Saturday, May 30, 2020

In June of 2016, The Jewish Link reported that dozens of anonymous and/or pen-named complaints had arrived in the office of the Teaneck department of public works, citing cracked sidewalks at specific addresses as hazardous to passing walkers.

The identity of the complainant or complainants was never revealed, but at that time, Township Engineer Farah Gilani told The Jewish Link that she was just following township rules when responding to such complaints. She was bound to investigate, and if the complaints were found to show dangerous sidewalks on property owned by residents, the township would issue a fix-order to which the resident must comply, within a certain period. All fees were to be paid, within a certain timeline, by the resident.

At the time, multiple residents protested the inherent unfairness of this policy, arguing that many other township sidewalks were in worse shape than their own, but since their address had been “reported,” they were on the hook to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, to repair. Residents were then encouraged by the township manager to report such other unsafe sidewalks, but most expressed a hope that “informing on their neighbors” would not become the order of the day in the township.

Fast forward to the present day: A couple of weeks ago, Avi Weisberg of Teaneck, received a new letter, noting he had two sidewalk slabs that needed replacement, and he has until May 20, 2019, to repair them or he will face further punishment. “But my sidewalks are in better-than-average condition, really every so slightly raised, in comparison to the rest of the street. I would give them an 8 out of 10. After I got the letter, I went out and looked at my slabs that were spray painted with a dot, and noticed that other slabs on streets nearby were literally tilted at a 90 degree angle, and they weren’t marked,” Weisberg told The Jewish Link. “But believe me, I am not looking to report on anyone in the neighborhood.”

OPRA requests determined that the complaint that prompted Weisberg’s letter were part of a new pattern of scores of new complaints. In the same week at the end of 2018, complaints by an individual identifying himself as Elie C. Jones were filed to the Teaneck health department. “Sidewalks lifted by Township of Teaneck shade trees roots… severe tripping hazards and health and safety violations!” one complaint stated, and then listed no less than 24 addresses on or around Downing Street, Cottage Place, Tryon Avenue and Van Buskirk. A second complaint, filed the same day, December 27, 2018, stated: “The sidewalks of the following addresses have been lifted by Township of Teaneck shade trees and require repair & or (sic) replacement immediately in order to avoid severe tripping hazard, violation of Township of Teaneck ordinances, building codes and health codes accordingly.” Then the complaint listed over 30 addresses on Voorhees Street, Van Artsdale, multiple addresses on Rutland, Hudson and Edgewood Streets and included several corners and the First Baptist Church on Teaneck Road. Several other complaints, filed the previous week by “Anonymous” were written in the same all-caps handwriting and filed in the same manner, citing “shade trees” and “tripping and health hazard” to the Teaneck health department.

It may seem like 2016 all over again, but something here is different. The name “Elie C. Jones” is well known to the clerkship staff in Teaneck, as someone who has, according to court documents, “a protracted history of instituting meritless claims against [the township]”and its entities and departments,” according to court documents.

“Jones has been involved in numerous legal battles with the township and has filed criminal and civil complaints against township police officers and employees,” stated an article in the Bergen Record in 2017. An unconfirmed report linked to a community Facebook group stated that Jones had filed over 700 OPRA requests or complaints with Teaneck since 2015.

The Record article reported that Jones made more than 300 records requests in 2016, overwhelming the clerk’s office. The township filed a lawsuit against Jones in January 2017, seeking to bar him from filing additional requests and relieve the township from filling the requests that were outstanding. The judge ruled that the parties must enter arbitration but for the township to pay Jones’ legal fees. Teaneck appealed an August 2017 ruling by Judge Robert P. Contillo to avoid paying $19,924 in legal fees to Jones.

“With the intent of avoiding similar future claims, the parties (Elie C. Jones, plaintiff, and Township of Teaneck, defendant) entered into a settlement agreement in October 2018, under which plaintiff received consideration, to resolve a then-pending matter. The settlement agreement provided that in the event of any future dispute between the parties, plaintiff ‘voluntarily agree[d] to first submit the claim to arbitration in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association.’”

“If, by doing this, he is seeking to ‘stick it’ to the township because these are township trees he’s reporting on, he’s wrong; here, he’s sticking it to families he doesn’t know, who don’t know him,” said Weisberg. “He has no idea who we are and I think random people shouldn’t have the right to decide who has to repair their sidewalks. I think it’s very unfair how this happened.”

“On my street and around it, that’s costing between about 50 and 55 families from $500 to $2,000 apiece. It’s close to $100,000 and that’s real money,” he said. And, he didn’t have to add, it doesn’t even partially resolve the safety concerns regarding sidewalks.

Deputy Mayor Mark Schwartz (who also serves as JLNJ co-publisher) considers Jones’ sidewalk complaints as more nuisance-making from a resident known for this kind of activity. “When you trip over a sidewalk or notice a major defect perhaps you speak to the homeowner or report it. When you walk all four corners of the town reporting hundreds of homes—the list contains full blocks—I think you are doing a lot more than having the concern of the public in mind,” he said.

Schwartz explained said he is open to and looking into alternate solutions to how the township responds to sidewalk complaints, as well as improving general sidewalk conditions, but many state laws supercede township policies in terms of how complaints are generated and how the township must react to complaints. He did note he would seek bulk pricing options for sidewalk repair in the coming months.

Weisberg suggested that residents only be allowed to report on sidewalks in their immediate neighborhood, but didn’t see that as a perfect solution either. For now, he’s hoping that residents will band together to find a more equitable solution.

By Elizabeth Kratz