for the city of Summit and all of its citizens. As always, I appreciate an ongoing dialogue with anyone in Summit, and would welcome a one-on-one conversation at any time.”
When the floor was opened to public comments later in the meeting, O’Sullivan wasn’t the first topic of discussion, but a tangentially-related subject was. Miriam Zukoff, Wade Drive, reported her and her neighbors’ political signs were stolen on September 25. She called the Summit Police, and feels it was done “with malice to try to intimidate me and my neighbors from expressing our constitutional right of freedom of speech.” Fox agreed it was disrespectful and a violation of people’s rights, as well as criminal. Police Captain Steven Zagorski said he shared Zukoff’s concern but observed these occurrences often turn out to be teenagers, not a “targeted effort.”
She later returned to the virtual microphone to say sign stealing shouldn’t be dismissed; at least 10 signs were stolen on Wade. “This is nothing to be brushed off.”
Zuckoff’s Wade Drive neighbor, Amy Herhold, echoed her comments, adding, “It’s not like having a car stolen, but it’s a frustrating act that makes you feel like somebody is trying to intimidate you,” adding her “say their names” sign was not touched.
Ward 1 Council Member David Naidu said the essence of democracy is that people have a right to express themselves, calling the thefts a “fundamental attack on democracy” and “worse than stealing a car,” because a car can be replaced but democratic values cannot. “This country is built upon the idea that people of different political opinions get to express them freely without intimidation, without fear, and with the ability to try to persuade people through peaceful means … in order to change direction. It is fundamental to who we are,” regardless of who the candidate is, and not to be taken lightly. “The idea you should feel fear when you express your opinion because somebody decides to vandalize it … that your opinion doesn’t matter – that’s fundamentally wrong.”
Doug Kramer, Brantwood Drive, said he appreciated O’Sullivan’s apology, but wanted to affirm that he “had hurt a lot of people with your comments, many people that you may not have reached out to and may not even know. On behalf of a lot of those people... asserting that Republicans are members of a cult and stupid is not helpful in our small town. We all love this town, we all live here and raise our kids here, and we require, in my opinion, some level of civility here, and we try to maintain it. And while there are national politic going on at very, very agitated levels, I certainly would hope that we can keep some sort of safe space here in Summit. Let’s be civil to each other and respect each other’s points of view.” He asked the mayor if she can affirm Republicans are valued and welcomed in Summit. Fox stepped in and said she’d done that on behalf of the governing body earlier. “This one tweet in no way reflects our views on Council; it’s safe to say also it doesn’t reflect the mayor’s views.” Radest said, “Of course I affirm and believe and respect every Republican, Democrat, Independent, and unregistered person in this city and I work hard every single day to represent every single person in this town,”
Blake O’Dowd, Edgewood Drive, said that like Kramer, he was a longtime resident, and found the response to the yard sign thefts “interesting and somewhat hypocritical.” Quoting Naidu’s words, he observed, “I don’t always vote Republican but when I do, Mr. O’Sullivan’s tweet makes me feel a little bit unsafe... and as a now-minority in this town, I would hope that people understand that feeling, and I would question whether it’s appropriate to have somebody with those views, who apologized after people raised a ruckus, to have that person on Council.”
Radest said O’Sullivan had made a mistake and apologized. “He’s a duly-elected member of Council and done nothing that would warrant not being a member of Council. I don’t know anyone who’s lived a mistake-proof life. I hope we can move forward and have the respect for all of us that we should have and the courage to express ourselves freely in this community."
Naidu said, “For the record, those who have seen me on Council for five years, having served with a number of Republicans, I think know how I have acted as far as civility and the importance of civility in public discourse.” He disputed being characterized as hypocritical, saying, “My Republican colleagues who’ve served with me for all these years would tell you that I have always tried to act in a civil manner.” Fox further went on, “We’ve been a bipartisan Council, acting for the benefit of the entire community. We all sit up here as volunteers... with one goal in mind, and that’s to make this community as good as it can be. We’re here because we care passionately about Summit... I’m very disappointed to hear some of these comments from the public.”
