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Municipal campaign gets ugly

BELLEVILLE – 

Belleville Raymond Kimble, who is seeking re-election in the May 13 municipal election, and his political allies have called on his opponent, Councilwoman Marie Strumolo Burke to step down in the wake of a racial slur that Kimble claims Burke uttered.

Burke denies making the remark and has refused to resign.

A press release issued by Kimble, his running mate Councilman Kevin Kennedy, and Councilman Steve Rovell on May 1 reads as follows:

“It’s a sad day for the people of Belleville. The trust that they placed in one of their elected officials has been violated in the most offensive manner. National and local revelations this week have reminded us all that racism and bigotry is alive and well, but they have also shown that it cannot and will not be tolerated, and that swift and decisive action is required when it is exposed.

“As the representatives of the Township of Belleville and of its 36,000 residents, we have no choice but to call for Councilwoman Burke’s immediate resignation from the Township Council [and from] her seat on the [county] Democratic Committee and for an official inquiry to be launched.”

Kimble, Kennedy and Rovell assert that an outside analysis of a tape in which a woman’s voice is heard saying, “This is terrible. This is terrible. This gonna be a [expletive] [N-word] town,” offers proof “that the vile remarks are those of Councilwoman Burke” but that Burke won’t own up to it. “Councilwoman Burke must step down so the healing process can begin and the Township Council can regain the trust of [its] constituents,” they say.

For her part, Strumolo Burke characterizes the allegations made by the Kimble team as a “desperate attempt to destroy my candidacy and smear my good name.” They are, she said, an effort to distract voters’ attention from what should be the real issues of the campaign: higher taxes and declining township services.

A tale of the tape was offered by Tom Grolimond, a Kimble campaign supporter and a township DPW inspector who sits on the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission.

Grolimond said Councilman Kennedy was “cleaning out a room in his cellar and there was an old answering machine. Before throwing it out, he was playing his messages and this tape was on the machine. I recorded it on my cell phone and I played it at work. Everybody was really upset [Strumolo Burke] could make such a statement.”

So, after the councilwoman publicly denied that it was her voice on the tape, Grolimond said, “a couple of us chipped in money to send the tape to [Primeau Forensics of Rochester Hills, Mich.] It’s the same guy who worked on Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto.”

To gain familiarity with the councilwoman’s voice, lab owner Edward J. Primeau submitted an Open Public Records Act request to the township for tapes of two recent (March 24 and April 8) meetings of the governing body.

In an April 28 letter to Grolimond, Primeau authenticated the voicemail message from the answering machine and concluded “beyond a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the voice of the female caller that can be heard in the background to be that of Marie Burke,” based on “voice tone and accent” and “common word pronunciations” heard on the answering machine tape and on one of the Township Council recordings.

Still, Primeau qualified his assessment, adding: “I am 85% certain that the voice [on the voicemail] is Marie Burke. In order to arrive at a 100% positive identification, I will need an exact exemplar of the voice of Marie Burke reading the defamatory remark heard in the voicemail recording.”

In her own statement, Strumolo Burke insisted: “For the record, I am not the woman on the audiotape. The fact that I must publically deny such a disgusting allegation is indicative of the way Belleville politics has stooped to an all-time low under the Kimble and Kennedy re-election campaign.”

Strumolo Burke said this past October, Kimble and Kennedy told her they had “a four-year-old recording, which they claimed would destroy my mayoral campaign if I decided to run.” But if she agreed to endorse them, they’d suppress the tape, promised public works jobs for her supporters and further funding of the Friendly House project in Silver Lake, Strumolo Burke said.

“I told them, ‘No,’ ’’ the councilwoman said.

After that, she said, Kimble and Kennedy “played the audiotape for elected officials and Democratic Party officials from the state and Essex County,” with the intent of pressuring her to get out of the race. Strumolo Burke accused Kimble and Kennedy of keeping up the pressure by ordering their operatives “to harass me at town meetings, publically calling me a racist and further threatening me with their bogus recording.”

As a result, she said, “I have been charged, tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.”

Strumolo Burke alleged that Kimble and Kennedy “have given huge raises and excessive overtime” to friends in the Public Works Department, “using them at town meetings as props in their political theater. … The Kimble and Kennedy record of raising taxes more than 64% in eight years, and the general state of disrepair that the township is in are the two main issues we face as taxpayers.”

– Ron Leir

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