Soggy Democracy on the Palisades

May 4, 2014 Updated: May 27, 2014

I knew it would be crowded, which is why I wanted to get to the Englewood Cliffs Master Plan Hearing an hour early, but Eric Nelsen and I arrived at the Upper School in Englewood Cliffs at 7:00, just a half hour before the hearing in a tiny Bergen County town on the Palisades – population 5,281. 

Monster Trucks

I was already prepared for a travesty of justice by the land use board steamrolling over residents’ objections to hi-rises on the Palisades, but my heart sank even deeper as we got within 6 blocks of the school. As we slowly drove along Charlotte Place I saw “no parking” police signs lining one side of every street, and recognized the shiny massive monster trucks on the other side. Expensive trucks that gobble gas and have giant lockable toolboxes in the back.  I work in construction and I know those trucks. The union members had arrived.  You would think there was a party going on. A big one.  I would find out that that is roughly what happened. At least the union guys were having a good time. The trade unions who stacked the hearing like they did for the  Port Authority toll increase.   To do that, they had to get to the hearing before unwitting residents who would be shut out of their own town meeting. One union member bragged about how he had been there since 5:30, a full two hours before the hearing. There were cases of bottled water and snack bars left at the entrance as messy evidence.

Rained Out

The result of the union members getting there two full hours before the public, was to leave everyone else standing in the cold pouring rain.  When Eric and I arrived, we saw a long line of folks with umbrellas waiting to get in. And folks without umbrellas determined to tough it out.  We saw a group of young union guys under the large canopy outside the entrance smirking at all of us losers, the environmentalists and local residents who somehow managed to hear about the meeting, even though the Borough tried mightily to hide news of it.

I took the umbrella to wait in line while Eric parked the car 4 blocks away.  The line was slowed to a crawl and I was still getting drenched when Eric walked back to the school – totally soaked.  One woman on line walked forward to see what the problem was and was told gruffly by a union guy, “Get in the back of the line!” She said she was going to but she was curious as to what the problem was up front. He said “Killed the cat”.  Implying that curiosity was not a good thing – for her. 

Is Obama Coming?

The line slowed to a crawl because the police were wanding everyone who came in. They even had dogs there, in case the bird watchers got out of hand, I guess. As I looked at a metal sign hanging on the wall outside the building about ten knives were stuck by magnets to it. The wanding was a good idea after all. Apparently the union guys came bearing knives. Or maybe they just left them as a message for anyone who dared come and possibly speak up.

As I turned around to view the line I could see the Executive Director of the Palisades Interstate Park about 5 folks behind us.  He was stuck out in the rain too.  He was one of the very last folks to get in the door before they closed it off to anyone else. We made it in. 

I signed up to speak and so did Eric after going through what reminded me of airport security, except with dogs. I remarked that it reminded me of when I went to see Obama speak once.  I even had to open up my document portfolio which was keeping my paperwork dry.  The residents and non-residents had different sign in sheets which was fortunate, because if the residents were not  given the chance to speak first, the unions would have succeeded in preventing nearly all of them from even voicing their opposition to the proposed Master Plan change.  I am sure none of the residents who live 5 minutes away thought they had to get there 2 hours ahead.  And a naïve reporter the next day in print and on the radio would spout that very few residents even showed up. She assumed very few objected.  Hardly the case. The few residents I talked to who were able to get in were absolutely livid.

Squished

I walked in before Eric and tried to find a seat. They were scattered here and there and hard to find, because the hall of 350 was packed with big burly guys.  I unhappily sat down squished between two large ones.  As soon as I sat down the one to my left started lobbying me.  “Are you with us or against us?” he asked.  I answered, I am not against you, I just want shorter buildings. He spent the next few minutes trying to convince me of the unions’ position. It distracted me from listening to the Planner, while I tried to argue that they would be building right now if LG had not asked for such an egregious variance.

Freudian Slip

Thankfully just then Eric rescued me. He had found two seats way up front.  On the dias were about a dozen members of the Land Use Board including Mayor Parisi.  I felt a lot less claustrophobic and trapped.  A girl from NYC was next to me. As the union guys in front on the right sassed opponents and tried to throw them off, she sassed them right back.  I was trying to listen to the Planner, giving his testimony, some of which was actually filled with glaring errors.  At one point he referred on his slide to Objective #3 – saving wetlands, but he accidentally called it Objective #2, which appeared to be a  Freudian slip.  They completely left out #2 on the slide. Objective #2 actually states Parkland should be protected and preserved and recreation taken into account. That is the objective they are hoping nobody remembers from the original Master Plan. Then he falsely stated that the LG building would be 1000 feet from the cliff face. His ruler is off by quite a bit. It would be 700 feet and only 150 feet from the Park.

