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Have you seen this alleged Nutley burglar?

NUTLEY — Police say they are investigating a diversion burglary that allegedly occurred on Fischer Ave. on Dec. 9. An elderly resident told police that a man banged on her front door at 3 p.m., Dec. 9, claiming there was […]

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Help sought in cold case

By Karen Zautyk Observer Correspondent  KEARNY –  Somebody knows something. Six years ago, an 87-year-old man was deliberately run down by a car in a South Kearny parking lot and robbed while he lay helpless on the ground. He died of his injuries the next day. Authorities ruled the death […]

100G for Arena tax case

By Ron Leir  Observer Correspondent  HARRISON –  Now that the state Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the New York Red Bulls professional soccer team should pay taxes on the stadium and the land it occupies in Harrison, the town has hired an outside law firm to […]

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Staffing Skyway fire-watch

By Ron Leir  Observer Correspondent  KEARNY – For the first time, members of the Kearny Fire Department will have a shot at off-duty pay, much like their counterparts at the Police Department have enjoyed for many years, although there is a sunset provision for the privilege. This opportunity […]

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New No. 2 has seen it all

By Ron Leir  Observer Correspondent  LYNDHURST –  The Lyndhurst Board of Education has revived the position of assistant superintendent, albeit on an interim basis, with the hiring of 50-year educator Jeffrey P. Feifer. Feifer, who came aboard Sept. 25, was appointed to serve “no more than 120 days,” to […]

 
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Police seek help locating woman last seen in Belleville

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The New Jersey State Police needs help locating a missing Belleville woman.

Mildred Soto, 52, was last seen in Belleville on Oct. 2, police said. Police said she suffers from paranoia and may be in the area of Midtown Manhattan or Bergen and Hudson counties.

If you have information that can assist in helping to safely locate Soto, please call 9-1-1 or the New Jersey State Police Missing Persons Unit at 609-882-2000, ext. 2895.

Driver in fatal crash found, is cooperating, officials say

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Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray and Nutley Police Chief Thomas J. Strumolo have announced that the driver of the black Ford Econoline van believed to have been be involved in a Nov. 15 accident in which  a 77-year-old woman was killed has been located.

The man, whose name is not being released at this time, is cooperating with authorities. As of Wednesday, no charges had yet been filed.

The victim, Ernesta Fernandez of Nutley, was crossing Centre St. when she sustained fatal injuries. The investigation is active and ongoing. No other information is available at this time.

High stakes lottery

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By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 

HARRISON – 

Close to 150 folks have entered a special lottery which – if they’re winners – will, literally, change their lives.

They’re in the running for 15 one-room apartments at the Harrison Senior Residence, what’s been billed as the town’s “first affordable senior citizen apartment building.”

A certificate of occupancy for the three-story building at 774 Harrison Ave. was issued by the town’s Construction Code unit last Tuesday, said John Westervelt, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark and president of the Domus, its housing construction arm and sponsor of the Harrison structure.

The modular apartment project was built by Del-Sano Contracting of Union and was financed by $3.7 million in government funding: $1.8 million in Community Development Block Grant/Sandy Disaster Recovery Program, $1.4 million from the Hudson County Home Investment Partnership Program and $509,000 from the Harrison Affordable Trust Fund.

To enter the lottery, prospective tenants had to be age 62 or older and meet federal household income limits set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

People who have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help after being displaced by Superstorm Sandy are to be given priority.

Last week, each application form was placed in a large cardboard box and Westervelt, Mayor James Fife, Councilman/Harrison Housing Authority Chairman Larry Bennett and Dan Ritchey Jr., vice president of R.P. Marzulli Co., the Bloomfield real estate firm picked by Domus to manage the Harrison property, took turns drawing the forms and reading the applicants’ names aloud as dozens of applicants and others watched and listened from their seats in the second-floor assembly chambers at Harrison Town Hall.

Photos by Ron Leir As interested parties wait for the lottery to start at Town Hall, a worker puts finishing touches of paint on railings at front entrance to Harrison Senior Residence.

