by Frank F. Fleischman III (FF3,) Lead Editor
With everything that has happened in Belleville in the past few years, you’d think the media would be falling over each other to report on them. But that has rarely happened. There was a time was when journalism took on power, its abuse, and demanded accountability. Belleville needs that kind of media again.
This letter is not one of complaint; I’m sure you get enough. Instead, I write both in deep disappointment, but also in hope for something better. Also, although I write here specifically with my town of Belleville, New Jersey in mind, I believe my plea in this letter can sadly be echoed in far too many other towns or cities.
I’m a blogger, focused on Belleville politics and public affairs. I don’t claim to be a journalist; I don’t aspire to objectivity, nor do I claim not to have an agenda. If labels are important, maybe I could be considered an “advocacy journalist,” in that I advocate for values like good government and responsible development in my beloved town. My goal is to encourage and inform my fellow residents so that they feel empowered to attend meetings, vote and demand good decisions (and good behavior) from the elected.
I worked in community journalism right after graduating college, at a time when Belleville and neighboring communities were able to get their news from two weekly newspapers, a daily, and local network news. I developed my writing style and reporting methods under the wise eyes of a gritty, tough-as-nails weekly newspaper editor who never hesitated to call out anyone who wronged the public. At the same time, I devoured the writings of the great journalists and muckrakers – Nat Hentoff, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, I.F. Stone and Jack Newfield, among others. These were writers who weren’t timid about taking down the powerful and always sided with the victims.
I respect a journalistic spirit that doesn’t just use words to inform but to help right wrongs. Nat Hentoff was once asked what motivated him to chase a story and he replied “rage.” I believe journalists – especially the hard-news kind – are natural opponents of bullies and the power-hungry. The best of the old-school journalists and columnists had a deep hatred of injustice.
This is why I say to you, that Belleville – and so many other places – desperately needs to see that kind of spirit from their local media once again.
Local media may not be able to change the things that happen in Belleville, but in the words of investigative journalist Jessica Mitford, they can at least embarass the guilty.
Belleville Is Fertile Ground For Media
It seems the last time the media paid serious attention to Belleville was in 2014 when the school board announced a nearly $4 million deficit. It took local activists and bloggers screaming bloody murder for months and the state of New Jersey appointing a state monitor and floating a loan to the district for the media to become interested enough to report on this town-wide travesty.
Since that time, it seems as if hard-hitting, in-depth reporting about Belleville has stopped – perhaps not entirely, but enough to be noticeable.
Much has happened in Belleville in the past five years that a crusading journalist or news outlet would love to report on. A good portion (but not all) of it revolves around the administration of former one-term councilman Michael Melham. He and two councilpersons on his “BetterBelleville” ticket were first elected in 2018 and re-elected in 2022, in elections with little voter turnout. To name just a few things:
– Within two years of first taking office, Melham (who told local real estate interests in a letter that he is “first and foremost a realtor”) became the private development reincarnation of New York planner Robert Moses, opening Belleville’s floodgates to developers to demolish decades-old but sturdy buildings and houses (which he once said looked like “tenements”) and construct high-density residential developments with promises of long-term tax breaks and quick approvals from the planning board.
– Melham, along with a then-complicit planning board and town council, changed Belleville’s Master Plan to make the zoning board practically powerless, and to give almost unilateral authority to the planning board to approve development applications. Additionally, Melham stacked the planning board with loyal appointees, many of whom he improperly appointed..
– Several of Melham’s friends and supporters have been hired for Township jobs, and are now eligible to receive generous taxpayer-funded healthcare benefits, as are members of the town council (essentially part-time employees) because of some legal sleight-of-hand in 2020 when town council meetings were conducted remotely.
– In 2020, the Town Council voted to increase water rates after Melham claimed a contract between the City of Newark and Belleville had lapsed under his predecessor. Residents never received an adequate explanation for the increases, and local civic activist Michael Sheldon, a mathematician, analyzed 2020 and 2021 payments to Newark and discovered that only a portion of the money had been sent. Town Hall has yet to explain.
– Melham has blocked critics from his Facebook page, upon which he discusses public and government matters, in apparent violation of at least one federal court decision.
– In 2021, Melham publicly accused township construction code official Frank DeLorenzo of essentially stealing money from a Township-managed development fund, even filing a complaint with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. The office investigated, even coming to Town Hall to retrieve documents. A couple of months ago, the attorney general’s office closed its investigation, clearing Mr. DeLorenzo. Mr. DeLorenzo has filed a whistleblower suit against Melham and the Township, claiming years of retaliation because he allegedly wouldn’t agree to a construction permit that would have violated town ordinances.
Much has happened in Belleville in the past few years that appears shady or unethical at best and possibly illegal at worst. It’s not like concerned citizens have been keeping all this to themselves. It’s been repeatedly shouted from the rooftops, and media should be intrigued and listening.
