The Byram Township Council called a special meeting on Monday to censure Councilman Harvey Roseff for social media comments he made equating Joseph Sabatini, the township manager, with the Stasi – the East German communist government secret police after World War II
The resolution passed 4-1, with Roseff dissenting.
Sabatini was only enforcing Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders when, on June 19, he told athletes at C.O. Johnson Park they could not practice there, said Councilman Raymond Bonker. Roseff should have publicly apologized and removed his post, he said.
Roseff’s Facebook post says: “Byram Council says the parks are open, but Byram’s Stasi won’t let a ball be kicked around.”
Councilwoman Cris Franco said the township council had decided the parks would remain open for passive exercise during the COVID-19 lockdown. She said that she, too, wished Roseff had apologized and taken the post down. Everyone has a First Amendment right to free speech, she said, but added that such a post is “unbecoming of a township council member.”
Councilman Jack Gallagher noted that, at their last meeting, the council agreed on a statement against intolerance or any form of racism or prejudice. He said Sabatini at that meeting had discussed sports, including lacrosse and soccer, that would open on June 22.
“Joe went above and beyond to make sure things were done correctly, and everyone was safe,” said Gallagher.
Mayor Alexander Rubenstein said Roseff does have the First Amendment right to say whatever he wants, but that the council also has the right to call him out, as a councilman, for acting inappropriately.
Rubenstein said Byram’s policy is a question of law. He knows some people say executive orders are not law, adding, “We may not agree with the policy, but it is the policy.”
Rubenstein said Sabatini did the right thing by following the council’s directive managing large groups and social distancing. If Roseff did not agree, he said, he should have discussed the matter with Sabatini.
Roseff calls reaction overemotional
Roseff said he did not direct any comment at the town manager, and disagreed with the way the resolution was written, because he did not attack Sabatini. Sabatini is not mentioned in his post, he said.
“We say the parks are open, but we are not letting people kick the ball around,” Roseff said. “My policy comment came about because Byram kicked off the field 18 girls who were socially distant and kicking their soccer ball.” He asked for the resolution to be corrected.
Bonker said the original resolution would stand as written.
Roseff said censuring an elected councilman for the exercise of free speech was an overemotional reaction.
The Stasi, Roseff said, was the enforcement arm of an autocratic government, whose overbearing oversight and control doomed the East German government. He said he could think of no better reference for expelling a group of girls kicking a ball on a field.
He said he was entitled to voice an opinion, and that the councilmembers were entitled to counter it. If there was a disagreement, he said, it should be debated, not censured.
Roseff said the virus to be most concerned about today is government run by executive orders and unilateral, authoritarian impulses. He said Byram wants a government that respects its residents.
Public disagrees with censure
Around 17 people made public comments: 14 spoke against Roseff being censured, and three agreed with the council.
After the vote, some members of the public said the council had failed to listen to previous council members who had cited without censure more egregious activities in Byram. Some said it was problematic that the council had come to the meeting knowing they would vote for censure, without taking public comment into account.
Other residents cautioned that this precedent would take the council down the slippery slope of censuring people they disagreed with.
“We say the parks are open, but we are not letting people kick the ball around. My policy comment came about because Byram kicked off the field 18 girls who were socially distant and kicking their soccer ball.” --Councilman Harvey Roseff