Photos by Ron Leir
As interested parties wait for the lottery to start at Town Hall, a worker puts
finishing touches of paint on railings at front entrance to Harrison Senior
Residence.

 

“Welcome to, hopefully, what will be the first of many lotteries like this in the future,” Fife told the expectant crowd. The mayor has said previously that officials are reviewing several prospective sites that could possibly be developed as additional affordable apartments for seniors living on fixed incomes.

And Westervelt – noting that the Harrison building is the 12th project that Domus has developed in New Jersey (including a larger one in Kearny) – said that he looked forward to building more if HUD continued to provide funding.

Each applicant was given a number corresponding to the order in which the form was picked. The first 15 applicants to be successfully screened as eligible for tenancies will be accorded the right to the 15 apartments, Westervelt said.

“Don’t get discouraged if your number is 25 [or higher],” Westervelt told the crowd, explaining that it’s possible that people higher up on the list of the draw could be eliminated from consideration if they don’t meet the eligibility criteria.

Westervelt said his staff would shortly begin calling in the first 15 applicants for vetting interviews and continue the process until the final selections for the 15 apartments are made.

He said the goal is “to start moving people in as soon as possible, maybe by mid-December.”

Westervelt gave The Observer a tour of the building last week. Aside from some “punchlist’’ items, such as painting of outdoor railings at the front entrance, installation of glass panes in the front doors and plastic covers to fill gaps between the ground floor and a crawl-space basement, a utility hookup and placement of its numerical address on the front, the building looked pretty much ready for its first-ever occupants.

Cops not charged in shooting

By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 

BELLEVILLE – 

An Essex County grand jury has voted not to bring c riminal charges against any of the Belleville police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a local man in his residence some 16 months ago, The Observer has learned.

“Just like the case in the Mid-West [Ferguson, Mo.] the grand jurors don’t believe there is sufficient evidence for a criminal indictment,” said New York attorney Marc Bengualid, representing Judy Breton, the widow of the victim, Dante Cespedes in a civil suit.

Cespedes, 40, was fatally shot July 9, 2013, in the living room of the couple’s Lake St. apartment by members of the Belleville Police Department who, police say, had responded to a domestic violence report.

Following the incident and an investigation, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office said that Cespedes allegedly approached police officers with at least two knives and that the officers fired in self-defense.

In a tort claim notice filed in September 2013 against the township, the Belleville Police Department and Officers Matthew Dox, Charles Mollineaux, Angelo Quinn and a “John Doe,” Bengualid said that Cespedes “was shot at approximately 30 times by Belleville Police officers (14 times by … Quinn, 14 times by … Mollineaux and two times by … Dox) of which 24 entered his torso, arm and face.”

Bengualid subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Federal Court in Newark demanding $10 million in damages on behalf of his client.

Now that the criminal investigation has been laid to rest by the grand jurors’ return of a “no bill” verdict, after hearing – as is customary in such proceedings – essentially, the state’s side of the case through the presentation of its witnesses in secret testimony, Bengualid said he’ll be gearing up to proceed with the civil case.

“We’ll be trying to get whatever evidence we can from the county prosecutor,” he said. “And, meanwhile, there are a couple of other issues I’ll be pursuing that look promising.” He declined to elaborate.

Bengualid said that Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Naazneen Khan, who was assigned to present the matter to the grand jury, notified him about the outcome and told him she “wants to meet with [Cespedes’] family,” presumably to explain more about the process.

On Monday, Katherine Carter, spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, confirmed that, “The grand jury found no cause to bring charges,” and declined to elaborate.

Bengualid said that he and his client would meet with the prosecutor’s representative, possibly along with other family members. “We just have to get the right time, after the Thanksgiving holiday, probably sometime in December.”

The attorney said the family was “upset” with the jurors’ decision not to indict, “but it’s a tough job for them to do with the evidence presented to them [by the state],” and added that, “there is a consistent pattern in all areas of the country,” that grand juries are reluctant to indict police officers in shooting cases.

“That’s a sort of ‘no man’s land,’ ’’ he suggested.

Because of the secret proceedings, Bengualid said he could offer little insight into how the grand jurors came to their decision. He said the prosecutor’s office “called a slew of witnesses,” including his client who testified in June, but he added that he wasn’t privy to the names of the other witnesses.

He said he expected to learn more after meeting with the assistant prosecutor.

The grand jury wasn’t convened to hear the facts in the Cespedes case until nearly a year after the shooting.

Asked for reaction to the grand jury outcome, Belleville Police Chief Joseph P. Rotonda said: “The grand jury heard the evidence presented and felt the officers’ actions were justified.”

At some point in the near future, Bengualid anticipates scheduling a pre-trial conference before U.S. District Court Magistrate Mark Falk, sitting in Newark.

Big bill to rid borough of sex suit

By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 

EAST NEWARK – 

East Newark has agreed to pay a former civilian police dispatcher $101,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit filed against a borough police superior who also served as the borough’s volunteer fire chief.

Additionally, through its public liability insurance coverage, the borough has also consented to pay the ex-employee’s lawyers more than $90,000 in fees and costs in connection with the processing of claims against her former employers.

Borough Attorney Neil Marotta said the cop continues to be employed by the borough. But he has agreed to a voluntary demotion, from sergeant to police officer, according to court papers. He hasn’t been criminally charged.

An amended complaint filed in August 2013 in Hudson County Superior Court by the Whippany law firm of Foreman & Gray alleged that its client was a victim of a “sexually hostile and abuse environment” during her employment as a dispatcher.

The complaint said that sometime after she was hired as a part-time police dispatcher in May 2008, Police Sgt. Robert Tomasko, her supervisor, “forced … [the woman] to perform oral sex” on 10 different occasions and threatened to fire her if she told anyone what happened.

On May 1, 2010, the complaint said, Tomasko terminated the woman, for an alleged “failure to cover a shift she was not scheduled to work” to “silence her” on the belief that the Police Department “was becoming aware of his conduct towards [her].” After her firing, she told the police chief what she alleges had happened to her, the complaint said.

The complaint added that the woman, who served as a borough volunteer firefighter for eight years, “faced discriminatory actions” and “gender discrimination” after disclosing that she was pregnant and “was forced to resign” as a volunteer in April 2012.

The complaint alleged that the woman was subjected to a “sexually hostile work environment,” that the Police Department “failed to remediate” the situation, that she feared losing her job for speaking out against her supervisor, that she was wrongfully terminated from her dispatcher job and firefighter position and, therefore, demanded compensatory and punitive damages and legal costs.

On June 6, 2014, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Francis Schultz dismissed all but one of the claims against the borough and Tomasko, leaving only the sexual hostile work environment claim open for trial.

But, during settlement negotiations, after having initially indicated they would accept nothing less than $1 million for their client and then later modifying that to not less than $500,000, the plaintiff ’s lawyers accepted an “offer of judgment” of $101,000 in July.

However, in October 2014, the plaintiff ’s lawyers, Foreman & Gray, petitioned the court for fees of $786,247, based on 1,990.5 billable hours at $395 an hour, plus about $393,123 in “enhanced” legal fees and about $36,500 in costs for a total of about $1.2 million.

In evaluating the merits of the law firm’s enhanced fee application, Superior Court Judge Kimberly Espinales- Maloney found that although the lawyers’ billing rate was acceptable, she found certain billings “unreasonable.” These included:

• 12.5 hours to draft a set of  interrogatories.

• 19.8 hours to review  and abstract the transcript of Tomasko’s 2- hour and 47-minute-long statement of Sept. 28, 2012.

•41.8 hours to prepare for  Tomasko’s deposition.

• 9.1 hours to attend To masko’s deposition, lasting two and a half hours.

• 29.1 hours to prepare for  depositions of former Police Chief Kenneth Sheehan and current Chief Anthony Moreiro.

• 5.2 hours for Sheehan’s  deposition, lasting two and a half hours.

• 140 hours to oppose the  borough’s motion to dismiss the case.

