Local activist raises money for OPRA fees via Gofundme; LSC / Esther Wintner / more.

A couple of weeks ago, Jersey City social media was abuzz over the plans of the city to transfer 16 acres of land pretty much for free to Liberty Science Center. Long story short, the city agreed to transfer the land to the non-profit which sponsors such touring exhibits as Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition and Curious George: Let’s Get Curious! and entrust them to build some sort of state-of-the-art massive school/science center, the details of which were certainly sketchy but was occasionally likened to top Ivy League and engineering schools, and it involved the transfer of land that was worth between $20-$200 million, depending on who was updating their Facebook status at the time. It was classic mid/late-aughts JC politics: a deal that sounds confusing at best coupled with poor-to-nonexistent communication from City Hall, with the kicker of dozens of social media accounts blazing as everyone speculated and tried to make sense of it all.

It passed the council, of course:

http://www.nj.com/hudson/index.ssf/2017/03/liberty_science_center_expansion_clears_major_hurd.html

But not before an epic council meeting that went until the next day, leaving many unanswered questions in its wake. One of the people to have questions was Ward B resident Esther Wintner, who filed an OPRA request with the city. (OPRA requests are like the better-known Freedom of Information Act requests – they allow you to ask for and receive documents that relate to your local NJ government. Most requests are returned for free*; in some cases, they charge a fee.)

They wanted to charge Esther:

The Agency’s search for records in response to your request for “all written communications; email, text and hard copy between David Donnelly and: Steven Fulop, Paul Hoffman, Jeremy Farrell, JC Atty has returned voluminous results. It will require an extraordinary expenditure of time to process these results to determine if any contain responsive records. For example, each communication must be reviewed individually to ascertain whether it is responsive to your request, and/or contains non-disclosable information that must be redacted.

We estimate it will take one staff person a minimum of five (5) to eight (8) hours to review the results. During this review, the staff person must be diverted from her other assigned duties. Because we are a small outfit, the loss of this employee for this period of time will cause a disruption in Agency functioning. Accordingly, we request a seven-day extension to complete the review.

Please be further advised that pursuant to the holding in Fisher v. Division of Law, 400 N.J. Super. 61 (App. Div. 2008), the Agency may impose a special service charge to cover the cost of labor and production. While the statute permits a charge of $32 per hour, the Agency will charge its actual labor cost of $27 per hour. That would result in a charge of $135 for five hours labor. The Agency will charge only for actual time spent, which may be less or more than five (5) hours.

(That quote is from the actual letter she received in response to her request.) $216 is a lot for an individual person just looking for information to shoulder, so I offered to make her a Gofundme page. Esther agreed.

(I’d like to point out that at this point that Esther and I are not super tight best best best friends. We are certainly friendly with one another, and I have a lot of respect for her. I know her from around the neighborhood and from social media, but I don’t know her that well. This wasn’t about “being there for your friend” or “having [someone’s] back” or whatever.  The idea that the city was charging her after being so negligent with informing people in JC as to what on earth was happening with this deal just made me livid. There was no reason for her to have to make this request, had the city just pro-actively rolled out the deal with some information and Q&A sessions. So I tossed up the Gofundme and threw in my $20. It was the least I could do.)

I posted the Gofundme page, put the info on Facebook and Twitter. Esther was out when I emailed it was live, so she promised she’d post when she returned. I went and got ready to go out (it was Saturday night) – shower… clothes… makeup…. check email, and BAM. We raised the whole $216 for eight hours work, and then some!, in an hour:

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We actually raised a little more afterwards, too. The total came in at just shy of $300.

The fact that so many people are paying attention and tuned in on a Saturday night, and willing to toss in some money to pay to see a little sunlight on this case should tell the Fulop admin something. The vast majority of the people I know who opposed the deal didn’t do it because we’re anti-science or we hate the science center or we hate education or anything. We wanted to understand the deal better; we wanted to see the details and see a plan for how it was going to work for all of Jersey City successfully. We didn’t object to the city giving away property for a plan that would work well; we were concerned that things weren’t properly thought out and vetted, and that the whole thing was a little too hasty. I understand that there’s no deal that will make 100% of people happy, but in this deal there were so many unanswered questions and reasonable people still confused at the end – wouldn’t just slowing it down made a little sense?

