Jackson code enforcement was targeting Jews, councilman says
JACKSON — As the township defends against lawsuits accusing the municipal government of anti-Jewish discrimination, a councilman is refuting reports that he is spurring officials to spy and target members of the Jewish community.
The Lakewood Scoop, citing what it called a "trove of stunning revelations" from an Open Public Records Act request, said emails reveal that former Council President Robert A. Nixon was deeply involved in the process of rooting out illegal houses of worship.
The emails, according to the Scoop, show that Nixon had either directed township code enforcement officials to investigate complaints by residents, or in some cases conducted the investigations himself. The investigations involved looking into windows and staking out driveways.
One email provided to New Jersey 101.5 is a report from Business Administrator Helene Schlegel discussing how some of the investigations came up empty.
"We are wasting valuable time and money checking every complaint that comes in," Schlegel said in the email. "We can't keep chasing ghosts. It's the same people and addresses every week."
Schlegel said the town would be better using their resources for "more serious issues," including "heroin drug houses."
"These are issues that we need to be concentrating on," Schlegel continues in the email. "I know that the possible shuls are a serious issue but the other issues are life threatening and safety issues and are affecting many of Jackson's youth and families."
Nixon told New Jersey 101.5 on Wednesday that at the time Schlegel sent that email the township was expanding its code enforcement department "while at the same time receiving numerous complaints about properties all over town with potential code violations." He said "the office was inundated and the staff was working to their capacity."
He said as a councilman he cannot order code enforcement to do anything, but can only pass suggestions to Schlegel's office, leaving it to their discretion on what steps to take next.
"I certainly have not and would never support making anyone feel like they were being targeted," he said.
One email provided to New Jersey 101.5 notes that according to a neighbor, the new owners of a township home had a prayer group on Fridays but that it "does not bother him at all and said they are quiet people so far."
In one email from Nixon, he notes driving by the same home where he saw 14 cars in the driveway, which was "more than double what was observed last weekend." In the email sent to several township officials, including Schlegel, he asked "if we could keep on top of this to ensure everything going on is compliant with our code."
Nixon told New Jersey 101.5 that he was "quite literally saddened" by the Scoop's story.
"The inferences made in the story are quite simply false and hurtful," he said. "There is a huge difference between referring resident concerns to code enforcement for review and targeting residents."
Nixon said he does not "condone any efforts to make Jackson a place where anyone feels excluded," and added that he is "ready to support and work with our Orthodox residents as I would any of our 56,000 residents."
The councilman said since the code enforcement department has expanded, he "almost never" gets code enforcement questions, adding, "that time was barely a blip and our code enforcement department is today responsive, fair and professional."
The township is being sued in federal court after a new ordinance was interpreted as preventing an eruv from being erected in the town.
Eruvim are symbolic boundaries that allow members of the Orthodox community to conduct everyday tasks like carry keys or push strollers on the Sabbath or the high holidays. They have been in communities across New Jersey for decades, but have recently sparked legal fights in Bergen County towns including Mahwah. In that instance, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino announced his intention to sue the township, saying they were illegally targeting the Jewish community across the border in New York by only allowing New Jersey residents to use state parks. The state also said rules barring eruvim were akin to housing discrimination.
Another lawsuit was filed after Jackson adopted two ordinances that banned the construction of dormitories and restricted the construction of schools to three zones. According to the Asbury Park Press, that lawsuit was filed on the basis of the ordinances violating the First Amendment, the federal Fair Housing Act, and the Religious Land Use and Industrialized Persons Act.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com