One of the members on the Board seemed to be a cheerleader for the changes.  He looked like a cross between Ron Kuby and Howard Stern, if you can picture that.  He seemed very confident. 

And so that is how the room was packed with what appeared to be “supporters”.  When you realize that Paul Sarlo, the state Senator who rallied in support of the LG building, is the CEO of Sanzari – the largest government contractor in the state, it is not a leap of imagination why members were asked to be there and why they thought they better come. When you consider Sanzari is trying to get a similar height 14 story building built in Teaneck at the Glenpointe, you get the idea.

Thankfully the tiny handful of residents who managed to survive the gauntlet were given a chance to speak first.  But there were only about 6 of them who got to speak before the nonresident union reps got up there.  The one resident who had filed a lawsuit to prevent the LG building, who had brought her lawyer – who was representing half a dozen people, was not allowed to have her lawyer speak for her. 

There appeared to be only two residents for destroying views of the Palisades, one was a Councilman. I found myself astounded at the chutzpah of a union member from out of town who admitted he could not even afford to live in Englewood Cliffs and then said that folks from New York and Trenton or other towns had no business giving an opinion on this.  Especially after he and his out of town friends had prevented residents from even getting in the building to express an opinion. I was even more astounded when the Record Reporter the next day commented on how many more “supporters” were there compared to residents opposed.  Not noticing the union had stacked the meeting and the residents she assumed did not exist were practically drowning outside, locked out of their own town meeting. 

Of the few residents that did get in, many missed the Planner’s presentation.

The most heartfelt speech was from the first resident to object. He was a veteran and had nothing against unions but he did have a problem with destroying the quality of life in his town. He also spoke about how he enjoyed going to the parks on the NY side of the Hudson at the Cloisters to view his town from the other side of the Hudson because it was only 15 minutes away and so beautiful.

A representative from the NY State Senate district across the Hudson spoke eloquently about the compact between the states to protect the Palisades region. 

The only trouble came when an opponent from Trenton was told to finish and he launched into a round of America the Beautiful as three cops came to escort him away. We all joined in singing. Sadly the local reporter wrote it down as the National Anthem while including a photo, confusing folks who were not there who assumed he was a union member for the LG tower, thus missing the point completely.

A grown Eagle Scout stood at the podium with a jacket heavy with badges and delivered the best quote of the evening. “There are just some things you don’t do for money.”  Like spoiling the Palisades.

The residents spoke passionately about preserving the quality of life and did not want to change their quiet town overnight into Fort Lee or Hoboken. 

The union guys laid it on thick – talking about black hearses carrying union guys who committed suicide because they were out of work.  The acting was not as good as on the Sopranos, but it was absolute Jersey.

Since we had gotten there at 7 pm but it took us 45 minutes to get in, we had missed the first 15 minutes of the presentation.  We were lucky though. At 8 pm, they started telling folks outside to leave because they couldn’t fit anymore.  It was pouring rain but they stood out there for over an hour determined to get in if they could.  At about 8:30, many of the union guys who had done their job by taking up seats and preventing residents from getting in, actually sitting on two seats at a time to take up space, started leaving. They left many empty chairs that could have held folks that had been turned away and went home. At first many of the union members appeared smug and sure of themselves and acted like this was all a big game, but as the night progressed most of the folks speaking in opposition began their statements with support of unions but opposition to the height ordinance, and disapproval of changes to their town. As one by one, residents expressed support for unions and opposition to destroying the Palisades, many union members drifted out of the room. It wasn’t so much fun anymore.  Some of the residents  opposed were union guys before they retired, or Korean War vets.  Maybe the union members suddenly realized the only issues were height, and haste, not jobs, and that environmentalists typically vote for Democrats and support unions and that the unions were acting out the worst possible stereotypes used to crush unions.

Then came my turn.  I had prepared my remarks and included screen shots showing that the Borough Website – that very morning still had not included the meeting on either its calendar or its News and Announcements page.  Residents were not told of the hearing by their own Borough. Funny how every trade union within 20 miles knew all about it.  Reminded me of the toll hike hearings when Christie’s appointees did the same thing – preventing commuters from even finding the hearings all held on the same day in hard to find places while practically bussing the union guys in. 

