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Posts Tagged ‘A deal is struck with the ACLU’

By Charles Layton

One of the most disturbing things about the recent fuss over swan boats on Fletcher Lake was the way information about that proposal was withheld from our citizens.

One example: Sometime this spring the promoters gave a presentation to the Fletcher Lake Commission — a public body — but the fact that they did so was never made public in any way. People in Ocean Grove who care passionately about that lake, and who normally ask to be notified about the Commission’s meetings, were not notified about that particular meeting. This, they say, was suspiciously unusual. Even now I cannot find anything on the Neptune Township website about that meeting. If you click on “Agendas & Minutes” and then click on “Fletcher Lake Commission,” you get a blank page. The Bradley Beach website is equally unhelpful. We only learned what was afoot with Fletcher Lake because some Ocean Grovers got wind of it, purely by accident, and spent an inordinate amount of effort digging out the facts.

Why the official silence?

Another issue of huge concern to our town was the recent settlement between the Neptune Board of Education and the ACLU. But have you seen anything on the school district’s website explaining the terms of that settlement? I can’t find it there. Have you heard school board officials describe the terms in any detail? Blogfinger published those terms in full because no one else was doing so, questions were flying and erroneous accounts were starting to spread. But the details we published didn’t come to us from school officials; we had to get them via the ACLU.

Again, why so much official reticence?

Here’s something else Ocean Grovers urgently care about: the North End Redevelopment Plan. But there’s a general lack of understanding among our citizens as to what that plan contains. The plan’s full text is available on the Neptune Township website, but just try to find it. Here’s what you have to do: Type “redevelopment” into the search field. (Typing “north end” gets you nowhere.) Scroll down to “Economic Development” and click the phrase “Read More.” Then scroll way, way, way way down until you get to “Redevelopment Plan-OG North End.” It took me two days to figure this out; it was like searching for The Lost Chord.

On Saturday the Home Owners Association passed a resolution about the North End, and that resolution includes a request that the Township use its website to keep citizens informed and updated. Good idea, and we hope the HOA continues to press the point.

Here’s another transparency issue: demolition by neglect. We try to keep people up to date on the court proceedings against the owners of problem properties in Ocean Grove. But wouldn’t it be better if the Municipal Court kept its schedules of trials and hearings online so every citizen could keep up — not just about code enforcement cases but all cases? This is the 21st century, the information is already in the court’s computers, and it is a basic public record.

Sometimes information that rightfully belongs to the public is kept from us because someone in authority wants it so. And sometimes it’s kept from us because no one cares enough to make the effort to share it. But whether the motives are active or passive, the result is the same: people are left in the dark about the workings of their government.

We used to rely on the media to keep us informed, but our local news media are weaker and more overextended than ever before. Given the economics of the news business, this won’t change. So if people in Ocean Grove want sound information, they’ll have to start demanding it.

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Prior NHS graduation in the GA. neptunematters.com

By Charles Layton

Neptune school board president John Daniels announced Wednesday night that the board and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached agreement.

This means the district’s senior class will graduate in the Ocean Grove Great Auditorium on June 17, as previous classes have done for at least the past seven decades.

Daniels made the announcement at the start of a Board of Education meeting at Summerfield School. The ACLU, he said, “has accepted the compromise that we have made… This case is closed, ladies and gentlemen. We won’t be talking about this any more.”

Graduation plans had been thrown into turmoil in recent weeks over the ACLU’s threat to bring suit over the inclusion of religious rites and symbols in past graduation ceremonies and over the use of the Great Auditorium — a house of worship — by a public school. The ACLU was acting in behalf of a grandmother of some students.

The deal that was reached on Wednesday gave the ACLU and its client nearly everything they had been seeking. According to ACLU attorney Jeffrey Pollock, he and his co-counsel, Seval Yildirim, received a compromise proposal recently that contained the following provisions:

  • The board would agree that this and future graduation ceremonies would be free of religious content, i.e., prayers and Christian hymns.
  • The Great Auditorium could be used for graduations if the two large religious signs on either side of the stage were covered during the ceremony, the large cross outside the building remained unlit, and the choir door to the left of the main entrance near the gazebo was also covered.

The ACLU had earlier asked that the cross on the front of the building be covered, but the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns the building, refused to do that. Having the cross unlit instead of covered turned out to solve that problem.

Pollock said that he and Yildirim took the board’s offer to their client on Tuesday, the client agreed to the terms, and on Wednesday they notified the board’s attorney.

Pollock said in an interview that if the board accepted those terms, “I think this matter may be quickly and easily resolved.”

Daniels said, in addressing the audience at Wednesday night’s meeting, that the board had not “folded” during negotiations. But, he said, “times have changed,” apparently referring to court rulings involving the separation of religion and government. He spoke very briefly and did not mention the terms of the agreement.

Pollock said, quoting an old saying about negotiations, “To me the sign of a good offer is that both parties are unhappy.”

One of the last sticking points, apparently, was the ACLU’s demand that the two electronic signs on either side of the stage be covered. Some said there were concerns that this could not be done without risking damage to those signs. These are the signs that say, on one side, “Holiness to the Lord” and on the other side “So be ye holy.”

In recent days the dispute had begun attracting national attention. Fox News had featured interviews and reports about the issue, and two legal groups associated with fundamentalist Christian organizations had offered to defend the school district free of charge if the ACLU followed through with its threat to bring suit.

The grandmother first raised the church-and-state issue last summer at a school board meeting. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU began negotiating in her behalf. Although the school board rather quickly agreed to eliminate religious references from the graduation ceremony, the question of religious signs in and about the Great Auditorium remained a sticking point until the very end.

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