Call the Guinness Book of World Records. The Jersey City Council’s virtual meeting Wednesday night set its own record at nine hours and 20 minutes with 175 callers dialing in with concerns about Liberty State Park and defunding police. Callers voiced support for the Liberty State Park Protection Act and demanded the $159 million designated for police personnel in the FY2020-2021 municipal budget get reduced by half with the balance going to programs that support the needs of the Jersey City community.
In an 8-1 vote, with Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson dissenting, the City Council passed the resolution to support the Liberty State Park Protection Act. Before the 175 callers were invited to speak, Council President Joyce E. Watterman motioned for the resolution to be deferred to an early vote prior to the call-in speakers.
“The City Council has done this before, moved things up to the top of the agenda, when there are a large number of speakers,” Council at Large Rolando R. Lavarro, Jr., said. “It’s been done in the past. Still, I’m going to vote no in this instance. I think we should hear from the speakers.”
The council voted 6-3 to move up the vote with Councilmen Lavarro, James Solomon and Jermaine Robinson dissenting. Before the vote, Councilman Solomon made a motion to amend the resolution, seconded by Councilman Lavarro, to include a provision for “the communities of Ward F and A which deserve fair and equitable treatment in the decision-making in the future of Liberty State Park”.
“We are trying to make things better,” Councilman Solomon said. “Amendments will make it a better piece of legislation.”
Last week, Councilman Robinson held a public forum for his Ward F constituents to express their concerns about having a voice in the Liberty State Park Protection Act. Although more than 200 residents tuned in to the Zoom meeting—with many callers hoping to air concerns about saving Liberty State Park’s Caven Point wildlife estuary from privatization—the moderator turned off their computers’ audio, and the callers were completely muted. In the time since, Councilman Solomon drew up the amendments with input from Councilman Robinson, but according to Councilman Robinson, the amendments did not go far enough.
“We all agree Caven Point should never be touched,” Robinson said of the possibility of additional privatization, “but I do have deep concerns over the bill in Trenton right now. I want to send a stronger message.”
Councilman Robinson was referring to the bill in the New Jersey Legislature to pass the Liberty State Preservation Act. In January, the bill passed in the New Jersey senate, but when it came time to post it for a vote in the assembly, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) refused, and it died on the final day of the 2019-2020 legislative session. The next day, three Hudson County assembly members reintroduced the bill.
Meanwhile, just yesterday, billionaire Paul Fireman, who owns Liberty National Golf Course and who has expressed interest in turning Caven Point wildlife estuary into three holes for golfers, issued a press release stating he is not going forward with his intention to obtain Caven Point. Councilman Lavarro says it’s a temporary pause.
“Fireman’s not saying he’s out of the business,” Councilman Lavarro said. “We need to stay vigilant, redouble our efforts, and fight back against these billionaire interests.”
Preserving the People’s Park
Sam Pesin, the president of the Friends of Liberty State Park refers to Liberty State Park as the ‘people’s park.” In 1976, Pesin’s father, Morris, helped found the park. Since his father’s passing, Sam Pesin has followed in his dad’s footsteps, devoting his time to his non-profit, the Friends of Liberty State Park (FOLSP) which has thousands of supporters. His petition to support the Liberty State Park Preservation Act has 18,000 signatures. He called in to the council meeting to offer his thanks to the City Council for passing the bill and to warn the council against Fireman’s land grab.
“For 44 years, the people have put democracy into action and have fought for this people’s park behind Lady Liberty,” Pesin said. “The overwhelming majority strongly opposed park privatization every time, no matter what revenue was promised in return for sacrificing park land. From the time of its opening, the park has sustained overwhelming public support for green and open space and overwhelming opposition to privatization and commercialization proposals as expressed by people in public hearings, countless public comments, petitions and a series of coalitions of local, regional, and state-wide groups.”
Supporter Jill Posterino said protecting Liberty State Park from privatization is intrinsic to the Jersey City community. She said land should not be given away because wealth and privilege demand it.
“The golf course owner has inserted money and arguments into this democratic process in such a way to sow division and muddy the issue at hand,” Posterino said. “It is a strategy we have seen used time and again by those who want exemptions carved out only for themselves and who want to take ownership of something that doesn’t belong to them.”
Steve Krinsky, a retired school teacher warned that the work is far from done.
“The fight moves to Trenton,” Krinsky said. “I hope you’ll stand up for this issue. We should be appalled at things like this and speak out against them.”
Defunding the Police
The City Council held a public hearing on the FY2020-2021 municipal budget and heard from many Jersey City residents demanding the $159 million allocated to the Jersey City police department be cut in half with the balance used for social services and community programs. Elena Thompson, a member of Solidarity Jersey City, said the diverted funding should be invested in services like affordable housing, youth programming, and access to quality healthcare.
“Downtown Jersey City is safe not because it has the most police,” Thompson said. “Downtown is safe because it has the most resources. Decrease the JCPD budget by 50 percent. This is the civil rights movement of our time.”
Ward F resident Andrew John, a member of Solidarity Jersey City, agreed that the police should be defunded with the money re-allocated to housing, and health and human services.
“We’re all in agreement that the vulnerable need resources,” John said. “We need to look beyond this to what the community needs. This money is spent on police salaries. Since 2013 the force has nearly doubled in size. $50 million could create more youth programs, better mental health programs, initiatives like the ‘I love Greenville’ plan.”
CEO of Hudson Partnership Care Management Organization Robin Gorman called in and spoke to the council about the work she does with Hudson youth. Gorman works regularly with approximately 800 young people, and she receives most referrals from Jersey City where children are traumatized by gun violence, domestic violence, physical abuse, and addiction.
“When I look at the youth of Jersey City, I feel we are shortchanging them,” she said. “The average age of youth that come to us are 15. By the time they come to us, they’ve experienced a lot of trauma. They’ve been disconnected from the educational system. If we had a handle of identifying their needs sooner, we could intervene in an impactful way. We choose to fund police, probation officers, the courts, detention centers, and prisons. If we’re going to put our money where our mouth is and be invested in anti-violence efforts, we need to move this money away from public safety and put it into kids’ programing.”
The next City Council meeting will be held Wed., Aug. 12 at 6 p.m.