Founding Riverkeeper Trustee A Casualty of Local Politics

Most Members Of Oradell Environmental Committee Resign In Protest

 

By Hugh M. Carola

 

In what appears to be a major case of political fallout, longtime environmental advocate Michael J. Herson was stripped of his position as chairman of the Oradell Environmental Committee by the Borough Council at its first meeting of the New Year. In addition to losing that post on January 3, the governing body also declined to reappoint him to the Planning Board, a position he had held for more than three years. In response, four Committee members resigned at the same meeting in protest over the decision with two others resigning later that week.

 

“I can not in good conscience serve on a committee appointed by a Council that does not value Mr. Herson’s contributions and does not seem to share the values embodied by Mr. Herson’s work,” said Eric Yankowitz, one of the committee members who resigned. “Mr. Herson has worked tirelessly, with much self-sacrifice, for the betterment of our town.”

 

In addition to being a tireless advocate for environmental protection and open space preservation in Oradell and throughout Bergen County, Herson was one of the founding Trustees of Hackensack Riverkeeper, having served as Vice President at the very outset of this organization. In fact, his signature is on the original Certificate of Incorporation filed with the State of New Jersey in 1997.

 

Over the past 10 years, most of Herson’s advocacy has centered on Van Buskirk Island, site of the Hackensack Water Company’s defunct water treatment plant. Starting in 1996, he led the charge against several proposals to develop the island, located in the middle of the Hackensack River, and for its preservation as a park.  Despite those victories and despite the fact that the Bergen County Parks Department (the owner of the site) maintains that it wants a passive park, two loose ends threatened to undo the work that Herson and many others had accomplished. It was through his attempts to tie up one of them that he fell out of favor with the Borough’s political establishment.

 

“Mike figured that the best way to end the threat of development still hanging over the island was to have the Borough re-zone the property for open space preservation,” said Captain Bill Sheehan. “He also sought to have the County grant an easement to the Meadowlands Conservation Trust which would have added an additional layer of protection.”

 

Under Herson’s leadership, the Environmental Committee took up the cause, unanimously recommending that the Planning Board re-zone the site for conservation. The board agreed. Unfortunately, procedural errors in Public Notices submitted by Borough Clerk Ivana Malec prevented them from voting on the re-zoning in 2005. As if to prove the adage that “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” the reconstituted 2006 Borough Council then turned on Herson, with some of them claiming that he had “exceeded his authority” and was “too outspoken.”  This, despite the fact that during his last two Planning Board meetings, Herson finalized Oradell’s state-mandated affordable housing plan, insulating the Borough from the threat of so-called “builder’s remedy” lawsuits, and saving the borough millions of dollars in potential legal fees.

 

“I was very upset that the effort to re-zone Van Buskirk Island for conservation was frustrated because our Borough Clerk managed to permit fatal errors in the required public notices,” said Wallace Collins, a former mayor and another committee member who resigned in protest. “I believe the town has done a great disservice in removing Mike Herson from these important posts and in failing to enact the recommended zoning changes.”

 

Sources close to the Borough Hall are of the opinion that Herson was a casualty of the political jockeying that has been going on in Oradell since last Election Day when local Democrats captured a third council seat in this once-solid Republican town. Despite the fact that both Herson and Mayor Frederick T. LaMonica are Republicans, many now believe that Herson was “sacrificed” by LaMonica and the Republicans in order to curry favor with the up-and-coming Democrats. The current make-up of the council is 4-3 in favor of the GOP.

 

Herson is no stranger to controversy. In addition to the seemingly never-ending Van Buskirk Island saga, he helped prevent the clear-cutting of 17 acres of forested wetlands in Oradell, which was proposed in 2003 to provide more ballfields. As an alternative, the existing fields were converted to synthetic turf, paid for by a $200,000 grant applied for by Herson. He has also advocated for an open space park at a Revolutionary War encampment site once used by the Marquis de Lafayette, a location that boasts trees over 150 years old. Herson calls it “the most historic site in Oradell” and says that “another ‘McMansion’ development is a certainty unless the Council acts quickly.

“I’ve known Mike for a long time and none of his environmental advocacy has ever been motivated by partisan politics, which makes his dismissal all that much tougher to take,” said Captain Bill Sheehan, executive director, Hackensack Riverkeeper. “By treating him in such a disrespectful way, I fear the Mayor and council are inviting a backlash they didn’t expect.”

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