So how was your Hot Dog Day
I couldn't make it this time unfortunately. I did not know it when I woke up that morning, but I would end up spending my afternoon in a kangaroo court.
I have been a part of the ward campaign (www.empowernb.com) since June. If you haven't heard of us, we are fighting to change the way our City Council is elected so that each neighborhood is guaranteed representation on the council. This will be a revolutionary change and will likely destroy the foundation of a political machine that has ruled this city for about 40 years. Needless to say, they are fighting us unrelentingly. That's where the kangaroo court comes in.
On about 90 minutes notice, the ward campaign assembled more than a dozen supporters in a New Jersey Superior Courtroom to attend a speakerphone hearing that would decide whether our question would be voted on by the public this Nov. 4. It was actually rather comical. After listening to lawyers arguing on a speakerphone in front of a robed judge in a mockery of justice, Judge Heidi Currier ruled that our question would not be ready in time for the Nov. 4 ballot because it had not been certified in time.
Why wasn't it certified, you say? The deadline to turn in our petition was in August. We rushed and turned it in more than a month early to avoid a thinly veiled attempt to supercede our question by the New Brunswick City Council. However, City Clerk Dan Torrissi found it invalid, and we were forced to challenge in court. Our case took weeks to be heard. On my birthday, Aug. 14, in New Jersey Superior Court, both attorneys argued the merits of the case. EON's lawyer, Renee Steinhagen of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, worked for free. Marvin Brauth, on the other hand, defended the city at $230 an hour despite sitting next to the City Attorney William Hamilton, who said nothing during the hearing but made $180/hour in taxpayer dollars himself.
You see, we're just a bunch of streetwise community activists. We were not cut out for the sheer ridiculousness of the legal system here. In fact, we all kind of thought it would be like in the movies where the judge would bang her gavel at the end and rule one way or the other. How foolish of us. She did promise, however, that she would issue an opinion "shortly" because she understood time was of the essence. She then proceeded to take a three-week vacation before ruling in favor of our petition. Unfortunately, according to her own findings on Tuesday, her vacation cost us the chance to have this question on the Nov. 4 presidential ballot. Rather, it will appear in a special election, or more likely, in the November 2009 general election for governor. I don't think I need to mention that the presidential election garners the highest turnout of any elections held in this country. Gubernatorial elections, not so much.
The citizens of New Brunswick who vote on Nov. 4 have all been deprived of a chance to vote for a change in government that more than 1,100 citizens thought should be on the ballot.
Anyway, long story short, this judge said we still won the court case, but there's simply not enough time to get our questions on the ballot legally. By nine days. Her vacation was 21 days. Currier indirectly admitted that either: a) her lack of an expedited verdict cost us getting the questions on the ballot, or b) she did not understand the statutes concerning the timeframe for placement on the ballot when she ruled in August.
Additionally, because of the judge's clever timing and the city's devious manipulation of election law, the city's reactionary and illegal attempt to get a charter study commission will also not appear on the ballot. The citizens of New Brunswick now must wait some time before they will be given an opportunity to change the way their "representative" government is organized. All because of obstructionist tactics by their own elected officials and a judge who herself stated that these laws should be construed liberally to encourage civic participation.
Mayor Jim Cahill and the council must be elated. They don't even have to have any question on the ballot that might harm the status quo! All the money they spent push-polling residents about wards and hiring well-connected lawyers has paid off, though it seems they've lost a lot of friends in the press and among their own ranks. It is clear to me that city employees stand to gain considerably from a switch to wards, and they are beginning to let us know of their support. On this very page, the mayor himself exposed how afraid they all really are of losing their stranglehold on this city. It's been a while since I've seen Mayor Cahill write a letter to the editor in The Daily Targum. I've certainly never seen him write one getting his name involved in the minute details involved in questioning the validity of a citizen's petition's for a basic ballot question. These guys were scared of what they saw in their own communities as more and more people joined the fight for wards.
They've won this round. We won't get the chance to vote for change on the local level this November. But this fight is not even close to over. Wards are coming to New Brunswick. Or at least the citizens will get the opportunity to vote on whether they are a good idea. The City Council and the mayor can only stifle this much-needed opportunity to change our government - the first since 1986 - for so long. They have exhausted their bag of tricks and have been exposed as manipulative and misleading in the process.
Take another vacation, Judge Currier. The city machine might need your help again in November 2009. Oh, and another thing ...
Judge Currier is married to a man named Randall W. Currier. He is currently the vice president of a nonprofit developer you might have heard of before: New Brunswick Development Corporation, better known as Devco. Devco has been participating in almost every re-development project in downtown New Brunswick. It is a quasi-public agency, which means it is not subject to open public meetings like the City Council or other public bodies. However, Devco holds a considerable amount of power in this city and, not sure if you agree with me here, but vice president seems like it's pretty high up there in the corporation.
The fact that Judge Currier did not, at the very least, disclose this potential conflict of interest is suspect. I encourage everyone to reach out to your elected county, state and federal representatives regarding this potential conflict, as well as the subversive actions of the City Council, city clerk and city attorney in taking away your chance to vote for - or against - wards this November.
I also encourage everyone to begin actively participating in New Brunswick's City Council meetings. They are a lot of fun now that everyone sees through all the smoke and mirrors. They are held at City Hall, 78 Bayard St., on the first and third Wednesday of each month. The next one is Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Bring your complaints!
Charlie Kratovil is a Rutgers College senior majoring in journalism and media studies. He can be heard every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HearNewBrunswick.com. His column runs alternate Thursdays.