Township Council Approves ‘Concept’ Of ‘Peace And Nonviolence’ Monument Park On Open Space

Balks at idea of speeding up approval process and of approving concept plan.

The proposed layout of the “Peace and Nonviolence” monument park that was presented to the Township Council Aug. 14 for approval. The council instead decided to approve the concept of placing such a park on township-owned open space.

The Township Council on Aug. 14 approved the idea of placing a “Peace and Nonviolence” monument park on township open space, but not before some testy exchanges and surprises, not the least of which was that council members would be voting on it at all.

While it OK’d the idea of a monument park there, the council balked at approving a proposed concept plan for the park, and also refused to tell its township manager to speed up the approval process.

The monument park resolution did not appear on the meeting’s agenda, and the notion that a resolution on the monument park was even going to come before the council wasn’t publicly mentioned until the “council reports” section of the meeting, when Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5) read the report from an Aug. 10 joint meeting of the monument park’s ad hoc and citizen’s committees.

And even though there was no advance public notice about the vote, the council chamber was packed with supporters of the project championed by Councilman Rajiv Prasad (D-At Large), some coming as far away as Edison and all urging the council to approve the plan.

In approving the concept of a monument park on that land, the council effectively rejected the recommendation of the township’s Open Space Advisory Committee, which in June unanimously agreed that the statues be placed somewhere else, such as the Memorial Forest on Cedar Grove Lane.

As currently envisioned, the project, long Prasad’s pet project, will take up about a quarter-acre of space at the corner of Route 27 and Cortelyous Lane, on the former Consolata Missions property. The township purchased that property for $14 million last year. About 42 acres of the 65-acre site has been designated as Open Space.

The basic plan is to place bronze statues of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and bronze busts of Nelson Mandela and Saint Teresa of Calcutta in the monument park.

The proposed motion as read by Vassanella – who took pains to repeat several times that it was not his project or resolution, and that he was simply asked to read it – called, among other things, for the council to approve the monument park’s concept plan and to direct Township Manager Robert Vornlocker to “expedite” the township approval process so groundbreaking for the monument park could be held on Saturday, Sept. 29.

(Prasad has written in emails that he chose that date so as to be able to honor Gandhi on his 150th birthday, Oct. 2. Gandhi was actually born on Oct. 2, 1869, so this year would mark his 149th birthday.)

The motion wasn’t the only surprise in store for the public attending the meeting, and apparently some council members as well. Among the pieces of new information brought out during the discussion were:

  • A township physician has donated $65,000 to the help pay for construction
  • There will be a video display in the monument, with another television on hand in case the first one is damaged
  • The township will be expected to take ownership of the monument park from the Franklin Township Community Foundation, much the same as the township will take ownership of the municipal complex gazebo from the Franklin Township Cultural Arts Council when it is completed.

Township Council Champion Of “Peace And Nonviolence” Park Knew Statues Were Under Construction Before Approval Of Their Placement.

Councilman Carl Wright (D-Ward 4) moved the motion as read by Vassanella, and Prasad seconded it. But some parts of the proposed motion did not sit well with some council members.

Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large) – a member of the ad hoc committee who was out of town for the Aug. 10 meeting – was not happy with the “expedited approval” part of the motion.

“We need to approve the location and we need to approve the conceptual plan,” she said. “I think this whole concept about expediting … the township manager expediting, I don’t think that should be part of this motion at all.”

Wright said he’d be willing to remove that part from the motion.

Prasad hesitated a few moments when asked by Mayor Phil Kramer if he’d be willing to go along with the change, then said, “I would say we don’t want it postponed ad infinitum. As long as you give it its due priority, it’s fine.”

Councilman Ted Chase (D-Ward 1) said that he was not comfortable with voting to approve the monument park’s concept plan because he had first really seen it that night.

“The part of the motion I’m concerned about is the endorsement of a concept plan, which is something that basically has just come to the council tonight,” he said. “Some of us have seen a reduced version of it a couple of days ago, and I have questions about certain aspects of it.”

“I’m all in favor of having the park, I’m happy to have it at this location, but the exact size and in particular things like the proposed sidewalk in front, well that would be in the state’s right-of-way and rapidly gets very complicated,” Chase said.

“I don’t know if council was fully aware that this is proposed to have a video display which will show Rev. King making one or more of his speeches,” Chase said. “I’m sure that’s very educational, but I’m worried about the maintenance of that. Such things are very good, usually they are in a building with supervision, this is just out in the open without anyone there supervising it and I wonder how well this will stand up.”

“I’d like to have council have a chance from now to our next meeting to consider is this exactly the concept plan that we want,” Chase said. “And if the motion that was made to remove the expedited portions accomplishes that, fine.”

An aerial overlay of the proposed monument park.

Noting that resolutions are usually prepared in advance of council meetings, Chase said, “I think we’re having a real problem trying to write a resolution extemporaneously here. In this case, were trying to amend a resolution off the top of our heads. I’d rather us have a properly written resolution at our next meeting.”

“We can approve the concept, we need a little more planning, I think,” he said.

Vassanella said the committee “would be fine with some tweaking of this motion.”

Then speaking for Prasad, who sat silently at the other end of the dais for most of the discussion, Vassanella said, “I think the idea is just get council to officially move it along. Councilman Prasad just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t dragged out and delayed.”

Wright then offered another version of the resolution, substituting “concept” for “concept plan,” and removing the “expedite” language.

