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FR&A Analysis: Township Council Meeting Brings Some Surprises


Analysis

The scheduled discussion of a new aspect to a controversial monument park, the start of a recall effort against the champion of that park, and a robo-call campaign to get people to support the park all heightened the anticipation of the Sept. 26 Township Council meeting.

Those who attended weren’t disappointed.

  • The possible creation of a “Citizen’s Memorial Committee” was announced by Mayor Phil Kramer. The committee, which would have no council members on it, would as its first charge determine whether a “memorial park” is needed in the township.
  • The donor of $65,000 earmarked for the construction of a “Peace and Nonviolence” monument park, championed by Township Councilman Rajiv Prasad, announced that he wants his money back.
  • More than a dozen members of a group formed to force a recall election against Prasad (D-At Large), most of them dressed in black, made their first formal appearance, carrying “Recall Prasad” and “Transparency in Government” signs.
  • Township Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5) said that “misleading and incomplete” information on Prasad’s monument park was given to “various” council members.

Prasad is under fire for a number of things, most notably characterizing opponents of his planned park as “Trump emboldened Republicans who do not want any colored statues in town.”

Prasad’s “Peace and Nonviolence”  monument park plans call for bronze statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and bronze busts of Nelson Mandela and Saint Teresa of Calcutta to be installed on township-owned open space at Route 27 and Cortelyous Lane.

Residents are also angry over the way Prasad appeared to have circumvented public awareness on his park idea at the Aug. 14 meeting, when supporters showed up to speak in favor of a resolution that was not on the agenda which supported the park.

But Prasad’s park may remain just a diagram on paper. Park opponents showed up to the Sept. 13 meeting to eviscerate the council and Prasad over how the park’s approval process had been handled. Mayor Phil Kramer announced at the Sept. 25 meeting the the council realized that the project must start from “square one.”

Speaking prior to beginning the public portion of the meeting, Kramer tried to steer that comment to give advice to the council as to the makeup of a proposed “Citizen’s Memorial Committee.”

“To cancel the project would be unfair to many, and to keep it going without regard to the objections would generate emotions which are the antithesis to peace and nonviolence,” he said. “So at this point, an exceptional use of public discussion time would be guidance to council as to how to structure such a committee.”

Later in the meeting, Kramer said that his goal in proposing the citizen’s committee was to “bring us back from the brink.”

“I think we did that,” he said. “We are now in a more conversational mode about this, and while those a few outliers saying build it bow and a few outliers saying never build it, I think most of us are saying, let’s have a process, and not kill it because it was done wrong initially. Basically, If it has value, it will rise and if it does not have value, it will sink.”

Kramer said the committee’s mission could be to determine if there should be a peace and nonviolence memorial, what shape that memorial should take and where it should be placed.

“It is not a reasonable expectation that all members agree on the recommendation, but it is expected that they all agree that the team operated fairly in choosing what the team thought was the best option to serve the township of Franklin,” Kramer said.

He said the meeting will be open to the public, as will the meetings’ minutes, and the meetings will be videoed.

“This will be in glaring sunshine, because that’s the only way to move forward,” he said.

Council members – including a non-enthusiastic Prasad – said they agreed with the mayor’s idea.

“I support the new direction of a citizen’s memorial committee and I am looking forward to their recommendations,” Prasad said.

Prasad also addressed claims that proper procedure had not been followed in promoting the park.

He said that the recommendation to place the park on open space was made during a Sept. 28, 2017 meeting of the council land use committee.

“If you go back and look at the recommendations in the minutes … you’ll see there was a recommendation made to put the memorial there, and that’s where it stands,” he said.

Prasad said Township Councilman Ted Chase (D-Ward 1), also a member of the land use committee, should have notified the township’s Open Space Advisory Committee of the land use recommendation.

Chase at the last council meeting suggested that Prasad resign.

Another member of the land use committee, Vassanella, said that the minutes from the meeting Prasad referenced were marked “confidential.”

There was a process followed for approval of the park, Vassanella said, but at one point it “continued unnecessarily aggressive and unnecessarily quick. There was misleading and incomplete information given to various council members, that had us not quite understanding what was going on. That being said, I can’t speak as to what was in Councilman Prasad’s heart, I think it was originally from a good place.”

“I don’t see any way this can go forward unless this was thrown back into the citizen’s hands,” Vassanella said.

Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large) said the citizen’s committee was “definitely the way to go.”

“I believe that will take us in a new direction, we can slam on the brakes, stop, regroup, redirect, receive your input and hopefully we will put this thing back on track,” she said.

“Let’s re-think this, let’ go through the process,” said Councilman Carl R.A. Wright (D-Ward 4). “Let’s make sure everybody knows what’s going on in town.”

Kraner’s wish of where public comment should be focused notwithstanding, those in the audience who came to speak for the most part stuck with their original scripts.

“I’m not against the park, ’d love to take my children to a park where we could see the statues and talk about it,” resident Sid Lentz said. “What I’m against is when  a councilman can say Republicans do not want any colored statues in town. That’s what I’m against. I’m against council members not standing up and saying what they should be saying about this council member, and saying I’m going to take it all in and let you know how I feel about it later, and nobody stepping up.”

Claude Cheney said he “applauded” Prasad for coming up with the monument park idea.

“This is needed now more than ever,” he said. “I believe that the four monuments should be together, especially Gandhi and King, because many of his ideas came from Mahatma Gandhi.”

Ardaman Singh, who is also vice president of the Board of Education, suggested that Prasad ask his donors to donate money to other groups in the township.

“I believe these donors are very fortunate and affluent people, and they should donate toward our food bank, our schools and our community, instead of these statues,” she said.

“Assume responsibility for a township road and pledge to keep it clean, free of potholes,” she said. “Help those in need by providing school supplies, breakfast, clothes and even shows to some of our student families who are struggling. Support our local non-profits who support our residents by paying their rent, utility bills and other needs so they may continue their good work. Provide housing for our homeless and transient residents.”

“You are tearing this town apart,” she said. “I’m sorry, and I’m really ashamed.”

Christina Zambri echoed the sentiments of many when she said that it was not the statues that was the issue, it was the way in which Prasad went about trying to get the project completed.

“I believe it is the lack of procedure that was followed, the lack of transparency in what was going on, the fact that this project and the donation and everything was in the works long before the people of the township were aware of it,” she said. “That is the issue.”

“I think you’ve lost the public’s trust in how this thing was handled, and I think that the entire council, with the exception of one township council member, sat there and let this behavior go on,” she said. “I find that to be appalling.”

Some commenters, such as Santosh K. Velu, demanded Prasad’s resignation.

“This peace and nonviolence park has split us apart,” he said. “The due process was not followed here, it was underhanded, the busts were already built.”

Dr. Naresh Sharma, the donor of $65,000 for the park’s construction, said he made the donation two weeks ago based on his belief that the entire council supported it.

“I’m somewhat perturbed and disturbed by the developments since that event, from both sides” he said. “And I now hear that there is a proposal to go back to the drawing board, to stage one. I consider it is not a progressive, but I think it is a regressive step.”

“This is my own individual opinion I have, therefore made a decision to formally seek a refund of my donation from the township foundation because I no longer believe that if you take it back to the drawing board and do whatever you have to do and wherever else you do this project, it will not be true to the spirit of the project that I gave the donation a week or two weeks ago,” he said. “I just wished everyone to know that, and I wish all of you good luck.”

 

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