Criticality and attention to detail are good things; they’re the earmarks of an engaged population that wants what’s best for a city. That’s what we should all want – not what any honest leaders should be trying to stop. Appearances matter, and Jersey City has a long history of corruption. Even if this deal was 100% above board, it’s completely understandable why some of us were concerned – and why our concerns are valid, and should have been addressed.

Anyway. In case there was any question, all the money went straight to Esther; it didn’t even touch my bank account:

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She filed for the OPRA on Monday.

Moments after I realized we raised the money, I had the following text exchange with a friend, another JC activist:

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That, to me, is the lesson in all this. Yes, seemingly crazy deals can be pushed through at lightning speed – but there’s still going to be good people on the other end asking questions. We’re not going away. And we’re going to keep asking and asking, until we get somewhere.


*If they’re returned at all. Jersey City has a bad reputation among civic activists for denying OPRA requests without giving a reason. I have personally experienced this, as a friend and I OPRAed the city for all the documents, contracts, and correspondence related to Shepard Fairey’s Wave mural. According to the response we got from the city, no such documents exist. Which would mean that an artist whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, who flew out from LA with a crew to paint the mural which needed a complex scaffolding, did all of this without the city either emailing him to touch base before, getting a permit, clearing insurance, being reimbursed for travel and supplies or paid a fee, or having a contract.

NOTE: Ward B Councilman Chris Gadsden voted to table the LSC deal, and when that was defeated, voted no. I thank him for this vote.

Food sharing with Food Not Bombs and NJ Sisterhood

Last Sunday afternoon, I went to a community meal hosted by our local chapter of Food Not Bombs and NJ Sisterhood.

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Food Not Bombs is a great group of loosely affiliated collectives with chapters throughout the country. It’s non-hierarchical (there is no leader or board), and very de-centralized, both in the way the organization is run and how their philosophy takes shape in their actions. Basically, the way it works is that a group of people come together every week and make home-cooked vegetarian meals that they offer for free to the community. If you’re hungry, you’re invited to eat. You don’t have to be poor or homeless (although many who come to the meals are); you just show up, get a plate of hot food, and are invited to stay or go as you like. Nobody will question you or judge you, and the people serving you will most likely join in and share in the food as well. Just come and join the community meal.

I spoke with Mike McLean from the JC FNB, and he had this great statement that he emailed me. I think it sums up their philosophy well:

Food Not Bombs is a unique group in Jersey City. Almost every Sunday a group of volunteers gather at Journal Square to share food with anyone who in hungry. Our sharing events are public calls for more a life-affirming community: cooperation not competition, life not death, food not bombs. If you come to a Food Not Bombs sharing event at Journal Square, you will see your city, your food, and your potential to change the world in radically different ways.
 
While Food Not Bombs shares hundreds of free, healthy meals with the homeless each month, our efforts at Journal Square are unlike any of Jersey City’s typical ‘homeless outreach’ initiatives. [We] seeks to humanize the homeless. We share without restriction, with no questions about documents, jobs, or assistance entitlements. We don’t serve food; we share food. We meet people where they are. We make conversation. We make friends. The homeless are not clients or ‘needy’ recipients of aid; they are members of our community with the same claim to human dignity as anyone else. Food Not Bombs does not engage in charity, the simple idea that those who have need to give to those who don’t. We are instead building a community based on solidarity, the notion that we are in this together, that sharing helps all of us, that alternatives ways of organizing society need to be pursued urgently.

NJ Sisterhood is a local organization committed to encouraging young women to do community outreach and to help “build a sisterhood.” Many of the members are Muslim, although it is not an exclusively Muslim organization. Together, the two groups are out there week after week, sharing food.

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It was bitterly cold on the Sunday I visited the group, and they were serving their meal in JSQ, as they do every Sunday at noon. Volunteers showed up and set up folding tables and served between 30-40 people. It was a really moving experience – many of the people there were regulars and were greeted by first name, sometimes with a hug. Overall the mood was jovial and warm, like old friends coming together. Despite the 30 degree temps with high wind, people lingered and talked.

It was quite honestly fun – JSQ isn’t the most welcoming place these days, and places to sit are limited. But even up against these constraints, it was a really lovely Sunday afternoon. I left feeling like I had just spent my time around some of the very best people in Jersey City.

