Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Scenes from an American Street Fair

A recent tradition, the June Street Fair features vendors,
a wide variety of food, live music, and displays from
local township volunteers.
New Jersey moves fast.  When someone asks you to get back to them with results, whether it's for work, volunteering, or the snack schedule for your kid's soccer team, they mean "tomorrow" not "sometime next week."  This is especially true in the Northeast, near the city, where traffic is congested and everyone seems to be on their way to their next appointment, even if they're only 8.  Get out of New Jersey and you'll find this changes pretty quickly.  Just across the border in Pennsylvania, people actually begin to understand that things like torrential rain or snow can cause traffic delays.  Down in the Southern states or out towards the Midwest, this sort of preference to the slow and methodical over the frenetic is even more pronounced.  North Jersey does have its slower spots though and those in turn even have a few slower days per year.  As a bedroom community with more schools than many of its neighbors, Pequannock would never be mistaken for some sleepy mountain village during most weekday mornings or evening commutes.  Still though, residents do know how to enjoy life and how to take a break.

Fresh lemonade was almost a necessity at 2015's
Street Fair on the newly paved asphalt of the
Newark Pompton Turnpike.
The annual Pequannock Street Fair, though a recent tradition, is an example of this suburban slowdown.  Up to perhaps the 1960's, in addition to the usual selection of high school sports each weekend, the community had annual events at the gravel pit, out by the old Shaw's Silver Factory, which too was the site where RMI would develop the rocket engine that would go on to break the sound barrier.  Of course there was also a broad array of church socials and picnics throughout time, though evidence of those is mostly lost to the annals of history.  Swimming holes were a popular pass-time in the hotter months and Pequannock was once home to both the municipal beach at PV Park and the private McDonald's Beach across Alexander Ave.

Despite cuts to the High School music program
music education remains a strong interest
for the Pequannock community
seen here at the Shamrock  School of
Music mainstage.
Today, Pequannock boasts a number of public parks, many with cool shady areas perfect for the Summer months.  PV Park is still a major attraction and for those who'd rather get on the water than it it, Woodland Lake offers a rustic charm for boaters and fishermen.  Other pass-times have passed by, with McDonald's beach closing decades ago and the old gravel pit now a medical center.  It doesn't matter though because though the locations have changed and the faces have certainly changed, the traditions remain the same: good people getting together with their families and community to enjoy the Summer weather and a day without work.  

The firehouses still do wet-downs and the Hoe Down each Fall is a decades old tradition, as are July 4th Fireworks.  New activities like the Street Fair each June, and Farmer's Markets in town or nearby attract residents of all ages.  Even natural resources are getting an upgrade, like the kayak and paddle boat rentals at Woodland Lake, the restored pond and dock at Greenview Park, or the kiosk and trail upgrades in Mountainside Park.  For those with a green thumb, the recently added Community Garden has seen enough interest to expand since its opening several years ago.

Volunteers from the Pequannock Historic Commission
were out in force providing information about the
Township's many historical preservation efforts.
Soon, residents can expect to enjoy a scenic walk along the river as the Pequannock Riverwalk Project approaches its unveiling.  A  planned expansion to the Pequannock Library will provide even more room for kids looking to enjoy some AC and a good book while participating in the Summer Reading Program.

If you've enjoyed this lengthy, but not exhaustive look back at Pequannock's Summer recreation over the decades, there's one more activity you should consider: Visit the Pequannock History Museum on Evans Place between Noon and 3pm the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month.  It is air conditioned and admission is free.  There you'll learn about a wide variety of Pequannock's history from its status as a stop along the Morris Canal to its place in history as home of Medal of Honor Recipient James R. Evans.

Got a Summer recreation story?  Leave a comment!

A display about the past offers a glimpse into the
future: Many Pequannock residents have sought
to purchase and preserve the historic Martin
Berry House as township historic site.

In honor of the 275th anniversary of the founding of
Pequannock, many talented local students took the
time to produce wonderful historic projects about
the town.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pequannock Board of Ed on Ethics Charges: Bring it On!

Pequannock's residents have been in a heated battle with their own Board of Education over large cuts made to the district's once exemplary music program.  Joe Phalon covered the issue for the Suburban Trends previously, while this website provided a more personal perspective.

In the aftermath of Monday night's acrimonious Board of Education Meeting, it has been difficult to determine what progress if any has been made, but a single message rang out loud and clear: Bring it on!

Here you can see that Quigley and Nuccetelli are dismayed
by Muzzio's interruption.  Quigley bites her lip, probably
on a snappy response.  Nuccetelli holds her hand
almost over her mouth, which is no coincidence
Muzzio in the left frame delivers his ultimatum to the public
"Bring it on!"  Then, on the right, he recoils from
what he's said, because he lacks confidence in it.
The shocking moments were caught on video: over 3 hours in, just before the close of the meeting, 3 Board of Education Members chose to respond to ethics allegations that have been raised by numerous people both on Facebook and in person.  Their response?  Literally, "Bring it on!"

