Highlands Council Divided By Discord

May 19, 2017
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A mural by artist Jimmy Kovic welcoming visitors to Highlands. Photo by Jay Cook

By John Burton |

HIGHLANDS – A confrontation between members of the public at a recent Borough Council meeting has driven home the divisive nature that seems to permeate political discourse in the borough.

Elected officials on both sides of the debate and others in the community have used words like “toxic” and “bullying” referring to opponents and behavior. Some are maintaining the debates on social media and at public hearings have gotten unnecessarily personal and vindictive. And some are contending it’s impeding progress in the community as officials become hobbled by political partisanship. But at least one borough council member believes some of these debates are pertinent concerning public policy concerns, perfectly valid, and indeed progress is being made.

“It is a bullying thing, no doubt,” Mayor Rick O’Neil maintained about the current atmosphere and about the incident at the May 3 council meeting.

“I’ve never seen it to this level” before, said Councilwoman Rebecca Kane-Wells, a 15-year veteran of the governing body.

“It is the responsibility of a current council member to answer reasonable questions from the public,” responded Councilman Doug Card. But Card also maintained “The bigger problem going on is the bullying going on by a select group.”

The incident at the center of this debate occurred earlier this month. According to some in attendance and others who relayed it secondhand, Carol Bucco, a senior borough resident and, according to some, a longtime local Republican activist (her husband had served on the council decades ago), had appeared at the May 3 meeting and during the public comment sessions raised issues concerning allowing citizens to use the borough recreation/community center for profit-earning activities. Bucco argued this violates public policy. During the exchange Bucco mentioned Kane-Wells’ family members. The video of that portion of the meeting posted on the Highlands NJ Town Meetings Youtube channel is somewhat muffled, making it difficult to make out the exchange.

Bringing her family members into the debate was beyond the pale, Kane-Wells thought, and she left the meeting before it was adjourned, the councilwoman said last week. “It was exactly a personal attack,” Kane-Wells maintained. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been on the council for five terms, 15 years, and I have never walked out of a council meeting.”

Kane-Wells’ father, Matthew Kane, said last week he was watching the meeting online and became upset over Bucco mentioning his daughter, grandchild, himself and other family members and went to the meeting.

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“For her to bring up my name, my family, at the council meeting,” said Kane, who is 61 years old, “I just wanted to say something.”

Kane insists he simply “Just reached over and tapped her on the shoulder,” meaning Bucco.

Bucco declined to discuss the incident with The Two River Times. “I really don’t care what you print,” she said on May 9. “Whatever you print is going to be false anyway.”

Bucco did, however, confirm she was going to move for ward, retain a lawyer and pursue assault charges. “Actually, my shoulder still bothers me,” after two visits to an acupuncturist, she said.

Police Captain Robert Burton was at the meeting initially for an unrelated matter. According to O’Neil, the chief or a ranking officer regularly attends council meetings to field questions and provide updates on activities. Burton declined to comment for this story. An Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request submitted to the police seeking the officer’s report has yet to be approved by the department, as of May 17.

“It just got to the point the verbal bullying, it’s just been going on and on,” Kane said. That bullying he said, extends beyond his daughter Rebecca, an elected official, to other family members, “for one reason or another.”

“I don’t know what people have against my family,” Kane said.

“It was straight up personal, that’s all it was,” O’Neil said of Bucco’s comments, and thought Kane-Wells used “good judgment” in leaving. The mayor said he used the only tool he had at his disposal to stop Bucco: he banged the gavel and adjourned the meeting.

O’Neil however, said he didn’t witness the exchange between Kane and Bucco that occurred after the meeting ended.

“Miss Wells was not being asked inappropriate questions by Miss Bucco,” Card responded. “The reason Miss Wells stormed out of the meeting is, when you’re asked hard questions and if you’re not answering them there’s something wrong.”

Disagreements can occur in any group setting, of course. But Kane-Wells has contended the deep divide among the five council members – resulting in a largely 3-2 split, with Kane-Wells and O’Neil allying and the other members, including Card, often at odds with the two over proposals and policies – has meant, “We’re totally ineffective as a council.”

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Kane-Wells has been on the council since 2002 and, “This is the first time I ever sat with such dysfunction.

“There is no communication. There is just personal attack after personal attack.”

Accord to O’Neil, “It’s just gotten evil. It was never like that,” with the mayor believing “it’s now all about personalities.”

That was on display, O’Neil charged, in the recent debate over an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed project to construct a sea wall to assist in flood mitigation. The borough would have been obligated to provide some funding for the project and O’Neil and Kane-Wells said they wanted to hold up until they could get additional information and have further deliberations. The majority rejected the proposal citing cost considerations.

Borough Council President Carolyn Broullon did not immediately respond to a phone call this week seeking comment.

Card said “I’m offended by that” assessment, believing he and the majority are making real progress. He pointed to the recent hiring of some new professionals, such as an administrator, attorney, chief financial officer, and movements on various projects, as evidence they’re taking action. O’Neil and Kane-Wells “are simply riding their coattails” on older accomplishments rather than moving forward.

This is O’Neil’s second go-round as mayor, having served in the early 2000s. What’s different now, he suspected, is the governing body is now a non-partisan form of government. A 2014 voter referendum approved the change with the mayor and four council members campaigning and serving without overt party affiliation. Some see this as a means of removing partisan agendas from municipal government. But O’Neil (who had previously served as a Republican; Kane-Wells had been a Democrat) believes, “I can tell you right straight up, in my opinion, the politics have never been worse since it went to nonpartisan.

“With partisan government,” O’Neil concluded, “the people that supported you kept you in check,” with some keeping cooler heads.

O’Neil said he planned to address the concerns during an executive session at the next council meeting on May 17.

This article was first published in the May 4-11, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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