Sunday, January 31, 2010

Open Letter to Dan of Tri-City News

City in Conflict

Dear Dan (Jacobson, Ed./Publisher Tri-City News) -
I know you can appreciate what I'm about to say because you have studied and practiced law in this country.
So when I say that our government has a higher burden (of proof), that it must avoid not just conflicts but the appearance of conflicts, you'll recall that this is true. Evidence the decision to move the investigation and trial of Emergency Management Officer Harry Conover from the Monmouth County Prosecutor, for whom Conover worked, to the office of the Somerset County Prosecutor.
Now let’s apply that to the case of City Historian Werner Baumgartner, a resident of Asbury Park, who has never resigned or been officially removed from his post. City Historian is by definition an adversarial role, since the historian must take a long view, while elected officials are under pressure to take swift action lest the public lose confidence in their leadership. So the city and the historian are often at cross purposes.
Asbury Park’s 10 year-long oceanfront renewal presents a prime example. The City Fathers have been wedged between the desires of developers, who would rather level the place and rebuild than restore it, and the residents, who represent the city’s dire need to raise revenue through new developments and a growing impatience for renewal.
Remember the Carousel House, part of the corner that most people knew as the ‘historic’ Palace Amusements? Fast track developer Charles Kushner wanted the corner cleared, so potential buyers of Wesley Grove’s condos and townhouses would have a line of sight straight to the ocean.
As historian, it was Baumgartner's job to apprise the parties that, unlike the cinder block wall that bore Tillie’s likeness, the Carousel House dated from 1888, was the first exhibit space in this country (following the Crystal Palace in London), was the backdrop for Stephen Crane's stories, would draw tourists back to the revised waterfront and was the only reason the State had entered any of that block into the State Historic Register. The brass plaque was bolted to the Carousel House wall. The City's former Technical Review Committee architect, Michael Calafati, also pressed these points. In the end Kushner ruled. The buildings were leveled, the Carousel House first.
Today Kushner is a distant memory, having defaulted on his deal with development rights holder Asbury Partners, sold the parcels to Madison Marquette and gotten out of town.
Ironically, today Wesley Grove is populated by educated professionals many of whom would most certainly appreciate the value of the Carousel to a city once again eager to attract visitors.
So this is why the forefathers wanted official historians who would take a long view and owe allegiance to no one but the City that they’re charged to preserve for future generations. By making the position unpaid, they ensured that the government couldn’t hold the historian’s income over his head.
But how else can a city avoid even the appearance of trying to influence the historian? In the case of Baumgartner, whose delays in restoring his private residence have raised the attention of city code officials, it gets complicated. The code department chided Baumgartner for years to just make improvements and forget about restoration. Just get it done. Then a bogus 911 call that there was a dead body in his basement brought code into his home and added interior to the city’s list of exterior violations, which were climbing to $19,000. Code referred them to municipal court, where the judge is appointed by the city council.
A self-employed contractor, Baumgartner ran into trouble trying to get financing for the larger improvements. The judge, after giving Baumgartner several extensions, used his power of ‘Contempt of Court’ to send him to jail for an extended weekend. A few months later the judge sent him back for 28 days, which depleted his bank balance. The more lawyers’ fees Baumgartner had to pay and checks he had to write to the city, the less money he had for repairs. He entered a downward cycle.
Officials can’t recall sending another owner to jail for code violations, which aren’t criminal offenses, while landmark buildings throughout the city are allowed to fall to decay and crumble.
Clearly, the question of fairness can’t be determined and as such cannot be ignored. A jailed Baumgartner couldn’t appear as usual at council, zoning and planning board meetings. After his release he saw his participation as a possible threaten his freedom. As this current jail term loomed, he disappeared from the meetings altogether.
The issue of conflict, the question of whether Baumgartner was dealt with fairly or made an example, or worse yet retaliated against because of his past opinions, cannot be known. As you know Dan, that is what places it under the law that covers ‘appearance of conflict’. Unlike the Conover case, the inherent adversarial relationship between government and historian alone warrants moving this case beyond the city’s jurisdiction. As Baumgartner sits in Monmouth County Correctional yet again, the City Fathers must address the question of conflict and live with their conclusion.

Maureen Nevin
Asbury Park

No comments: