April 15, 2024
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Teaneck Council Ousts Members From Zoning And Planning Boards

In the latest series of concerning actions that seem designed to marginalize long-serving Jewish residents’ involvement in Teaneck politics, Teaneck Mayor Michael Pagan and his majority moved to replace at least four Orthodox Jewish members from the Teaneck Zoning Board of Adjustment and Teaneck Planning Board, without granting them interviews and with no reasons provided for their dismissals.

None of the new appointees have experience with Teaneck zoning, planning or procedures, though two work professionally as city planners. The dismissed board members also did not receive letters or any communications that they would not be re-nominated, with several of them just learning they would be replaced when asked for comment by The Jewish Link.

Volunteer members of the Teaneck Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Teaneck Planning Board become well versed in construction questions and legalities. They are typically appointed initially to alternate seats and later move up to regular seats after a series of terms that span years. Zoning and planning boards are responsible for assisting residents and builders with variances, planning permissions and other issues related to commercial, non-profit and residential development. Evening meetings once a month often go on late into the night, and research on the projects under consideration is required beforehand. For a volunteer city board, there is considerable commitment required.

Jennifer Prince, Mark Mermelstein and Daniel Wetrin did not have their appointments renewed to the Teaneck Zoning Board of Adjustment, and Shauquat Shaikh, Michael Klatzky and Mueez Ilyas were nominated in their places. Mark Zomick, Tony Parker and Shahzad Hashmi (who resigned) were not reappointed to the Teaneck Planning Board, and in their place Lucria Ortiz, Chris Brown and Dwayne Harley were nominated. The designated council seat to the planning board, held by Council Member Mark “Mendy” Schwartz (who is also co-publisher of The Jewish Link) since 2014 [who also served as a regular member of the Planning Board from 2006-2012], was given to Council Member Denise Belcher. While Mayor Pagan said he would give the mayor’s designated seat to Schwartz, he added that he planned to attend the first few meetings involving the reorganization, which, Council Member Karen Orgen said, might give Pagan the opportunity to use his new majority to remove Joey Bodner as chair. Bodner has served as planning board chair for the past 20 years.

Dismissed members of the boards decried an outrageous lack of transparency, the very platform this team ran on and used as a buzzword last fall. Some said this is part of the machinations of a new council, now led by Mayor Michael Pagan, which told Council Member Schwartz they would be backing him for mayor last January, only to pull support during the meeting at which he was to be appointed.

“The message to the Jewish community is we didn’t come out to vote, and these are the consequences,” said another member who was dismissed.

“It’s clear from the numbers that they are targeting the Orthodox Jews, It’s also clear from the numbers that none of the members of these boards have done anything to be targeted,” said Mark Zomick, an eight-year member of the planning board who was not reappointed.

Kol Hakavod (more power to you!): I am glad that other people want to serve on the boards. I think if I had gotten a letter that said, ‘thank you for your service. I think you’ve served long enough,’ I would have been glad to make way for others,” Zomick added.

“It’s practice for a full council to interview those applicants who will be nominated. With three council members present, 16 interviews were conducted the Friday before the nominations and decisions were made by those present,” said Council Member Orgen.

“I have yet to speak to four of the residents who were nominated. Of the six people they are putting up, five of them were not interviewed by the full council. They also did not interview any current members of the board,” added Orgen. “The interviews were a charade.”

At the council meeting when the nominations took place on June 13, Council Member Schwartz raised a real-time concern that they were not renewing terms and passing over extremely experienced, long-serving board members without cause, the first time in recent memory this has happened. Orgen repeatedly asked for discussion during the proceedings and her concerns were not answered.

“Precedent is important. Our courts have a respect for precedent, and I would actually just like to see qualified people appointed. Instead of playing the game of politics, appoint people who know what residents and developers are asking for,” said a member of the zoning board who was dismissed. “I am not saying these new people are not qualified, but there’s no good reason for anyone to be appointed as a regular member and not an alternate first, just to get to know the procedure. Teaneck and the Zoning Board of Adjustment can find itself in litigation just for not following procedural laws,” he added.

“You learn procedures by experience, and after five years, I am still learning,” said a former alternate member of the zoning board. “You step on the board as an alternate and I spent five years on it, for multiple hours once a month. I have building experience as well, so I think I add value. Either I did something bad, or without drawing too many conclusions, Jewish members of the boards are just being removed.”

Zomick added that many if not all of the projects that come before the Zoning and Planning Boards are resolved with unanimous consent. “I don’t think there’s ever been a vote that Mayor Pagan or Council Member Belcher and I have ever disagreed on,” he said.

“There must be a made-up perception that all Orthodox Jews vote together on the zoning and planning board. But nothing important ever has been presented as anything other than unanimous. I would defy anyone to go back, on the planning board, to find anything that involved favoritism, wink-winks, or nod-nods. There’s no basis to remove the Orthodox Jews from the planning board,” added Zomick.

“It requires time and energy to do the homework, but coming in with an agenda is very dangerous. Teaneck has always been run as a non-partisan town, but I now feel the ‘us against them’ mentality, more than I ever have before. The entire board, all sides, agree with the sticking points. We have been with one voice on all matters since I have been on the board. I defy someone to find ‘the Jewish voting bloc,’” Zomick said.

In addition, it is notable that the council did not reappoint Schwartz to the Planning Board. It marks the second time in six months that Mayor Pagan, who ran with Schwartz in 2020, broke with Schwartz without reason. In January, at the Teaneck Council reorganization meeting, Schwartz was promised support from Pagan to be the mayor, but at the actual vote, “Mr. Pagan did not honor his word and cut a deal with Council Member Hillary Goldberg and others to vote against Schwartz,” said a council member who asked not to be named. Schwartz has served on the Teaneck Planning Board for 14 of the last 16 years, only taking off two years when he was a newly elected member of the council from 2012 to 2014.

Schwartz stated the day after Pagan’s mayoral appointment on his Facebook page, “I cannot imagine the type of person that would promise support, knowing you were inviting your family, your friends, and your community near and far—only to plan to embarrass you and cut an underhanded side deal (in order to “live my dream since I’m ten years old to be mayor”). To turn on those that invested their time, energy, and efforts in your success, for no reason, and without any comment? To do so while offering assurances of support? Who would do such a thing?”

“What Mike Pagan is doing to Mendy is not okay. Mendy was the one who first suggested Mike for the planning board and helped get him elected to council. Mike then told Mendy he would support him for mayor, knew that he was inviting his family and friends to the meeting where he would be elected, and then privately built his own coalition and appointed himself mayor,” said Orgen.

“I am glad to see that some newly nominated prospective members have experience, such as the two nominees who are planners,” Schwartz said. “I just think that we are doing great harm to the people of Teaneck by dismissing many experienced, selfless volunteers, who have done immeasurable work for this town and have never asked for anything in return. In fact, they have bent over backwards to not give special treatment to Jewish institutions. It has to be remembered by local residents that voting has consequences. Losing many experienced members of our community’s key committees will affect the town’s development for decades to come.”

Request for comment to Mayor Michael Pagan was not answered by press time.

Nominations to the Teaneck Board of Adjustment and Teaneck Zoning Board will be voted on at the next Teaneck Council meeting on June 27, 2023. Residents who feel strongly about the nominations may speak at the Good & Welfare section of the meeting.

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