At this point, the Council’s lone Republican, Ward 2 Council Member Stephen Bowman, raised his hand. “I appreciate you apologizing, however, I do wish you would have reached out to me at some time, or one of the other Council members, because I did not receive any kind of comments from any of the elected officials here. There have been comments on both sides of the aisle whether it’s at the national level; there have been local comments about individuals who would not support local stores because they were a supporter of one party. That is not what we do here, that’s not local. We are here to support all businesses, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent. I do wish someone would have reached out to me at some time. I’m the only Republican and I do, at times, feel disrespected.” Fox apologized, saying the body has tried act as one Council, and to include him in decision-making and everything they do.
O’Sullivan said, “I appreciate the comments. I should have reached out [to Bowman]; I wish I had. It was an oversight and I didn’t mean any disrespect. I hope everybody believes me.”
Carl Loescher, Lenox Road, observed that he isn’t as comfortable, as a Republican, as when he moved to Summit 15 years ago. He did express his pride in the Summit student who organized a rally for equality this summer, but wanted to know what Democratic and Republican elected officials spoke that day. Fox said Congressman Tom Malinowski and the Mayor (both Democrats) and Police Chief Andrew Bartolutti spoke, but it was not a campaign event and was entirely student-organized.
Ryan Felmet, Madison Avenue, said he agreed with Naidu’s view of the fundamentals of democracy and thanked the mayor for her leadership during the pandemic, but then added, “As a concerned citizen... we all have First Amendment rights and anyone has the ability to disparage a group of people of political affiliation, religion, race, gender, and thankfully, most of us don’t.” He observed much of New Jersey is moderate and called the state “purple.” He also disputed that this was about “one tweet,” asserting O’Sullivan’s Twitter feed is full of rants about national politics, reading one about Tom Kean and calling the tweets “reprehensible. If Mr. O’Sullivan does not respect the fact that Summit has a diversity of everything including political affiliation, I question his ability to lead with integrity and inclusion.” Felmet noted this was posted the day after the Council passed its social media policy.
Fox clarified that the social media policy only applies to City-run social media – Summit’s official Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and website, not private or community social media pages. She added it was unfair to expect Council Members to stifle their own political views.
O’Dowd said “I would draw a distinction between expressing one’s political views versus a tweet meant to intimidate, by smearing with a very broad brush, literally anyone who is Republican.”
Union County Board of Elections Presentation
Presenting a different perspective on the upcoming election, Nicole DiRado, Elections Administrator at the Union County Board of Elections, presented the upcoming Vote-by-Mail process resulting from the pandemic. The registration deadline is October 13, and necessary forms can be found at ucnj.org/ucboe. All active registered voters will automatically receive a ballot. Some 327,000 ballots have been mailed out County-wide so far, and as of Tuesday, 36,338 had been returned, inducing 1,141 from Summit -- 964, including the mayor’s, via the Chestnut Street drop-off box. DiRado urged voters to use one of the 22 collection boxes located throughout the county. Ballots can also be mailed, handed to the county clerk in Elizabeth or Westfield with proper ID, or taken to a polling place. Mailed ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received by November 10 to be counted. Another option is to have a 'bearer' deliver it for the voter; the 'bearer' can deliver three ballots plus his or her own. A candidate cannot be a 'bearer'.
A voter who goes to a polling place will get a provisional paper ballot. ADA-compliant machines will be available only for persons whose disabilities make paper ballots impracticable. DiRado presented the options as “vote on a piece of paper in your kitchen with a cup of coffee or vote on a piece of paper after waiting in a long line on Election Day.”
