The Hunt for the Great White Code Violation

Jackson Township enters muddy waters in search of long elusive “right-of-way” violations.

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A wild code violation stalks its prey.

As the OPRA documents continue to pile in more interesting facts are starting to come to light. Initially, the Jackson Code Enforcement Department determined that eruvin (plural of eruv) were not a violation of any Jackson code and planned on leaving them be. However, then politics came into the picture and Code Enforcement had to change course.

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After many months of eruv complaints, the town determined in April that a “right-of-way” ordinance, passed in 1964 to ensure that streets and sidewalks were passable and free of snow and ice, could be applied to the thin poles in the grass as well. This “seldom enforced” statute would now need to be enforced vigorously. Mayor Mike Reina states that this was the result of a “cry to increase code enforcement from our residents” in the first half of 2017 about “items in the right of way with examples such as hockey and soccer nets, basketball hoops, skateboard ramps, furniture, tires, brush and grass not being cut”. However, almost all complaints found in any emails we have pertain to eruvin (there is a single complaint about business signs).

How does one start enforcing an ordinance after 50 years? Township Attorney Jean Cipriani explains that the ordinance “applies to all obstructions in the right of way and should be uniformly applied throughout the Township”. This is likely taking into consideration the situation in Tenafly Eruv Assn v The Borough of Tenafly, where a posting ordinance was found to be unconstitutionally enforced when applied to an eruv as it was “selectively enforced”. Jean helpfully suggests other items that could be taken down to ensure uniformity, such as “basketball nets (sic)”.

The hunt begins!

Following this advice, the Jackson Code Enforcement department was issued very clear guidelines that the line to repeat was that ”anything” in the public “right-of-way” was to be removed (underlined in the email for emphasis). The township nickednamed the new plan ”PROJECT ROW” and the hunt was on for the elusive “right-of-way” violations!

However, despite all the supposed “right-of-way” complaints, the town did not seem to know where to start. In an email, Code Enforcement Head Ken Pieslak asks his officers to “take a little time” and come up with some ideas for “anything other than a street sign or mailbox placed in the ROW”. Code Enforcement Officer Connie Sidor helpfully suggests some objects they can target including “Real Estate signs, Bulky Trash, Flower boxes”. Notably absent from her survey are the actual items for which violations were ultimately issued: basketball hoops and eruv poles.

But why not just look at the “multitude” of complains that were received? Is it possible that they couldn’t because such complaints were only about one specific type of object ostensibly in the public “right-of-way”, one which they couldn’t be perceived to be targeting? The emails, after all, show almost no complaints for anything else.

At least they were consistent about enforcement, right? Anything found in the public “right-of-way” should be removed, and no exception can be made. Well, maybe not everything:

In this case, the Code Enforcement Officer is told explicitly to leave something be, in direct violation of the advice of Jackson’s attorney. Could it be they are discriminating in enforcement of the ordinance, picking and choosing when to issue violations? Piesklak says they will look at things “on a case for (sic) case basis”, but didn’t the attorney say “all obstructions”?

A bigger boat

What is clear is that the uptick in enforcement is about one thing: banning of eruvin. For the past 50 years, the “right-of-way” ordinance was “seldom enforced”, only being invoked when a citizen complained about something blocking a street or sidewalk. So, when looking for a pretext to take down eruvin, the town was forced to claim that people had suddenly and inexplicably started complaining about everything in the “right-of-way”. This left Code Enforcement scrambling to figure out exactly what their goal was here, how it could be accomplished uniformly, and maybe, in the words of one officer, “in need of a bigger boat”.

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“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” – Chief Martin Brody, Jaws

Documents

Click here to see all code enforcement emails.
Click here for a searchable list of all notices of violation issued in 2017.

Author: Jackson Leaks

Behind the scenes documents and videos from Jackson, NJ: https://jacksonleaks.com