“These examples are not exhaustive, merely illustrative of the efforts of plaintiff ’s counsel to recover fees,” the court determined.

“Additionally,” the court noted, “[plaintiff ’s lawyers, Paul Foreman and David Gray] each individually billed hours for all activities they worked on together.… It is unreasonable for two attorneys to charge individually for routine activities, such as drafting interrogatories.”

In its Oct. 10 decision, the court concluded that 200 hours was a “reasonable amount of hours” spent on the case which, based on the billable rate, works out to $79,000 in attorney’s fees. In addition, the court allowed $14,480 in “reasonable litigation costs,” for a combined total of $93,480.

The Hackensack law firm Sweeney & Sheehan represented the borough in the case and Philadelphia attorney Robyn McGrath, of Harwood Lloyd, appeared for Tomasko.

Staying safe at all times

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By Karen Zautyk 

Observer Correspondent 

NUTLEY – 

Despite the dateline, this is an article for readers in all our Observer towns, not just Nutley. So please pay heed. Recently Chief Thomas Strumolo and Det. Tom Perrota of the Nutley Police Department held an informational session in Town Hall offering crime prevention tips. The focus was on travelling and shopping during the holiday season, but, just as with the dateline, they are more widely applicable.

For example: Lock your cars. Whether you are in a mall parking lot or at home. Year-round.

I have lost track of the number of times I have forwarded that warning from cops in various communities, but people continue to ignore it, even though thieves are continually, by night and by day, prowling the streets and lots for unlocked vehicles. Sometimes, they take the cars. More often, they take what’s in the cars.

A few weeks back, for example, the Nutley PD nabbed a guy who was riding around with 11 GPS units in his auto. He didn’t have them because he was paranoid about getting lost. All of them had reportedly been stolen — from unlocked vehicles.

As for shopping, especially at malls, the advice for drivers includes:

• Avoid parking next to vans, trucks with camper shells or cars with tinted windows.

• Park as close as you can to your destination.

• At night, park in a well-lit area.

• Do not leave packages or valuables in plain sight in the car. If you must leave something in the vehicle, lock it in the trunk.

• Do not leave CHILDREN in the car. (Don’t laugh. Some people do this.)

• When returning to your car, have your keys ready.

• When approaching or leaving your vehicle, be aware of your surroundings.

• Do not approach the car if there is anyone suspicious in the area. Call the cops or go back and report it to store security.

• Do not place packages or your purse on top of the car.

• After entering your car, lock the doors immediately and leave. Don’t sit there rummaging around or chatting on your cell phone.

Inside or outside the store: 

• Keep a firm hold on your purse. Don’t put it the shopping cart, even for a second. For those without a purse, keep your money in your front pocket.

• Do not carry large amounts of cash.

• Stay alert to your surroundings.

• Beware of strangers approaching you for any reason. “At this time of year,” Perrota warned, “con-artists may try various methods of distracting you with the intention of taking your money or belongings.”

(Personal note: They can try to take your money not by force but with some sob story. More than once, I have been approached by someone who needed “just a few dollars” to pay a parking lot fee or for bus fare or whatever because they had “lost” their wallet.)

• Be wary of purse-snatchers/ pickpockets not only in stores, but in any crowded area, e.g. at bus stops, on buses or trains, in transit hubs.

At ATMs: 

• Use one in a safe, well-lit location.

• Withdraw only the amount of cash you need.

• Protect your PIN by shielding the keypad from anyone standing nearby.

• Do not discard your ATM receipt at the ATM location (even in a trash receptacle).

Children: 

• Teach your child to go to a store clerk and ask for help in case the child gets separated from you.

• Teach them not to get separated from you, but to stay close at all times while shopping.

• Never allow children to make unaccompanied trips to the restroom.

• Never allow them to go to the car alone.

• Teach the young ones their full name,  address and phone number.

• Teach them to immediately inform you  if a stranger bothers them.

Shopping online:

• Update your security software. Make sure you have anti-virus, anti-spyware and antispam software and a good firewall.

• Keep your personal information/passwords  secure. Do not respond to requests to “verify” your password or credit card info unless you  initiated the contact. (Personal note: And even then I’d be wary.)

• Beware of “bargains” from unfamiliar companies. If it sounds too  good to be true…

• Use only secure websites for purchases.

• Shop with companies you know  and trust.

At home: 

• Large displays of holiday gifts should not be visible through windows or doors.

• Lock your doors (with a deadbolt) and windows when you leave, even if it’s for just a few minutes.

• Do not leave your  car unoccupied and with the motor running, even if it’s in your driveway. There are car thieves who roam the streets looking for just this scenario — and they’re in and gone in less than 60 seconds.

• Beware of strangers at your door. Especially at holiday time, criminals sometimes pose as couriers delivering packages. “You’d better see that truck [FedEx, UPS, USPS, etc.] out there,” Perrota warned. The same goes for “utility workers” who might ring your bell. Demand ID — and don’t let anyone in until you call the utility and confirm  it has sent someone to your home. If the answer is “no,” call the police.

And speaking of calling the police:

Perrota and Strumolo  both emphasized the need for the public to keep a watchful eye on  their neighborhoods.

Residential burglaries usually start to spike in November — and most  of them happen during the day.

“Be alert for suspicious activity,” Perrota said. “If someone looks out of place call us.”

And he added, “People always say they don’t want to bother us. But that’s what we’re here for.”

(Personal note: They mean that. I “bother” the police all the time. Last time, it was when I saw a neighbor on her porch trying to get rid  of a door-to-door solicitor. The guy wasn’t leaving. I called the police.

Turned out, he didn’t have a permit — and he was asking her things like, “Do you live alone?” If I’d ever had any doubts about being overly cautious, that incident cured me.)

$1M in drugs trafficked, 31 arrests

Following a three-month cooperative investigation involving 26 law enforcement agencies, authorities last week reported they had brought down a narcotics ring operating along the Route 21 corridor.

Among the 31 individuals arrested in a Nov. 23 predawn sweep through seven counties were residents of North Arlington, Lyndhurst and Bloomfield.

The announcement of the bust was made the following day by officials including Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray and State Attorney General John Hoffman at a Newark press conference.

During just the three months of the probe, approximately $1 million in narcotics, primarily heroin but also marijuana and cocaine, had been trafficked, authorities said.

In the Nov. 23 raids, 518 bricks of heroin, with an estimated street value of $300,000, were confiscated. In Bloomfield alone, approximately eight pounds of marijuana — with a street value of more than $40,000 — and $50,000 in U.S. currency were seized.

Smaller amounts of cocaine and additional marijuana were confiscated at other locations, and more than $71,000 in currency was seized in total. Additionally, nine vehicles were impounded, including a 2015 Mercedes Benz.

The searches and arrests were conducted throughout Essex, Bergen, Union, Sussex, Middlesex, Morris and Passaic counties.

According to authorities, the distribution ring was being run by five suspects: Jermaine Nelson, 37, of Edgewater; Ibn Walker, 30, of Orange; Shakira Nelson, 31, Edgar Ortiz, 35, and Teyoina Solomon, 22, all of Newark.

The local residents arrested and facing lesser charges were: •

Yolanda Kilpatrick, 40, of Bloomfield, who was charged with conspiracy;

• Andres Soto, 34, of Bloomfield, charged with conspiracy, possession of narcotics with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute in a school zone;

• Shawn Beauchene, 30, of Lyndhurst, narcotics possession;

• William Beauchene, 32, of North Arlington, narcotics possession;

• Josephine Heatherly, 33, of North Arlington, narcotics possession.

Authorities said that Heatherly was an employee of the Youth Consultation Service, a nonprofit that provides assistance to parents and children in crisis.

Several other suspects, including William Mullen Jr., 30, of Bloomfield, charged with possession of narcotics, were reported at large.

The investigation had been launched by Essex County Prosecutor’s Office Dets. Jerod Glover and Maritza Colon, who were working with the attorney general’s office.

