JACKSON – Council members voted to hire a special advisor to help the township with its legal challenges involving religious rights.
Marci Hamilton, a specialist in such litigation, was appointed during a recent Township Council meeting. She is the author of “God Vs. The Gavel: Religion And The Rule Of Law” and co-author of “Fundamentalism, Politics, and the Law.”
While Council President Rob Nixon, Council Vice President Barry Calogero, and councilmen Andrew Kern and Alexander Sauickie III supported the measure, Councilman Kenneth Bressi did not.
Bressi explained his “no” vote after the meeting saying, “We are represented by our insurance company’s legal firm but this will be paid for by the township at $800 an hour in an unlimited open-ended arrangement.”
In recent years the township has faced legal challenges with development and code enforcement issues involving the placement of a religious device called an eruv, the building of a Jewish school that included a dormitory, and other code enforcement issues.
The municipality’s legal representation engaged in mediation related to the eruv challenge which later resulted in a resolution that allowed for the eruv, to be negotiated between members of the Orthodox Jewish community and utility companies.
The eruv involves an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary which symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on Saturday which is their Sabbath day.
At the time, the settlement specifically stated the concern by council members of “exorbitant amounts of legal fees” as a reason to settle the issue.
The settlement came a few days after the Village of Pomona, New York, lost a federal court battle in December 2017 over zoning that was said to prohibit a Jewish group from building in that area of the state and located a few miles from Mahwah, New Jersey.
Hamilton served as special counsel to Pomona while attorney Roman Storzer represented the plaintiffs in that case. Storzer also represented Agudath Israel of America in the Jackson eruv case.
In July 2017, the Bergen County municipalities of Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale had a similar court action involving eruv placement. The presiding judge in the lawsuits, John Michael Vazquez, in January 2018 said he felt the municipalities did not have a strong case, and urged them to settle. The three municipalities have settled with the eruv association, allowing the eruv borders to remain.
Nixon said during the public comment period that “it is not appropriate to discuss (the litigation involving the hiring of Hamilton) at a public meeting. Our insurance company is still working with us on this but we are adding legal counsel. We have a budget for legal fees. While we have no blank check book on these issues, we will do whatever is appropriate.”
During a previous meeting of the council the subject of anti-Semitism dominated the public comment period. Many members of the Orthodox Jewish community from the township, Toms River and Lakewood called for the governing body to support a resolution provided to the council by a Jewish human rights organization that condemned a Facebook page called Rise Up Ocean County.
Rise Up Ocean County was accused of presenting a negative view of the Orthodox Jewish community as related to growing development concerns in areas of Ocean County.
During that meeting Mayor Michael Reina, Nixon and members of the council voiced strong words opposing anti-Semitic hate speech. Nixon said that the resolution did not reach the council in time for proper public notice to allow for its addition to the evening’s agenda.
While the resolution, which was passed by the Board of Ocean County Freeholders did not appear on the Feb. 26 council meeting agenda, tensions between residents following that meeting were observed.
Comments regarding unresolved development issues included in the litigation that the township is facing, were the subject of heated post meeting banter by audience members.
Toms River Township which had also been provided an identical resolution to the one presented to Lakewood and Jackson townships, passed a resolution by advice of their attorney that opposed anti-Semitism in general and did not single out any one Facebook page. Nixon said previously that a resolution would not serve as the best way to address the issue of anti-Semitism and the accusations that had been made against Rise Up Ocean County.