Now, that’s only Town Hall. Much abounds with our Board of Education as well, including:
– In 2021, the Board of Education voted to lease property owned by Melham for school district office space. Melham stands to profit almost $200,000 over five years from the lease. In 2019, Melham managed the campaign of three trustees, two of whom voted for the lease, instead of abstaining. A separate lease was approved the year before for property belonging to a school district employee’s family.
– In 2017, voters approved a $48.5 million bond ordinance so the schools could make needed improvements, and since 2015, Belleville taxpayers have been paying roughly $400,000 each year to repay the state loan for the 2014 deficit. Despite all this, within the past two years the school board has spent roughly $2 million to purchase several properties. Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on leasing several properties.
– Earlier this year, the town council and board of education entered into an unprecedented “shared services agreement” in which the board bought two properties adjoining the middle school, a former college building, and an old window company with a large lot. The college building will be used for office or educational space and the former window company property will be made into a parking deck both for middle school staff and for the public. The Township Council voted to bond nearly $30 million for various projects, but $11.5 of it is to go to constructing the parking deck and seemingly $5 million for the Belleville school district to buy the college building, all with little to no explanation. Some have speculated the reason the Town Council agreed to bond the money is because the school district would need to put bonding to a public referendum.
– A financial monitor was appointed by the state to oversee school district finances and operations as a condition for the bailout of the 2014 deficit. The monitor has not been seen at a school board meeting for nearly two years and with his apparent approval, the school board has embarked on an unprecedented streak of real estate purchases and leasing of rental property.
What I’ve noted above are just a few of the more well-known issues that Belleville has been dealing with. This isn’t to say these things are necessarily illegal or criminal, but they raise ethical questions at the very least. Good journalism asks questions and informs readers so they are aware of what’s happening in their community and, hopefully, inspires them to act.
Citizens have very few ways to stop bad public decisions and behavior, and those in power are keenly aware of this. Time was when newspapers and media served to publicize abuses of power, so voters could at least hold their politicians accountable on Election Day.
Without Hard-Hitting Media Coverage, Taxpayers Have Few Ways To Fight Back
But what can the average citizen do to effect change? The most effective method, of course, is to vote. Unfortunately, Belleville has a history of low voter turnout, brought on by decades of political apathy in the face of ineffective, often self-serving politicians. A citizen who disagrees with a zoning or planning board decision has 45 days to file suit in Superior Court to challenge it, but who has money to hire a lawyer and file suit, especially when the loser in a court case must bear court costs? State laws prohibiting elected officials from accepting campaign contributions or gifts are incredibly vague and the penalties are rarely punitive. Recall elections designed to remove officials from office have often byzantine procedures and are usually unsuccessful. People can run for office, but you know better than most that cash is often king in politics, and if you don’t get money behind your effort, you have slim chances of being elected.
A citizen can file a complaint with any number of state agencies, but it seems at least in Belleville’s case those state agencies either take an inordinate amount of time to respond or maybe don’t believe problems in Belleville require their attention. For example, in 2018 then-New Jersey State Auditor Steven Eells published a report on the 2014 Belleville school board deficit, and in that report he stated that certain criminal matters were referred to the state attorney general; Belleville has yet to hear from the state on those matters.
In short, there are few things that regular citizens can do to challenge the abuse of public power, and elected officials know this all too well.
In light of all this, Belleville desperately needs hard-hitting and truly investigative journalism. Undoubtedly there are reporters who want to do that sort of work if only their editors and executives would support them in doing so. Media has radically changed, as resources in media companies have become more scarce and the small staffs of news outlets must now cover larger areas. The Hudson Reporter’s recent announcement that it has stopped publishing is a stark reminder of how endangered local news media has become and how quickly small towns are becoming “news deserts.” There are obvious economic and market pressures on media to be profitable, and it isn’t unheard of that advertisers may put pressure on media to back off certain stories. But I remain hopeful that those pressures can be overcome by recommitting to quality investigative and informative journalism.
Writing and publishing Belleville Watch is a labor of love. I don’t accept advertising and I spend only a little money to promote it. I work alone; I can’t hire staff or interns, not simply because I can’t pay them, but because my sources depend on my discretion. I’m at best a maverick man of letters, a provocateur, a literary guerrilla relying on the few resources available to me, my grit, my writing skills, and tips and leads in order to get information to my readers, in the hopes they will act upon it.
In a documentary about newspaper columnists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, longtime Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was asked what happens when local journalism disappears. He replied in part, “What happens is the crooks get away with what they wanna get away with…It’s not at the federal government where your pocket gets picked, it’s in the statehouse and in city hall.”
I’m a firm believer in the power and public role of media. I agree with Thomas Jefferson: I’d rather live in a world with media and no government than with a government and no media. But the media must also be willing to take risks and go for the jugular when confronting the arrogance of power. I’m hopeful local media rediscovers that spirit and lives up to its duty to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I do as much as I can, but I’m one voice. Our residents need local media to let them know what’s going on. Without crusading journalism, Belleville residents will see their town travel down a dark road from which it will be difficult to turn away.