New Documents Point to Targeting of Orthodox Community in Jackson

LAKEWOOD -

A new set of messages to and from officials of Jackson Township seem to reveal a concerted effort to find code violations among Orthodox residents as well as discrepancies between public statements and private communications, and deep differences of opinion over ordinances and enforcement methods that have been seen as aimed to contain and limit the Orthodox community.

The communications, mostly hundreds of emails, have recently been made public through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request that was made by members of Jackson’s growing Orthodox community.

Several of the recently released documents show Councilman Robert Nixon, seemingly taking an active role in identifying and searching for homes being used to house minyanim. A message from him to town attorney, Jean Cipriani, during a dialogue about drafting a law “disallowing … places of public assembly … in certain areas” shows an online resource for locating shuls within walking distance of given addresses.

Another appears to show the councilman, who leads a government affairs consulting firm and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, staking out a location himself.

“Just an update on the Pitney house. I just drove by there and there are now 14 cars in the driveway, not counting whether cars are in the 3-car garage,” he wrote in June 2016 while serving as council president. “That’s more than double what what (sic) was observed last weekend. I’d appreciated if we could keep on to on this to ensure everything going on is compliant with our code.”

Many of the emails forward reports from one of five Jackson residents, who are members of “Jackson Strong,” a “zoning watchdog” widely seen as focused on deterring Orthodox growth in the town. These communications were sent to code officers and their supervisor, the township’s business administrator, Helene Schlegel.

In one lengthy response, Mrs. Schlegel voices her frustration over the amount and nature of requests to code officers.

“We are wasting valuable time and money checking every complaint that comes in,” she writes to Councilman Nixon and Mayor Michael Reina after detailing four locations that were checked without finding any sign of a violation. “We can’t keep chasing ghosts. It’s the same people and addresses every week. We have more serious issues. … These are the issues that we need to be concentrating on. I know that the possible shuls are a serious issue but the other issues are life threatening and safety issues and are affecting many of Jackson’s youth and families.”

In a response to an inquiry from Hamodia, Councilman Nixon denied his intention was to “target” the Orthodox community.

“I want to assure our residents that I have never personally gone out to identify code violations in town. But when I received complaints or concerns from residents, and this applies to every issue that comes to me, I do my best to ensure that the proper staff has reviewed and properly cleared the issue,” he said adding that he always accepted the judgment of code officers regarding the legitimacy of violation claims. “The incidents raised in the OPRA documents don’t tell an honest story. I never searched out any home for code to look into. There is a major difference in responding to constituent concerns and targeting people. … My intention was never to make anyone feel excluded. I certainly apologize to anyone who was offended that I followed up on these issues.”

Another set of correspondences show Councilman Nixon in a clash with Jackson’s Police Chief and its legal advisors over his efforts to bar the Lakewood Civilian Safety Watch (LCSW) from operating in the town.

“I am angry and disappointed that the Chief chose to disregard our clear policy on this issue,” Councilman Nixon wrote in an exchange regarding a police meeting to which LCSW representatives had been invited. “Our emails to him could not be more direct that he was to tell LCSW we don’t want them in town nor are we looking for any cooperation with them.”

Chief Mathew Kunz said he felt the meeting was important “particularly in the current climate of “information” and “misinformation” being spread on social media.” Attorney, Jean Cipriani wrote that an ordinance, later drafted and passed, that barred Jackson police from associating with LCSW or any other organization from outside of the town, would likely fail if challenged in court as it impinges on “day to day police operations” and denies residents their constitutionally protected “rights of association.”

A request for comment from Hamodia to Mrs. Cipriani was not returned.

Councilman Nixon told Hamodia that his concerns over LCSW’s operations in Jackson were a matter of “public safety.”

“The concept of unaccountable and untrained public safety volunteers arriving at calls for service or speeding through town with lights flashing was a concern to me and many of the officers in town that spoke to me about it,” he said. He added concerns that LCSW would “complicate” emergency scenes and sited a complaint that claimed the group was called to a kitchen fire, delaying the Fire Department’s response and noted that the state does not authorize private police forces. “That is not to suggest I oppose volunteer services in Jackson. Organizations like Hatzalah and Chaverim do excellent work serving our area.”

Over the past year and a half, Jackson’s town council has passed a series of ordinances widely seen as aimed at stunting the Orthodox community’s growth. A law that effectively bans the construction of new schools and dormitories and another that is a de facto ban on communal eruvin are presently the subject of a lawsuit from the Agudath Israel of America, claiming they were motivated by religious bias. At the time of their debate and passage, township officials emphatically denied that either ordinance targeted the Orthodox community.

However, documents revealed in October by the OPRA request seemed to point to a direct correlation between complaints from the same small group of “Jackson Strong” members and the “Right of Way” ordinance forbidding private objects on public street that effectively prevented eruvin from being constructed in the town. More recently, documents showed what appears to be a similar pattern as the background to the council’s law forbidding temporary trailers.

Two emails sent by Jackson Mayor Michael Reina that are part of the more recently uncovered set of messages, seem to show a contradiction in his statements regarding the dorm and school ordinance.

On March 8 of this year, he responded to an inquiry from Brocha Ritterman saying, “Sadly the headlines and some of stories circulating around on social media do not truly reflect the ordinances…At the present time these ordinances have not been finalized, that being said, whichever way the vote goes my office is always open to meet and discuss any issue with you as I do with all of our Jackson residents.”

Yet, four days prior, he wrote to Robert Skinner, “I am of the opinion that our Council fully supports both of them [the ordinances] as well. That being said, you have my word that I will sign them immediately upon their arrival.”

Last month, New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino filed a lawsuit against the town of Mahwah over laws it passed that also effectively banned the construction of eruvin and limited use of parks by out of state residents, seen as a move aimed at residents from nearby Monsey, over the New York border. A statement released with the suit included a warning to other municipalities engaged in similar activities.

Councilman Nixon said that he did not feel the warning applied to his town.

“I really can’t speak to what happened in Mahwah, but I do not see a direct connection with Jackson,” he said. “We didn’t ban anyone from using our parks. We didn’t create a new ROW [Right of Way] law. In fact, I stated when the issue came to Council that I was open to options on a future ROW law. My colleagues agreed. We didn’t draw any lines in the sand.”

Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of Agudah Israel of America’s New Jersey office said that legal routes were only pursued after all attempts at solving matters diplomatically had been rejected or ignored by Council members and Mayor Reina.

“We sent email after email, but most didn’t respond and no one was willing to talk,” he said.

That narrative seems to run contrary to claims made by Councilman Nixon in his statements made to Hamodia.

“I have always been open to dialogue and have met or communicated countless times with our Orthodox residents in private talks, at Council meetings, at public events or through emails,” he said. “My wish is that we can lower the volume, stop the name calling and personal attacks based on misunderstandings amplified on social media and come together.”

At a recent council meeting, Councilman Nixon called on residents to “reject the big mouths online and to say to each other that no one person is more important than our community standing as one,” in an appeal to diffuse tensions in Jackson.

Rabbi Schnall said that the situation calls for more than words at this point.

“A statement is a very nice gesture, but what is needed now is concrete actions to back such words up,” he said. “After seeing the ordinances that have been passed and reading hundreds of emails that confirm exactly what everyone thought they were about, you cannot blame the Orthodox community for feeling defensive. If the council wants to change that they have to right the wrong that’s been done. They are the ones who designed these ordinances, let them adjust them and speak through actions.”