Board of Education President Kim Quigley lead the charge stating, "...it costs the district money by our counsel to represent us and if its something that you want to do you'd better have the financial resources and the counsel to represent yourself..."  Ominously, Quigley threatened that, "...if you file a frivolous charge and it's found out to be frivolous, there's some serious implications to that."  Throughout her speech, which did not appear rehearsed, Quigley gripped the microphone tightly with one hand and looked down several times.  Quigley confessed that last year's Board of Education, of which she was also President, was "Divided" and "Divisive," quickly adding that they were no longer.

Trustee Doug Muzzio interjected quickly after this, to the apparent annoyance of Quigley.  Muzzio stated that his "Brooklyn born instinct" was telling him to say [to the threat of ethics charges], "Bring it on!"  He then pushed away from the desk and microphone and again angrily called out, "See how it works, bring it on!"

Long time Board of Education Member Bill Sayre spoke next, disclosing apparently in response to online comments, that he had been a Band Parent and that 4 of his children had been through the music program.  He cited a fiduciary responsibility to cut the full-time music faculty positions.

The choice of Quigley and Muzzio to speak about the potential for ethics charges, especially in a manner clearly intended to dissuade would-be filers and which at times bordered on intimidation was surprising, as Board Counsel Isabel Machado was available to speak throughout.

Since the announcement that Pequannock's Board of Education was moving to cut music faculty positions, there has been discussion of ethics charges both online and off.*  Those seeking an ethics investigation have cited Board violations in 2 key paragraphs of the New Jersey School Board Member Code of Ethics.  The first paragraph they cite reads:

  • "I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools which meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex or social standing."  Members of the public have argued that the broad cuts to the music program made recently constitute a violation of the "individual needs of all children" clause above, specifically since children who are differently-abled or who suffer from social anxieties might thrive in the music program in ways in which they might not excel in the districts sundry taxpayer-funded sports programs.
  • Others have suggested that Pequannock Board of Education Members have violated the public trust by failing to consult relevant stakeholders to the music program, a requirement which each and every Board of Education Member swore to explicitly in their oath of office: "I will confine my board action to policymaking, planning, and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them."

The process to bring about an ethics investigation is simple: A member of the public need simply fill out a form on this website, sign it under oath, be sure to reference the date of the ethics violations (probably the date of the Board's vote to cut the music faculty), and specifically reference which paragraphs of the ethical code were violated.

Quigley's assertion that an ethics violation need be costly was incorrect, as ethics investigations tend to be relatively straightforward with the complainant responding within 20 days of being served, and the School Ethics Commission ruling subsequently.  Ethics investigations typically do not require much, if any, time from the district Counsel.  It's not like a trial where people are in court for multiple days and many are settled with no verbal testimony whatsoever.

Quigley also implied that ethics complaint filers would need to hire an attorney.  That is completely false.

Quigley took pains to suggest that the Board might claim that any ethics complaints filed were frivolous.  That's not likely to hold up as the School Ethics Commission defines a frivolous complaint as:

  • Commenced, used or continued in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment, delay or malicious injury; or
  • One which the complainant knew, or should have known, was without any reasonable basis in law or equity and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.

As long as ethics filers believe their complaints are valid and are sure to carefully and specifically explain which paragraphs of the ethics code they believe were violated, an accusation of making frivolous claims is unlikely.

An ethics complaint in this case would not be a bad thing either.  The Pequannock Board of Education has been remarkably deaf to the will of the people in the matter of the music program and has willfully taken a contemptuous and aggressive position, epitomized by the comments of the Board Members at Monday's meeting and Muzzio's arrogant "Bring it on!"  An ethics investigation would level the playing field, empowering voters and ensuring that both parties' arguments are considered objectively by an independent authority.  Should the ethics complaint succeed, it is likely that the Board of Education would have to revisit the music program issue in the short-term and would not be able to delay the matter to the 2016-17 school year as they are already suggesting.

New Jersey School Board Ethics complaints also tend to be highly effective:

Like any other legal recourse, ethics charges brought against Board of Education Members are a tool.  Public comment at meetings is a tool, but the Pequannock Board of Education has worked to stymie that.  Elections are a tool, but the Pequannock Board of Education has moved its own election and appointed its own members twice in recent in memory.  The fact that 150 angry people showed up and that many got in line to comment at the Board of Education Meeting strongly suggests that they do not feel that their voice is otherwise heard.  The fact that members of the public are considering filing ethics complaints is evidence that other means of making themselves heard have failed.

The appropriate question is not "How can we scare people out of filing ethics complaints?" but, "Why do so many voters feel so disenfranchised by the school district?"

*Full disclosure, this author has made it pretty clear he would support an ethics investigation.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer.  My knowledge of school board law extends to the research I've done for articles like this.