She stressed that nobody should expect meaningful results on election night. Elections staff can start prepping and opening envelopes 10 days before the election but won’t start counting until October 30. Mailed ballots will be accepted until November 10, and those will have to be checked against provisional ballots to ensure nobody’s voted twice. Also, new this year is the Ballot Cure law, giving voters an opportunity to rectify a signature deficiency until November 18. By November 20, the election board, by law, must certify the county’s general election results.
DiRado admitted to receiving a lot of unhappy phone calls, but emphasized the changes are due to COVID. “Nobody’s constitutional right to vote is being taken away; you’re just being asked to vote differently this year, as with everything else we’re doing this year.” Meanwhile, they’re preparing to process more than 200,000 vote-by-mail ballots, “so please, send them in, the sooner, the better.”
Fox asked what someone who felt their signature had changed should do. One option is to send a copy of one’s ID with a signature along with the ballot. A better option is to fill out a voter registration form. Box 1 on the form asks the reason it’s being submitted, and 'signature update' is one of those reasons. She also asked for a definition of 'active voter'. 'Active voters' are those who’ve voted in recent elections, newly registered voters, and pending voters (17-year-olds who will be of age before the election). 'Inactive voters' are determined by returned mailings, or those who haven’t voted in two federal election cycles.
Little asked about seniors who normally go to a polling place and who may not have internet access, and whether there is a flyer to explain how to fill out the ballot. DiRado said one would be included in the Vote-by-Mail package.
If someone hasn’t received a ballot, asked Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan, what should they do? DiRado said Summit ballots were mailed September 29, and after giving the post office a week, people can call the County Clerk at 908-527-4996. He also asked how often the ballots in the drop boxes are collected. DiRado replied it’s done daily by a bipartisan team, and the boxes have 24-hour video surveillance. She added that voters can sign up on the njelections.org portal to track their ballot.
City Clerk Rosemary Licatese reminded listeners not to detach the “infamous flap” on the ballot -- the certificate on the certificate envelope -- is not a receipt for voting, it’s how the Board of Elections determines who mailed the ballot. If it’s not included, the ballot won’t be counted. Anonymity still applies; at the time of prepping, the certificate is removed and sent one way, while the ballot goes the other way.
Naidu, who has also already voted, said the drop box is well-marked, with a large sign. Radest said additional signs are forthcoming.
Henry Bassman, Hartley Road, asked for clarification of the signature update process. Licatese suggested the safest way was to complete a new registration form with an updated signature.
Fire Prevention Week Proclamation
Radest proclaimed October 4 through 10 'Fire Prevention Week', with the theme 'Serve up fire safety in the kitchen'. The proclamation cited dramatic figures: there were 357,000 home fires with 2,630 people killed in the US in 2017. Cooking is the leading cause of these conflagrations, leading to some 173,200 fires annually between 2013 and 2017; two of every five home fires start in the kitchen, with 31% resulting from unattended cooking. Half of non-fatal fire injuries result from people trying to quell a fire themselves.
The proclamation was accepted virtually by Assistant Chief Don Nelson and Lieutenant Joe Moschello. Nelson pointed out that October 8, 1871, was the date of the Great Chicago Fire, which started people thinking about fire prevention.
Ordinances and Resolutions
Moving onto the agenda, Bowman opened the hearing on an ordinance extending outdoor dining year-round, and simplifying the fee structure to be based on the number of seats, rather than on the assessed value of the café space. Vartan noted the new, lower, pricing structure will help struggling businesses, while Council Member at-Large Beth Little added she’s heard from many residents that they enjoy outdoor dining and wish to see it continue even post-pandemic. The ordinance passed in a unanimous roll call vote.
Little then introduced an ordinance to “repeal and replace” the Development Regulation Ordinance (DRO) adopted in 2019. The 2019 ordinance was a comprehensive revision of the DRO. She explained that this is actually a “revision,” coming after the Planning Board and City staff worked this year to make corrections or adjustments as confusing language, repetitions, and other areas in need of clarification became evident. Because there were many minor typographical and format changes, the DRO corrections will be repealed and replaced to streamline the process. Little called attention to a few of the most significant changes -- an amendment to the zoning map in the R10 zone, the definition of what a brewery is in the CRBD zone, the allowance of private social and intellectual clubs in the CRBD zone, flexibility in outdoor dining, green roofs, height calculations, and permitted driveway widths.
