Since nominating petitions for the North Bergen Board of Commissioners’ May 10 elections were handed to the township clerk last month, allegations have flown back and forth on an almost daily basis between Citizens for Change and the rival slate of incumbents headed by Mayor Nicholas Sacco.
Both sides are running for the five Board of Commissioners seats up for contention in May. Once the five commissioners are chosen, they will select a mayor from among themselves.
Most recently, Citizens for Change candidates have accused the North Bergen police of following and ticketing their campaign workers. They also said their requests to Town Hall for information were answered late and incorrectly. Last week, they marched in front of Town Hall.
“It certainly wasn’t intimidation.” – Paul Swibinski
However, two members of the “Change” slate received tickets for handing out literature, based on a 1926 ordinance.
Township Attorney Herbert Klitzner said that “Change” received a response to their most recent public information request a day early. However, that same day, the group had already filed suit against numerous township employees for not answering that request in time.
The “Change” group filed their suit in Superior Court on April 4 against North Bergen Township, the Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), Town Clerk Erin Barillas, Sacco, and Commissioners Hugo Cabrera, Theresa Ferraro, Frank Gargiulo, and Allen Pascual.
Citizens for Change spokesperson Thom Ammirato said that after filing OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests in February and not being content with the results, the slate – through their attorney Mario Blanch – asked for the same documents again on March 24.
The documents include financial agreements between the township and North Bergen Retail Urban Renewal, LLC and North Bergen Residential Urban Renewal, LLC, developers of a proposed commercial and residential development along Kennedy Boulevard; the town’s current salary ordinance, including the names of all current full time and part time employees; North Bergen’s budgets from 2004; and the Parking Authority’s budgets and salaries for certain employees.
They also requested MUA and North Bergen Housing Authority (NBHA) budgets, the salaries and compensation list of all current NBHA employees and their salaries and compensation, and a list of all current North Bergen MUA employees and their salaries.
Town: on time
According to OPRA laws, “response is due to the requestor as soon as possible, but no later than seven business days.”
“The seven business day response time does not commence until the records custodian receives the request form,” the law states.
Klitzner said that the town received and time stamped the document on March 25. He said on the sixth business day, Monday, April 4, a town secretary in charge of OPRA requests called Blanch’s secretary and told her that the documents were ready a day early at 10:36 a.m. But the town secretary had to leave a message because the attorney was in court.
“I was never notified that the documents were ready,” said Blanch, who claimed that he was only told they were ready after sending the township a notice of their suit on Tuesday.
He said the documents were due on April 4 and that he put together the suit on April 2, expecting to receive no response.
When he sent his courier to pick the documents up on April 5 he said the documents were not ready because Klitzner was reviewing them.
Klitzner said that he was only making sure that the person was authorized to pick them up before letting him take them.
Klitzner said that certain requests, namely those related to the MUA and NBHA, cannot be answered because those are independent bodies not controlled by the town, which he said they told Blanch in February. Ammirato denies this.
Ammirato also said that the group’s request for annual salaries was not complied with, but Klitzner said the group does not how to read the town’s documents. He said that under OPRA, it is not their responsibility to rewrite what is on file.
‘The documents should be understandable for anybody,” argued Blanch.
Candidates claim intimidation
Citizens for Change candidate Ravenesh Varma alleged that last Friday he was followed by police on his way to the group’s “Day of Outrage March.”
“I was [allegedly] followed as soon as I got out of my house today, with North Bergen PD from Liberty Avenue coming all the way to 72nd Street and Kennedy Boulevard, where I heard my people were stopped and they were being ticketed,” he said last week. “I tried to talk to the officers. [They] wouldn’t talk to me.”
Another resident, who preferred not to be quoted by name due to fear of retaliation, said that while campaigning in March, police followed him and another two workers before asking one of them to show the contents of their bag, which contained flyers, before letting them continue.
“I don’t think it is right,” he said, explaining that he may not campaign anymore due to feeling uncomfortable.
Lt. Christopher Brignola said anyone who feels something improper was done should meet with the internal affairs department.
“I was at 48th Street; we were basically speaking with a group of people,” said “Citizens” candidate Adrian Cepero. “Supporters [of Sacco] yelled at us, telling us we were expletives and to get out of the neighborhood and to not come back.”
Cepero said the situation was very tense and that they left the area.
“I was present for that,” said “Change” candidate Michael Kreutzer. “This was an individual [yelling]. You’re always going to encounter people who are very forceful with their beliefs.”
Slates contend with charges
Two Citizens for Change campaign workers were given summonses for leaving literature in residents’ mailboxes, allegedly violating a town ordinance.
Varma said that after the township contested Kreutzer’s eligibility as a candidate, Sacco campaign workers visited the addresses of those who signed the petition for Kreutzer asking them to recant their petition.
He said that residents were misled by the Sacco campaign to believe that if they didn’t sign the form recanting their petition, they would have committed some type of fraud.
Swibinski acknowledged that they were asked to sign a new form stating they recanted.
“It certainly wasn’t intimidation; it’s a pretty silly charge,” said Swibinski. “Certainly no one was pressured to sign anything. This was more of a voter’s education effort.”
In any case, a judge ruled that Kreutzer could remain in the race.
Swibinski said it was no different than any other petition.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.