Connect with JC Food Not Bombs and NJ Sisterhood via Facebook. FNB lists what they’re looking for in contributions every week on their page, and maybe you’ll be inspired to turn up and join in on a meal. You can cook, help serve, or just come to eat. The food sometimes goes fast, so best to arrive at noon, sharp.

Music at St. Peter’s

After I posted about St. Peter’s a little while ago, I was invited to meet with a couple of representatives of the university to discuss working together. I’m so happy to say it’s been very productive, and I’m looking forward to announcing some new projects that we’re going to have happening in the neighborhood.

But for now, I just wanted to let you know about a series of concerts that they would love to have the neighborhood come out for. They’re free, local, and sound really fantastic, and all run through a program at SPU called the Arts on Bergen.

Coming up next Friday there will be a concert at St. Aedan’s called “Reed, Rhythm, and All That Brass.” Totally free and open to all! St. Aedan’s is located at 800 Bergen Ave, at Mercer Street. I’ve never been inside but it looks beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen. Here’s more info on the event:

Arts on Bergen presents: Reeds, Rhythm and All That Brass, a 17-piece jazz swing dance band with vocals. Join us for an evening of classic big-band repertoire, ranging from Ellington, Basie, and Goodman to Sinatra, Darin, and Ray Charles.

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Add the Arts on Bergen on Facebook to see their upcoming schedule. Some of the events are midday, and others are in the evening. I’m thinking of topping off next Friday’s event with a trip to some of McGinley’s restaurants and bars to make a whole night of it.

Anyway – hope to see you next week, and more info coming soon!

Some maps of Jersey City

I’ve been collecting some maps about Jersey City and thought I’d put them together in one post. Back to our regular schedule of events and interviews in a bit, but I thought this might be helpful to have out there in one place.

This map shows you the breakdown of JC by ward, and contains demographics info for each area. Note that it’s a little outdated (Ward B’s Councilperson is still listed as Chico Ramchal when in fact it’s now Chris Gadsden), but it’s a good place to start:

This is a map of all shootings in Jersey City in 2016. It’s a work in progress (almost done), being put together by Jersey Journal reporter Caitlin Mota. Note that in Mota’s methodology, she is counting each individual shooting, not each “incident”:

Here are two maps by the great group NJ Together. This first one shows a breakdown of the city by income. The areas shaded dark read are the highest earning neighborhoods of JC; those colored yellow are the lowest.

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From that same group, this map shows the assessment ratio for JC. The red/orange areas are where property is over-assessed (and property owners are likely paying more than their fair share in taxes) and the ares in green are under-assessed (and their taxes have been held at an artificial low).

(After posting this, I received a question from a reader asking about the methodology NJ Together used to compile this map. From their materials on their site:

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Link to the specific materials is here. Map is below. 

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The reval is coming

I’m going to be writing a lot about the reval in the coming weeks, but for now, here’s a free workshop you may want to know about if you’re in Wards A, B, or F. Take a look at this map (http://www.njtogether.org/appeal) and if you’re in the areas marked orange or red, read more after this flyer:

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This workshop is FREE. There are currently attorneys going through the neighborhood saying they will help you to appeal your property taxes for a fee. You do not have to pay a fee to an attorney to do this (you might decide you want to hire someone to help you through the process, but you don’t have to). NJ Together is a great organization with amazing resources and if appealing your property taxes sounds like something you might even consider doing, please register for their workshop. There will be volunteers on hand to talk you through the whole process and explain to you what you have to do. And again: for free (but you do have to register).

More soon.

 

 

Talking to: Mussab Ali

img_6631Mussab Ali is a Jersey City resident who, at the age of 19, ran for school board last year. A recent graduate of JC public schools and a current college student, he hoped to bring his experiences as a student as an acting member of the board. While he didn’t win, I was really inspired by his campaign. I’m grateful he took the time to write up some answers to my questions and reflect upon what it was like to be a candidate. 


What brought you to run for school board?

I have heard time and time again from “elders” in Jersey City asking the youth to step up and get involved. On my campus, there was a large focus on civic engagement because it was a presidential year. Those two factors got me thinking about running for office. Choosing which office to run for was a no-brainer. When the school board manages nearly $700 million, it seemed obvious to me that they should have had the student perspective represent at least 1 seat on their board. Honestly, my friends who had been a part of the city-wide student council had told me that they never felt their thoughts and opinions were expressed to the board so I decided to stand up for the forgotten stakeholders, the students.