The Planning Board will hold a Master Plan Consistency Review and accept public comments on October 26. Afterwards, Council will hold a hearing on this ordinance at its November 4 meeting.
Bowman moved three Law & Labor resolutions. The first authorized the execution of a settlement agreement for the Morris Habitat for Humanity project at 146 Morris Avenue, the former Italian-American Club site. This will allow the erection of 12 affordable housing units -- two more than initially anticipated – with access via Morris Avenue. Naidu thanked City Administrator Michael Rogers and City Council Matthew Giacobbe for their intervention, noting this was “many years in the making.” As the neighbors are happy with the Morris Avenue access, it’s a “win-win.” Vartan, identifying this as his and his grandparents’ neighborhood, reaffirmed that the neighbors were satisfied with the resolution.
Bowman’s next resolution authorized the execution of a collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Local 469 for January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2023. The union represents public works employees. The long negotiation process resulted in 2% increases for the next two years, and 2.25% increases the next two years, plus $200 for work boots. His final resolution authorized paid sick leave for a Department of Community Services employee.
Little also had a trio of resolutions from the Capital Projects & Community Services committee. The first authorized an easement agreement with Broad Street Portfolio, LLC, for a storm sewer running between 150 and 152 Broad Street. This agreement governs the responsibilities of each party to maintain the storm sewer, and gives the city access. Next was a resolution to sell six obsolete city vehicles through Municibid.com. Summit participates in these online sales annually to dispose of surplus vehicles and equipment and recoup some of their value. Little explained that since most purchases are made through a co-op program, there is no opportunity to “trade in” the old vehicles and equipment. The last resolution permitted Kidville to use the closed-off portion of Maple Street during the day for children’s arts and crafts activities, in the area adjacent to Fiorino, when the restaurant is not serving meals. Fiorino supported the proposal.
All resolutions passed.
Additional Public Comment
In addition to the reactions to O’Sullivan’s tweet, the public had other concerns. Hal Corley, Woodland Avenue, asked if overnight parking regulations could be amended, or if there could at least be a moratorium on enforcement, since so many people are working from home. O’Sullivan said the parking committee has been discussing solutions for people working at home whose cars are on the street all day. But “keeping it simple for residents requires a lot of input .” The committee is still waiting to hear from the police department and legal opinions, to ensure “we get it right.” He asked Vartan to weigh in. He did so, as a former resident of the New England Avenue apartments, saying, he and his neighbors were always hopeful for a solution for overnight on-street parking, and many would be willing to pay the parking fees for that privilege.” Discussions with the Parking Authority and police are set for later this week.
Jim Bennett, Fairview Avenue, has been in touch with two JCP&L customer advocacy groups in Monmouth County, RAGE and CHARGE. He alleged the utility has financial incentives to favor long distance high voltage transmission line projects over local distribution projects, as well as incentives to overstate the cost of projects it doesn’t want to undertake. Bennett has pursued the issue of underground cables in previous meetings, and suggested that rather than JCP&L’s stated $1 million or more per mile, German utility costs are in the area of $287,000 to $766,000 per mile. Saying 99% of outages are caused by local issues, burying cables and hardening substations would go a long way to stability. He proposed phone lines could be buried at the same time. He asked that Council be armed with this information when it next meets with JCP&L, and not accept anything that falls short of a full accounting of the failures that took place during Isaias. In reply, Naidu reiterated that while he appreciated Bennett’s skepticism, “we have to work with the utility we have in front of us … and what is practical and achievable in a reasonable amount of time.” He also said if the community wanted to pursue underground cables, it would be advisable to hire a consultant, and asked if that was a good use of Summit’s “finite resources.”
