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Councilman Prasad: ‘Peace And Nonviolence’ Park Opponents Are Republicans Who Don’t Want ‘Colored Statues’ In Town

Township Councilman Rajiv Prasad said that opponents to his proposed “Peace and Nonviolence” park are Republicans who “don’t want colored statues in town.”


Story is updated with OPRA’d emails.

 

Opponents of a proposed “Peace and Nonviolence” monument park that would feature bronze statues of Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa are Republicans who “don’t want colored statues in town,” a township councilman has charged.

That councilman, Rajiv Prasad (D-At Large), also gave project supporters at least six days’ notice that a vote would be taken on it at the Aug. 14 Township Council meeting, and urged them to attend and support it, even though the general public didn’t know because the item never appeared on the meeting’s agenda.

Prasad’s claim about the project’s opponents came in a July 31 email to Eric D. Tidwell, who handles licensing for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. estate. In the email, Prasad makes his case for the approval of licensing rights for the MLK statue.

“I am battling the Trump emboldened Republicans, who do not want any colored statues in town,” Prasad wrote. “We should be united in fighting this attack on Civil Rights.”

“Today Dr. King’s work is being erased and no one is able to do anything about it,” Prasad wrote. “People are taking America back to 1950 with a segregated America.”

Prasad has long championed the project, targeted for about a quarter-acre on township-owned open space on the former Consolata Mission property at Route 27 and Cortleyous Lane. And although the plan has been kicking around for a number of years, its latest iteration has stirred controversy over the apparent lack of transparency that has gone into its planning and execution.

In his July 31 email to Tidwell – one of a number obtained by the Franklin Reporter & Advocate through an Open Public Records Act request – Prasad notes that the statues “are made and they are in transit from India.”

The statues and the materials for the monument park are being donated by Piyush Patel, the CEO of Summit Chemical Specialty Products, which got its start in the township in 1962 and moved its headquarters to Flemington in 2003.  Money for the park’s construction – close to $80,000 – has been donated.

Patel apparently used a Chinese-based contractor to arrange for the statues’ construction.

But all that was done prior to any definitive approval from the council for placing the park on open space, which approval still has not been given.

The council has so far had two votes on the idea of a park, first at its May 22, 2018 meeting – where it also came out of a council discussion and was not on the night’s agenda, even though a number of people in the audience supported it during the public comment – and then at its Aug. 14, 2018 meeting.

In the May 22 meeting, the council gave Township Manager Robert Vornlocker and township attorney Louis Rainone the go-ahead to begin vetting the proposal, and established an ad-hoc committee to help in the process.

At the Aug. 14 meeting, the council approved of the park’s concept, but stopped short of approving its plan, as Prasad originally wanted.

The emails reviewed by the Franklin Reporter show that Prasad and others knew at least by Aug. 8 that the matter was going to come up for a vote at the Aug. 14 meeting.

The ad-hoc committee, and a citizen’s committee that it established, met on Aug. 10 to discuss the funding and licensing issues posed by the project. The committee also developed a recommended motion to be made by Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5), a member of the Ad-Hoc committee, at the Aug. 14 meeting.

In an Aug. 8 email to “Dear Friends,” Prasad wrote, “Please come and support the Peace and Non-Violence Memorial (proposed on the Corner of Rt. 27 & Cortelyous Lane) at the next Council Meeting on Tuesday, August 14 at 7PM in the Council Meeting at 475 DeMott Lane, Somerset NJ 08873. Your support is vital for passing this memorial resolution to move ahead and do the ground breaking.”

“Please bring all your friends, neighbors and family to show community support for this memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa,” Prasad wrote. “We would like to urge the council to do the ground breaking as soon as possible, so that we can unveil the memorial before Gandhi ji’s 150th Birthday on October 2, 2018. It is also Nelson Mandela’s Centenary year. If we break ground now, we can manage to unveil the statues on Saturday Sept. 29, afternoon.”