As I started my remarks, I could hear the union hecklers behind me on the right side of the hall.  Knowing they were trying to throw me off, I turned around, extended the mic toward them and asked if they wanted to say something. The barrel-chested instigator was horrified to be publicly shamed and waved his hands and meekly quieted down. I returned to my remarks.  Unfortunately, I could only get through the first page before I was cut off by Attorney Michael Kates.  I had brought 10 copies of written comments including screenshots showing the hearing had not been properly noticed and he asked me if I could submit my comments. I did.

Eric then spoke after me and after two more opponents, the attorney stated that they needed to adjourn and reconvene on another night to finish. I was relieved. We had bought more time. The Englewood Cliffs residents behind me began shouting  that they wanted adequate notice of the next meeting. They demanded a reverse 911 call. I doubt they will get it.

Conflicts

One of the items I brought up in my remarks seemed to strike a chord with the Englewood Cliffs residents. Conflict of interest. They were not aware that the Mayor was on the Board of the ConnectOne bank in the new hi-rise  zone being discussed. He was sitting on the dias as a member of the board and has been the biggest advocate and public cheerleader of the LG project and allowing hi-rises to destroy the Palisades viewshed.  The residents were incensed because just after the LG variance was granted in 2012, the Mayor had been accused of dissolving the Zoning Board for political reasons, because by law a Mayor cannot sit on a Zoning Board.  And the residents remembered that 10 years before, the New York Times had written about the ethically compromised Mayor and his father who mixed business with their official duties.  Again, the local reporter who had admitted that LG had just bought a huge full page ad in her paper, brushed off the Mayor’s blatant conflicts of interest on Brian Lehrer’s show stating that the Mayor didn’t originally vote for the LG variance, even though he dissolved the Zoning Board because  he could not sit on it. He was still sitting on the dias as a member of the Planning Board (technically in NJ by law it should be called a Land Use Board because there now is no Zoning Board)  that night who desperately wanted to rezone property he has a financial stake in. 

Residents were already upset that the Mayor worked for LIG – a company run by the same family that runs LG.  But this new conflict really enraged them. 

These conflicts were disturbing because of the virtual secrecy of the meeting that night, the stacking of the room by the unions (politicians in NJ often use the unions as unofficial hired help), the security detail, slowing folks from getting in, telling residents on the website not to drive due to the rain, no parking signs within 6 blocks of the school, telling people to leave rather than wait, they began to suspect that their own Mayor did not want them to participate in decisions that would forever change the character of their town.  I had seen these tactics before at Bergen County Democratic Committee elections.  (NJ Party Boss minions are actually scarier and a lot more shouty than the union guys but the county police presence was always over-the-top.)

God bless the residents, though. They withstood intimidation and discomfort and stood in the cold pouring rain. They waited and waited and then they spoke up or protested outside.  The efforts to prevent them from participating will backfire. They always do.  These neighbors will talk to their neighbors and they will now show up at every meeting, with more folks than before. And they will vote. Lord will they vote.  And some of them I hope will run for office themselves.  When I was almost prevented from casting a vote a few years ago, it only made me more determined to get rid of corruption and determined to help citizens take back their towns.  In my hometown, the resident who repeatedly showed up at town hall asking important questions out of concern for his neighborhood, and was treated badly by the governing body for speaking up, ran for Mayor last year. And won.

Reprieve

Currently there will be a  hearing in Trenton on May 19 about a bill sponsored by Former Acting Governor and State Senator Dick Codey and Senator Bob Smith that would take this issue out of the hands of Mayor Parisi completely and prevent hi-rises within 2,000 feet of the Palisades cliff face.   As for Englewood Cliffs, the attorney for the Englewood Cliffs, after I mentioned that the residents had not been noticed, advised the Board to schedule another meeting to continue the discussion.  Let’s hope the Borough not only allows residents to speak first, but forms two separate lines to give Englewood Cliffs residents priority to attend their own town meetings instead of being locked out in the pouring rain.

 

 

 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Carol is a licensed Water Resources Civil Engineer practicing in Northern NJ. In 2007, Carol became known statewide in NJ as an elected official/political blogger by raising awareness of NJ political corruption not being covered by the local press. Before switching careers, Carol studied Food Science and Agricultural Engineering at Rutgers and worked as a Research & Development food process engineer.