Dan Pagano had written a letter to the editor calling out the Towaco Civic Association for not allowing political groups to participate in the upcoming Towaco Jazz Festival.
Those on both sides spoke up about it at the Montville Council meeting on Tuesday. Mayor Tim Braden said a compromise needs to be reached, or the Towaco Civic Association “would have to move forward with out us."For the compromise, Christina Renfer, TCA treasurer and festival chairwoman said the political groups would need to have their booths manned until 6 p.m. and either sell an item or give out something to the community that does not compete with another vendor.
Pagano aid that although they were not given the option of selling something or giving something away, he agreed to the compromise saying that “we’re more than happy to sell flags.”
“I think that’s a reasonable regulation. I think that makes sense,” Township Attorney Martin Murphy said.
Pagano brought up the issue that the civic group was turning away political groups, which are township-recognized community groups because they use the Senior House, “yet they’re excluded from the Jazz Festival this year and the Montville Republican Club has had its check returned.”
Jeff Spector, trustee of the TCA, responded and said, “We wanted to look at who the recognized organizations are because there are difference between an organization and a club.” He added that on the Montville Township website, the political groups are not listed as an organization.
Pagano said that the civic association’s actions violate free speech and political speech. Resident Kurt Dinkelmeyer also brought up freedom of speech.
“The TCA is asking for special allowances,” he said. “These political groups have been involved in the past. They were involved last year. The basic issue is free speech, free assembly and no discrimination.”
“We are not stopping (them) from freedom of speech. (They) can walk around the grounds, give out literature,” said Joan Richmond, TCA trustee. “We have the right and it says so on the form to make certain decisions. There could be other (denied vendors) that could be inappropriate and they will hide behind the banner of freedom of speech … this is a festival, not a political situation.”
Spector said, that the event is “100 percent open to the public. Anyone that wants to attend the event can attend, adding that there is a difference between attending and participating.
“Attending an event is open to the public. The private organization staging an event has to provide a theme and a purpose to the event,” said Spector. “You can have a farmers market and maybe a motorcycle club wants to put a booth in there and run a Harley all day … It’s up to the organization to determine what the theme is.”
TCA President Kim Bott asked why the political groups are not present at other township-endorsed events and only “single out the jazz festival.”
She added that in March, the TCA decided to improve the festival by “bringing up the level of arts and crafts and … going around looking for crafts.
“We do have on our application that we have the right to refuse any exhibit … We can’t have two sausage and pepper vendors,” said Bott. “We want a really nice music, arts and crafts festival and because these booths are not active and did cause a problem for us last year that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing … We’re trying to do something nice for the community.”
“We have had incidents in the past when people have attended the event and wouldn’t abide by the agreement that they signed as vendors. One vendor was giving out something as an advertisement that was in direct competition as a food vendor that was selling that item,” said Spector, adding that when asked to stop, that vendor did not comply.
“The political groups are very understaffed. Almost half the day last year, the Democrats had no one at their booth and most of the political groups left very early. When you have three booths side by side and they’re empty, people drive up and … think the event is ending earlier and don’t come in. That’s detrimental to vendors who want to sell things up until the end of the event.”
Dinkelmeyer said that “since the township is supporting this through resolution, through the police department and DPW, it should not discriminate against any community group.”
Murphy said that his office has looked into this issue when it arose last week.
He said that a private organization has the right to say no to certain groups. However, “the problem comes in with the fact that it’s a township-endorsed function … Public moneys are being spent, with regards to police officers … and the DPW. (This) opens up a whole can of worms,” said Murphy. “Now you’re looking at the right of free speech … (it may become an) invasion of a free speech and assembly. It’s a close call … I would err on the side of supporting free speech.”
He added that if the TCA chooses to pay for their own police and DPW, they can deny certain organizations.
Pagano added that based on an OPRA request he had filed, certain financial statements for the civic group are not available. He added that according to a township ordinance that financial documents need to be submitted by April 30, “so I’m asking for the township to withdraw the endorsement of this event,” said Pagano.
As for the financial statements, Spector said that since they’re on private property, “we’re not required to provide them, but we have provided them.”
Montville Administrator Victor Canning said that the township has a requirement for community organizations that use municipal facilities to submit financials and that he received the TCA reports on Monday.
The financial reports “Is it acceptable? … I’m not so sure it has everything we the township asked for. We asked for further information,” said Canning.
“When I came on board I was
very stern and very firm about (submitted reports). It puts the taxpayers at
risk,” said Canning.
The TCA is not using township property. The festival is on NJ Transit-owned parking lot. Because of this, financial documents of any kind are not required in order to receive "Township Endorsed" status, clarified Gallopo.
Township Committee members echoed each other in saying that they were troubled with how the issue got to this point.
“It’s not unifying this community. It’s pulling us apart,” said Scott Gallopo. “My responsibility up here is to ensure that the township is not put at risk to litigation, and that our ordinances are enforced to the letter and not put up to a vague interpretation (of the language in the ordinance and of the 1st Amendment) … I’m extremely disappointed with how we got here … A month before the event, everything was turned upside down.”
Gallopo said later to Patch that one of the criteria for receiving "Endorsed event" status is that "The event must be open to all Township residents". There is nothing in either the application form or the resolution approving Endorsed events that refers to a "group"
Deputy Mayor Don Kostka said that since this has happened “at the 11th hour … my instincts tell me that this is politically motivated.”
“Where is the sense of community spirit that makes Montville so great? If the financial statement is not filed on time, it should have been an issue at the time of the application. Once we approve the application, that issue in my mind becomes moot,” said Comitteeman Jim Sandham, adding that since the Republican club gets mail delivered by the US post office, it’s a recognized club that is part of the township.
“The issue to me is not freedom of speech or free assembly,” because political members can attend the event, but “to me, there is discrimination here,” said Sandham, adding that if the TCA wants to exclude certain groups, they should have clarified which groups on the vendor application. “I think everybody should be allowed.”
Committeewoman Deb Nielson said that “It’s a darn shame,” because she has participated in the past as a political figure that did voter registration drives. She added that if the TCA wanted to, they could have approved the political groups but “they don’t have to be given a prime spot.”
“I don’t like the road that
this is going down,” said Mayor Tim Braden. “It’s a black mark on Montville and
this petty bickering over minor issues has to stop; it’s ridiculous.”