Prasad’s email was forwarded on Aug. 12 to a number of people – including Councilman Ted Chase – by Vinod Gupta, a member of the township Democratic Committee, who added, “The township is going to take an important decision about this memorial in its upcoming meeting this Tuesday evening. We must show our strong support for the Memorial.”

“Please spread the message and ask your friends & relatives to join us in a big number on Aug 14th evening at 475 Demott Ln, Somerset,” he wrote.

Supporters did show up to the meeting, with residents and non-residents packing the council chamber. A number of them spoke in favor of the monument park.

Chase wrote Mayor Phil Kramer on Aug. 13, saying that he was “not prepared to vote on a resolution approving the site plan. No resolution is on the agenda, and I would not vote to amend the agenda to put a resolution on the agenda.”

Kramer has also expressed frustration that the matter was not on the agenda at the Aug. 14 meeting.

“Any further discussion or reports that will be on this, I wish they are on the agenda,” he said at that meeting. “They will be available to the public in advance. If it can’t be done in an open manner, then something is wrong.”

Prasad also had a hand in crafting the statement that was created by the committee and transcribed by Kharazi and read by Vassanella at the Aug. 14 meeting, the emails show.

The Aug. 11 draft of the statement contained “the following motion to be made:” (The original version was “resolution,” but Prasad told him it was a motion.)

“1. Location for the memorial to be at the site on Rt. 27 and Cortelyous Lane
2. Council to approve the Conceptual Plan
3. Najarian Engineer and Masonry Contractor to meet with the Township Engineer as soon as possible to determine what detailed information is needed to meet the township safety requirements based on the Conceptual Plan. Based on input from the Engineering the detailed plan and cost estimate to be developed before pre-construction meeting.
4. The Manager is directed to expedite the township input an approval process to get this memorial built as soon as possible, with a target ground breaking on or before September 29.”

The original statement said that after Vassanella gave a brief update on the process and there was a “hearing from the public” there would be “a resolution … put forward to approve the site and concept plan.”

In his Aug. 11 response to Kharazi’s email containing the draft – copied to Councilman Carl Wright (D-Ward 4), Vassanella and Deputy Mayor Shanel Robinson – Prasad wrote, “… there is no public input.”

Vassanella gave the report and made the motion during the portion of the meeting dedicated to council comments, held after the public is given a chance to comment.

On Aug. 12, Prasad forwarded the statement to Vassanella and copied it to Wright and Robinson, adding to Vassanella, “As agreed, please give the report, you have everything you need below. Carl and Shanel, please help as needed.”

Even though supporters of the park were told that the council was going to take action on the proposal and in fact urged to be at the meeting to support it, and a proposed “motion” had been created and was planned to be read at the meeting, the matter was never placed on the Aug. 14 meeting agenda.

A state Appellate panel ruled in 1978 (Crifasi v. Governing Body of Oakland) that an action by a governing body should be voided “where it can be shown that the governing body published an agenda calculated to mislead the public or otherwise intentionally omitted items from the agenda which it knew would be acted upon.” That ruling was cited as recently as a July 27, 2018 decision by the Appellate Court.

On Aug. 9, Prasad wrote to Township Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large) and former council member Upendra Chivukula, telling them that the licensing agency for the MLK estate had approved the application to license King’s likeness for the statue.

“Now we can focus on making Sept. 29 unveiling a reality,” he wrote. “Let’s get the ground breaking passed.”

Chivukula on July 9 sent at email to the licensing agency in support of the application, on behalf of Piyush Patel, the project’s main donor.

The Township Council had been scheduled to discuss the monument park and accept an agreement – although no details on that agreement were given – at the Sept. 14 council meeting, according to an agenda that was active as of Sept. 8.

But as of Sept. 10, those two items have been removed from the meeting’s agenda.

Update

Emails received through an Open Public Records Act request, used in this report:

 

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