Surprising Vote for Clifton's Zoning Board
Tuesday night’s City Council meeting seemed relatively straightforward at first. There was some discussion surrounding the raising of various ethnic and cultural flags on City Hall property and the Council voted unanimously to allow them on any day of the week, including weekends, between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm. Several councilors mentioned that they might not always be able to attend the ceremonies for these flag raisings, especially when they fall on weekends with other obligations at home. “Family comes first,” Mayor Grabowski said, reminding everyone of his predecessor’s words.
One speaker from the community who showed up with a whole list of issues complained about the tax money involved for a police presence and the Department of Public Works at these events, saying, “The only flag we should be honoring is the American flag.” Other speakers were quick to point out that residents from groups whose cultures are honored with their flags also pay taxes in Clifton. Resident Ed Marsh in a community Facebook group said, “The diversity of this city is a feature, not a bug.”
It should be noted that the American flag is always flying, weather permitting, and is never removed to make room for any other nation’s flag. Others are hoisted on one of two poles that stand on either side of Old Glory’s and generally remain up for a week before being brought down. Despite the angry comments from one resident, this proved not to be the most controversial topic of the night.
City Council had three empty seats to fill on the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. During their work session they voted four to three to appoint resident Maureen O’Connor to one of those seats as the second alternate. “I’m honored to be appointed and will enter into this role [while] ensuring the best interest of Clifton and the community,” O’Connor said. O'Connor formerly served on the Planning Board in New Brunswick.
During the public portion of the meeting there was discussion surrounding two current members who needed to be removed. A New Jersey bylaw states that all members of New Jersey zoning boards must complete a training program within 18 months of their appointment. If they fail to do so, the same bylaw requires them to be removed. Clifton’s two alternates, George Silva and Uri Jaskiel, were both removed by unanimous vote due to their non-compliance.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment, according to its page on the city website, “Exercises the power to review and make decisions on appeals relating to interpretation of the Zoning Ordinances.” Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula made a motion to appoint Dr. Alessia Eramo, whom she called “the most qualified” as the first alternate. Eramo holds a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from Rutgers University and, according to her campaign page, “...she also completed a Graduate Fellowship in Politics and Government from the Eagleton Institute of Politics.”
During the roll call which followed Councilors Gibson, Latona, and Sadrakula voted “yes,” Kolodziej, Murphy, and Mayor Grabowski voted “no,” and Councilwoman Pino abstained. The motion was therefore denied. “It’s unbelievable,” Eramo commented.
Kolodziej, who offered the first no vote, cited as his reason Eramo’s lack of knowledge of the RLUIPA Law. "The federal RLUIPA law was created over 20 years ago to protect vulnerable communities from discriminatory zoning laws after countless cases were seen across the country of Zoning Boards attempting to prevent the building of temples, mosques and churches. In a city as diverse as Clifton, an understanding of this law is critical to fulfill a Zoning Board member’s role and was my main criterion when selecting candidates," he said. Violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) Law is what led the city of Clifton to agree to pay $2.5 million in a settlement involving a synagogue just four years ago.
Kolodziej then moved to reappoint O’Connor from second alternate to a full voting member position on the Zoning Board. This motion passed with six yes votes. Pino again abstained.
Members of the community reacted in Facebook’s Clifton News and Community, with some registering disappointment and others, outrage. Eramo, who ran for a seat on the current Council, is known in Clifton for her tireless efforts to preserve green spaces and oppose overdevelopment. To some, she seemed like an obvious choice for the Zoning Board. Others saw tonight’s vote as evidence of political dishonesty. “True bias[es] were shown tonight. How do you remove someone who did not meet a requirement after 18 months and then basically save an open seat so they can be put back on the next meeting,” asked resident Samantha Bassford, referencing another vote which tabled any further appointments so that Silva might complete the required training and then be reinstated. “This would not be acceptable in any field. People's hands were shown tonight and I’m concerned for what is next.”
This story will be updated with comments from some of the council members if/when they offer them.