It grew to encompass the FBI, ICE/Customs, N.J. State Police, Essex County Sheriff’s Department, Bergen, Hudson, Middlesex and Morris County Prosecutor’s Offices, and 18 local police departments, including those of Belleville, Bloomfield, Lyndhurst, North Arlington and Nutley.

“By working together, we believe we have brought down an operation that fueled the state’s growing heroin epidemic,’’ Murray said. “Arrests like these are aimed at disrupting the drug trade in our state and putting drug dealers on notice that when they distribute narcotics in our communities, they do so at their own peril.”

Hoffman said, “Through these efforts, we’re working hard to curb drug-related violence — and to stop the scourge of heroin and opiate pain-pill abuse that is claiming far too many lives across our state and ripping apart our communities.’’

– Karen Zautyk 

Heat on the way? Library hopes so

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KEARNY –

It’s taken longer than anticipated but Kearny Public Library’s main facility at 318 Kearny Ave. is seemingly assured of having heat for the winter ahead.

So reported Library Director Josh Humphrey last week after workers from Core Mechanical Inc. of Pennsauken were applying what Humphrey hoped to be the final adjustments to a new boiler in the library’s basement.

It’s a replacement for an original coal-fired furnace, later converted to gas, “70 years old or older,” which “has been on its last legs and leaking water for some time,” Humphrey said.

Because it hasn’t been working efficiently, “the heat in the building isn’t regulated very well,” Humphrey added.

So, with the cold weather season beginning to set in, Humphrey said the town decided it was time to act by getting a new unit installed. The town will be footing the bill from unreserved emergency funds, he said.

How much the job will cost wasn’t known as of last week. Initially, the main library shut down Monday, Nov. 10 to Wednesday, Nov. 12, figuring that the work could be completed within that time, and planned to reopen Thursday, Nov. 13.

But Humphrey said the work turned out to be a bit more complicated than anticipated and the library stayed closed Thursday and Friday that week. “It’s a big job,” he said. “They had to take out the old boiler in pieces and put the new one in pieces as well. Then they had to hook up the gas line, put in a new meter, re-do the electricity for the lights in the ceiling and then hook it up to the chimney.”

Despite an inside temperature of 42 degrees, with the boiler still a work in progress, the library re-opened Saturday, Nov. 15, and an estimated 150 library patrons showed up during the day, Humphrey said.

As a result of the closures, the library had to cancel all scheduled programs, including Story Time, Child’s Cooking Class and Book Discussion Group.

Then, the following week, the library shut down Wednesday, Nov. 26, as the installation continued and remained closed for the Thanksgiving holiday period, Nov. 27, 28 and 29.

A notice posted on the library website advised that, “We plan to reopen Monday, Dec. 1.”

Humphrey was hoping that by then, the air inside would be a bit warmer with a functioning boiler.

– Ron Leir

Keeping play areas in shape

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KEARNY –

Some municipal recreational infrastructure in need of attention has been addressed recently in Kearny.

Several compromised park benches at Bell Playground got fixed, as did some jagged edges of the synthetic turf at the Thistle F.C. Futsal soccer Facility.

“When the playground [on Stewart Ave., between Chestnut and Devon Sts.] was built about nine years ago, the benches installed there were secured by a brick base but over time, rainwater and erosion have caused the bricks to become loose,” said Public Works Director Jerry Kerr.

And, Kerr said, that process has been accelerated in recent weeks by miscreant youths “picking at the loose bricks.”

So, to prevent the possibility of anyone getting hurt by a bench toppling over, Kerr said the town called in a contractor to remove the bricks, lay down cement and anchor the seven wooden benches into the cement.

Kerr said he got prices from three firms and Season Round Property Management of Newark came in the lowest at $1,950 so they were hired to do the repairs last week. The playground was closed for a couple of days to allow the contractor to complete the work, he said.

Meanwhile, at the Futsal soccer field, Assistant Recreation Superintendent Ralph Cattafi said that continuous use of the synthetic turf surface, seven days a week, has taken a toll, with sections of the turf getting ripped up.

“There were one or two sections, in particular, in dire need of repair,” Cattafi said. “It’s taken a beating with all the wear and tear.”