“It has to come back to us to approve the final plan,” he said.

Mayor Kramer said that he wanted the final resolution to define “exactly the financial obligations of the town and what I want is for those financial obligations to be zero.”

Kramer’s next wish sparked an exchange with Wright.

“I don’t want the township involved in maintenance,” he said. “I’m not worried about people mowing the lawn around the edge. I’m not concerned if one of the cobblestones is loose and someone goes out there and taps it down. And I’m not concerned if one of our trucks delivers the donated gravel for the parking lot.”

“We re talking about a television there, with an outdoor enclosure and a spare television in case it breaks, and cameras,” Kramer said. “It gets complicated and expensive. I would like that the township is not responsible for that, that the community foundation would be responsible for that. There might have to be ongoing fundraising. I would like those kind of maintenance items to be covered.”

When he asked if Wright would agree to those amendments, Wright said, “Does the gazebo do the same thing?” referring to the performance gazebo in the municipal complex.

“I’m happy to add that to the gazebo,” Kramer said.

“So presently the gazebo doesn’t do that,” Wright said.

“The gazebo doesn’t have a television, the gazebo isn’t as complicated a project as this,” Kramer replied.

“Before we throw that into our mix here and start doing other things, you put the gazebo first, that that is what is required for them, and when we come back at the next meeting we can vote on that,” Wright said. “But as its stands presently, no. I don’t want to do one thing for one and not do it for the other.”

“The concept plan may not include a television,” Francois said, foreshadowing a statement she’d make later.

Kramer said that “there is a significant difference” between the monument park and the gazebo, primarily that the township will eventually own the gazebo.

“I understand that we will not own this memorial, that it is not the township’s memorial,” Kramer said. “The township is donating land for a memorial that we will not own.”

Looking down the dais toward Prasad, Kramer asked, “Am I wrong, is this now a township memorial?”

“Will we be painting and handling electronics and whatnot for the gazebo going forward?” Vassanella asked.

“Wait a minute,” Kramer said, “I’ve asked a question, is this a township memorial or are we donating land?”

“It’s a township memorial,” Prasad said.

“My point is, we ought to know what were getting into, particularly with respect to these maintenance issues as well as site plan issues,” Chase said. “I think it should be a township-owned memorial, I think that’s what the public expects. But I think we need to know what commitment me make towards maintenance and that may affect aspects of the plan.”

At this point, Francois had heard enough.

“Let me just be blunt here,” she said. “This concept plan has to be vetted and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not cast in stone. I don’t think I’ll agree to having a television on this site because it’s going to induce vandalism, it’s going to require lighting, electricity.”

“What I had talked about before was the scope creep on this project,” she said. “We started out with one thing, then it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and now we’re here talking about maintenance costs because the scope is so big we have to be concerned about how we’re going to maintain it, how we’re going to prevent vandalism. A peace and nonviolence memorial should be a memorial, it doesn’t need to have all the bells and whistles on it. I think people will  get what they need to get out of the memorial based on having the memorial. I’m not going to approve that, I don’t think we need that.”

Vornlocker said that the Veterans Memorial Park, located at the front of the municipal complex on DeMott Lane, has a trust fund set up to pay for minor repairs and ancillary items. The money, he said, is generated by purchases of brick pavers at the site. He said that a similar setup could be created for the monument park.

Before the vote was taken on the resolution, Kramer said he had issues with the transparency of the issue.

“This was not on the agenda,” he said. “The discussion of this project was not on the agenda, it came up during council reports. Any further discussion or reports that will be on this, I wish they are on the agenda. They will be available to the public in advance.”

“If it can’t be done in an open manner, then something is wrong,” Kramer said. “We need to bend over backwards to be open. I think we need to go out of our way to be open on this.”

The resolution that was ultimately unanimously passed supports the concept of placing the peace and nonviolence monument park on a portion of the Consolata property, calls on the project’s designer, Najarian Associates of Eatontown, to work with township staff to ensure that all safety issues are resolved, and that all “hold harmless” agreements with the project’s donor, Piyush Patel, over copyrights of the statues be executed before the plan is brought back to the council for a final approval.

Prior to the council’s discussion and vote, a number of residents – and non-residents – got up to speak in favor of the project.

Carol Kuehn of Route 27 said the memorial “would send a strong and lasting message of our commitment to peace, nonviolence, human rights, compassion and respect for all.”

Kunal Lakhia, of Supra Court, also weighed in.

“I believe more than even today is the time that we need to have the message of peace across the country,” he said. “You read all over the place that we are being divided on so many lines The voices that were never heard before are now front and center. All the four statues of the great four people, each one of them have really stood up in their life and fought empires.”

“This country is certainly in need of changing hearts and minds of nonviolence and peace,” said Richard Rogers of Barron Circle.

Only two residents in attendance spoke out against the memorial. One of them. Bill Connell of Spring Street called Prasad “Franklin’s Donald Trump, you just kind of run ahead and do what you want. Great for someone like me, not for a sitting councilman.”

“The real question for me about the statues is, why,” he said. “I cannot think of a good reason why we want to go down this road. I think you’re forcing Franklin to represent something it doesn’t have to. On a day-to-day basis it does that. I don’t know why this can’t be done on private land and just leave the town out of it.”

The ad hoc committee is comprised of Prasad, Vassanella, Deputy Mayor Shanel Robinson and Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large).

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