What was it like running for office in JC? Logistically and practically, what are some of the things you faced?

Before I really thought hard about running for office, I had heard all sorts of rumors about “Hague” County. The only time I had followed municipal elections was when former mayor Healy had been endorsed by President Obama. At the time I thought that would be enough and it showed just how little I knew about our city. So, as you can imagine the first hurdle I had to climb was learning how the city operated. Thankfully, I had mentors who helped me learn the political landscape, but a day in politics can be a year to a normal person. There is a constant power struggle and alliances can change within seconds. Just think about how quickly the gubernatorial landscape changed when Mayor Fulop dropped out and endorsed Phil Murphy. That was probably the most challenging part mentally. You end up meeting a lot of great, authentic, awesome people. But, you have to learn how to separate them from the people who smile in your face and whisper rumors behind your back.

Logistically, the biggest issue was fundraising and getting people to take me seriously. It is extremely difficult to fundraise money as a 19-year-old. Most of my friends are still in college and are already dealing with student debt. Older donors, for the most part, didn’t think I was worth their time or money. Money in politics leads to a very uneven playing field, despite the volunteers who knocked on doors spread the word, it’s nearly impossible to overcome slates that are spending more than six-figures on a school board race. No matter how good your ideas are, they can’t change the minds of voters that they can’t get to. I also had to deal with an election that had illegal posters on telephone poles, people who ripped down my campaign material, and a team distributing literature that had a picture of Hillary Clinton saying, “Don’t forget to vote for my friends!”. I think it was a little crazy, even for Hague County standards.

img_6630One of the things that differentiated you and your running mate is that you’re both recent graduates of the JC public schools. Can you talk a little about your experiences as a student? 

I went to school all over the city. I went to Pre-K at PS 23 the journal square area, K-5 at PS #6 in the heights, Academy 1 in Greenville and then McNair Academic in Downtown. I think the biggest thing I noticed as a student was the amount of red tape that teachers had to deal with. Teachers had a really hard time dealing with inefficiencies. Testing was HUGE. I don’t remember a week in high school where I didn’t have an exam or quiz or quarterly exam. It was also interesting how I learned nothing about the BOE board members while I was in school, I knew they existed but I had no idea what they did or that I could one day run for that office.

I think my biggest issue in schools was that it was nearly impossible to get rid of incompetent teachers. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of my teachers were awesome and really cared about the students, but there were some teachers that just put on an act when it was time for teacher evaluations and as a student, I got to spend a year learning nothing. With regards to violence, while I was fortunate enough to avoid being robbed, I have had someone pull a knife on me, I’ve had two kids jump me a block from my house and I’ve had a kid punch my face me right in front of my high school. But I’ve known friends who’ve been robbed and hospitalized from attacks on their way home from school.

There was a record amount of money spent in this last campaign for school board, much of it raised from donors outside of the city. I’d imagine you saw first-hand the effect that this money had on the race. Any thoughts on this topic?

Again, I think money really leads to an uneven playing field. How do you compete with someone who can send all registered voters 5 letters in the mail when you can’t even afford one? I would also understand raising the money from people who are invested in our education in our city. But all those outside donors and PAC funding should definitely raise some eyebrows. Thankfully social media has started to level that playing field, and I credit Facebook for scoring me at least a couple thousand votes. Going forward, I think that voters should really start to pay attention to who the donors are for certain candidates: follow the money!

If there was one issue you would want to change about the JC public schools – just in that “wave a magic wand” kind of way – what would it be?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for JC. I think the best thing for the students would be parent involvement. I don’t think parents recognize the impact they can have on their kid’s education from a young age if they just get involved. Even with that solution, there are some parents who have to work 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet. These parents don’t have the luxury to be super involved with their children’s education regardless of what magic want you wave. But I think parent’s getting involved will directly impact the violence that kids are subjected to along with inspiring their children to do better.

Do you have a desire to run for office again in JC? With your whole life ahead of you, what are your plans for your future?

As of right now, I don’t plan to pursue any office in JC this November, I don’t want to get caught in between everything that’s going to happen in the municipal elections. As for the future, I plan on living in Jersey City my whole life so I may end up pursuing elected office again. As for my career plans, I plan to go to Medical School while pursuing a Master’s in Health Policy and work as a doctor and help to draft healthcare policies. Regardless of what I end up doing, I plan on working to solve problems of education, crime and economic equity in this city.