Eileen Kelly, Woodland Avenue, thanked Radest for the JCP&L overview (see below) and asked if they had discussed communicating with seniors who may not have internet access. Radest replied they didn’t get into specifics, but they do know it’s a problem. She believes the next meeting with the OEMs would be more specific. She knows telephone is the best way, but tries to keep SwiftReach calls to a minimum so they don’t become “white noise.”
The first item in Radest’s mayor’s report was a recap of a meeting she and Naidu had participated in with JCP&L President Jim Fakult, liaison Carol Bianchi, Bianchi’s boss John Anderson, and mayors of many of the other 24 towns Bianchi represents. They heard about improvements the utility is investigating post-Isaias and shared the City’s concerns and suggestions. JCP&L, the mayors of Union County, representatives of the governing bodies, and Office of Emergency Management coordinators are meeting with the Union County OEM on October 13 to further discuss changes that need to be made. She reminded listeners that the Board of Public Utilities is also a “crucial part” of the process, as it must review and approve the power company’s plans. Among the improvements expected are enhancing customer communications. JCP&L is doing studies to construct an optimal response for customers. Currently, it’s required by the BPU to provide a “global estimated time of restoration” within 48 hours of an event; more accurate ETRs are issued when crews are assigned to outages. JCP&L is working on a process to assign more specific ETRs earlier in the process. Most residents have expressed a desire for updates every two hours, even if the information changes. Social media may be used for more timely information. Callback and textback technology used to help identify customers still out of service, while still important, is outdated. Smart meters, capable of letting the utility know of an outage, will eventually be installed but that process is at least three years down the road, the mayor said.
Another element is strengthening the transmission system; Isaias caused significant subtransmission system damage. JCP&L will be doubling what it spends annually on infrastructure work beginning in 2021. JCP&L is also evaluating its process for road openings and critical facilities.
Radest said, “This is complicated, and we are making progress. But this takes time.” About 250 towns are served by JCP&L; Bianchi is the rep to 24 towns in four counties. Radest suggested that JCP&L retain a crisis management team to augment the work of the area managers in the event of a major outage. “He said it was one of the things they are looking at. I believe they are working to address the inadequacies we experienced.”
On the COVID front, Summit has had 13 new cases in October, compared to 18 in all of September. There was one new fatality, a 102-year-old woman with preexisting health conditions. Most new cases are among middle-aged adults, from unmasked visitors in their homes. She reminded residents to continue to wear masks and maintain a safe social distance.
Curbside leaf collection is under way and runs until December 4. Leaves, and only leaves, should be placed in biodegradable bags and placed curbside on regular garbage collection days.
The Summit Police Department and PBA Local 55 are attempting to 'Stuff the Truck' with food and supplies to assist victims of Hurricane Laura in Louisiana.
Fox announced the first Free Market events in its new building, donated by the Summit Conservancy, will take place on October 10 and 17.
Volunteers are needed on several city boards, commissions, and committees. There is an October 15 deadline to complete an application, found on the city clerk’s web page. Stressing that she and her fellow elected officials are all volunteers, Fox said, “We rely on all of you to step forward and help keep our city as great as it is.”
More than 25 vehicles have been stolen in the City this year, and every one of them was unlocked with a key fob or valet key inside. While the police patrol Summit’s 80 miles of roads, they need everyone’s help. Fox said homeowners’ security footage shows “actors” checking car door handles as they move from house to house. She also reminded people not to leave valuables in their cars and keep garage doors openers out of sight.
Union County is offering a flu shot clinic at the Summit Community Center on November 5 from 6 to 7 p.m. The goal is to vaccinate every Union County resident age four or older, even if they lack health insurance.
Fox reminded listeners that the ban on single-use plastics, approved by council last November but postponed by the pandemic, goes into effect January 1. It nixes most plastic bags and polystyrene containers and makes straws available by-request only. An even more stringent state law is awaiting the governor’s signature.