The 25,250 square foot Futsal Facility in Riverbank Park at Passaic and Bergen Aves., with three practice soccer fields, was resurfaced with Field Turf in spring 2009 for nearly $200,000 with help from a U.S. Soccer Foundation grant.

Land-Tec, a landscaper from East Meadow, L.I., was called upon to handle the repairs, Cattafi said. “The job is still under a 10-year warranty so there’s no charge to the town,” he added.

It took about a half-day to do the work, Cattafi said.

 – Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: The real lesson of Thanksgiving

Well, another Thanksgiving has passed and another U.S.A.-made myth has been celebrated about how the Pilgrims made nice with the Native Americans, and with their help, learned how to plant corn and other crops and thereby got through the first winter in the New World.

I don’t know what the current school books say about that early 17th century adventure – nor do I know how the new PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) test measures American students’ knowledge of the event.

But I believe it’s safe to say that the sanitized, spoon-fed version of the Puritans’ voyage to America is nothing more than a dressed-up fairy tale of how the English colonists actually behaved.

An exploration of, for example, Howard Zinn’s classic study, “A People’s History of the United States,” first published in 1980, reminds us that, “When the Pilgrims came to New England … [t[he governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a ‘vacuum.’

“The Indians, he said, had not ‘subdued’ the land, and therefore had only a ‘natural’ right to it, but not a ‘civil’ right. [And a] ‘natural’ right did not have legal standing.”

They also used the Bible (Psalms and Romans) to justify their belief that they had a right to take the land from “heathens” who, if those creatures resisted, must expect to “receive to themselves damnation.”

And so, the new Americans set out to destroy the Indian tribe of New England, the Pequots, by burning their wigwams, destroying their crops and killing as many as they could, Zinn notes.

Naturally, the Indians tried to defend themselves – after all, they were the legitimate residents – but as the years advanced and the numbers of marauders from Europe increased, the odds were against them.

We know how things turned out: Like other oppressed peoples, they were subjected to genocide and the remnants of once proud tribal nations were forced onto federal reservations and miserable living conditions.

What lessons can we apply from the “Plymouth Adventure”?

It seems that, having taken a cue from the once imperialist Brits who sought to extend their dominion by seizing other distant lands and exploiting their resources over centuries, the U.S. has sought to surpass its motherland by becoming the pre-eminent world power.

To that end, we don’t hesitate to dictate terms to other countries in return for financial or military support.

We send our Navy SEAL teams, CIA contractors and drones on covert missions to kill people whom we and our allies wish out of the way, no matter the cost (casualties/ deaths) to the local population. Frequently, to justify those missions, we label those targets as part of a blanket, world-wide terrorist organization.

But, like the Puritans before us, we engage in this violence on the assumption that we are always in the right because the people overseas cannot possibly run their affairs without our help. And it’s only fair that if we’re taking the risks, we should get something back for our trouble, whether that’s “strategic security in the region” or cheaper oil from OPEC, or some corporate cut of the action.

It could be that – by supporting puppet regimes for so long or by penalizing countries that trade with Communist Cuba — we have contributed to the circumstances that have triggered insurgencies which we now call “terrorist” actions.

Of course that doesn’t excuse the kidnappings and slaughter of civilians – mostly women – in northern Nigeria by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram or the beheadings of journalists in the Middle East or the killing of anti-polio health care aides in Pakistan by Islamic extremists.

Maybe other countries, as suggested by recently departed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, do look to the U.S. to take the lead in remedying horrific situations around the globe – and we have generously contributed to worldwide efforts to relieve hunger – notably, for ever-increasing Syrian war-torn refugees.

But we need to rethink our policies – foreign and domestic – in how we approach political issues.

So when desperate folk from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere leave their native lands to try and make a better life for themselves and their families in America, we should, as Emma Lazarus urged, open that “golden door” a bit wider for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Here is the great lesson to be learned from the Pilgrims’ insular vision: The path to opportunity should be open to all, for diversity is what can make us great again.

– Ron Leir 

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