A Voter’s Remorse

An Open Letter about Mayor Susan Knudsen, Village Of Ridgewood

In May 2014, I voted for Susan Knudsen to become a council member in our village. At that time, I had known Susan for just a few years as a colleague on the Ridgewood Zoning Board of Adjustment where we sat next to each other once she became the vice chair of the board. That event, the board’s reorganization meeting in July 2013, should have been a sign of what was to come. Susan essentially manipulated the board to jump over more senior members to move into the vice chair position.

The next sign for me was Susan’s very last vote on the board, this coming after she had already been elected. It involved the temporary cell tower over on Route 17. She passed up her vote, waited for all of us to approve the temporary tower, and then voted NO. In my opinion, this was pandering to the residents who were there in objection to the application.

Nepotism

I think my biggest disappointment with Susan came shortly into her term as a council member. In the summer of 2014, the council was considering changes to its hiring practices. One of the questions considered was whether Ridgewood should maintain a residency requirement for police officers and firefighters at the point of hire or open its hiring process to a larger, more competitive pool of candidates. Knudsen advocated strongly that Ridgewood jobs should be given only to Ridgewood residents, particularly when it comes to public safety positions, and, despite some debate among council members, she joined her colleagues in voting to maintain that requirement.

See Ordinance No. 3429: An Ordinance To Amend Chapter 3, Article VIII Of The Code Of The Village of Ridgewood Entitled “Residency Requirements.”

The problem, however, was that Knudsen had kept secret the fact that her three sons were not only interested in public safety jobs in the Village, but that they were already on the Civil Service list of potential hires. In fact, she didn’t disclose this important fact until about 8 months later, a disclosure that led to some heated village council meetings, including a very revealing argument between Knudsen and the Village’s labor attorney.

Not surprisingly, within weeks of becoming mayor, Knudsen administered the oath of office to two of her sons to become Ridgewood police officers. Months later, she administered a similar oath to her third son to become a paid firefighter. That certainly makes Knudsen a great mother, but maybe not so much a good shepherd of Village affairs and finances. IF THIS ISN’T THE DEFINITION OF NEPOTISM, THEN I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS!

Added to the nepotism is the fact that Mayor Knudsen has continued to participate on many matters, including budget discussions, related to the Police and Fire Departments, regardless of a perceived conflict of interest. As has been the practice in other communities in this county, she should be recusing herself on any votes affecting those departments. This isn’t about personal gain but about public service.

Unethical Behavior

It seems to me that since becoming the mayor, Knudsen’s only agenda has been to undo whatever the previous administration enacted or put in motion. A large part of that is the ever contentious parking garage. We can all agree that the village is fairly well split over this issue, but steps were taken in late 2015 and early 2016 to move on this matter and to secure funding for a garage. There was a unanimous vote by the council to approve the funding for a garage, including Knudsen’s vote to APPROVE the funding. All of that changed once Knudsen became mayor, and the new council was in place.

First, there was her questionable acceptance in June 2016, of a large cash prize from the Academy of Our Lady, the school affiliated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Although no one questions the School or the Church, several people have questioned whether Knudsen, as the incoming mayor, should have taken the grand prize of $25,000 — that’s right, $25,000 — from an organization at the center of the parking garage debate. (She later tried to justify keeping the large sum of money during a September 28, 2016 council meeting.

Regardless, ever since July 2016, she has stalled action on a new garage with one maneuver or another, her favorite one being a new study of one kind or another. Meanwhile, resident commuters as well as business owners continue to suffer, while shoppers and diners are increasingly choosing to go elsewhere.

I was also disturbed when I discovered that three village council members attended a meeting at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church on May 23, 2017. Three members represent a majority of the council, thus requiring public notice. The only notice that was provided appeared in the church bulletin in part: The Village will hold a special information meeting for all concerned residents on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at 7:30 PM in the Parish Center. The three members who attended the meeting were Mayor Knudsen, Deputy Mayor Sedon, and Council member Hache.

I have no idea what transpired at the meeting. I am not a member of the church, nor was an official notice to the public posted for this meeting, as should legally have been required. Nor were there meeting minutes made available to the public, also a legal requirement.

Intolerance

Knudsen, who struggles with democratic dissent, has begun to wage war on several of the volunteer boards and committees that have been serving to the benefit of our community for many years now. In my view, volunteers are the backbone of any community, including Ridgewood.

Thus far, the Financial Advisory Committee has been disbanded. The Parks and Recreation Committee has been largely neutered. Other committees, including the Historic Preservation Committee, have been hampered by Knudsen’s heavy-handedness and insistence that her supporters be allowed to secretly audio and video tape meetings. And the Community Relations Advisory Board (CRAB) is continuously threatened by the actions of Knudsen and her supporters who have suddenly started to appear at monthly meetings with the apparent intent to sow discord. (Full disclosure, my wife is the current co-chair of this committee). I know most about this committee which has been in operation for well over 20 years to address issues of bias, race, culture, bullying and other sensitive matters, well before the previous administration had anything to do with it.

It all seems to have reached a fever pitch when in the spring of last year CRAB decided to ask the village to fly the gay pride flag at Village Hall for the month of June. CRAB members authorized the co-chair to make the presentation to the village council as well as the Glen Rock council since the committee serves both towns. The experiences were like night and day. The village council stalled on the issue for months and finally denied the request. It was a hurtful decision for many of our residents, and I think the village suffered quite a black eye in the press and to its reputation.

The community reacted in its own way. Right after the denial, gay pride flags were flying all over the central business district and outside residents’ homes. It was quite heartening.

My wife made the same presentation to the Glen Rock council, and the reception could not have been better nor more starkly different from what happened in Ridgewood. The response was essentially “what can we do to help.” When the gay pride flag was raised in Glen Rock, the ceremony was incredibly moving and even attracted the presence of Barney Franks, the first openly gay representative in Congress. The police officer who helped raise the flag is an openly gay officer in the Glen Rock Police Department. Could it have been more fitting?

Following the bad publicity and divisive public debate, a gay pride banner was eventually placed between two garden stakes at the Northwest corner of Van Neste Square, not exactly ceremonious. And that, even though Knudsen and the council had promised that the flag would fly on the flagpole at the square.

I have been a resident of Ridgewood since 1995 and have always been proud to say that I am a resident. I find Ridgewood to be incredibly generous in the services that are housed within our community, from mental health treatment to group homes to age friendly initiatives to that amazing Social Service Administration located at the train station that provides food to those in need. We have housing for those who cannot afford much, housing dedicated to senior residents, and we have always seen ourselves as an inclusive community willing to open our arms to just about anyone. We have amazing houses of worship that serve our diverse community. On my street you can find people from all over the world who have chosen to live here because of our reputation for excellence and tolerance.

For me, some of that good feeling went away over Village Hall’s handling of the gay pride flag issue. I blame the Mayor for all of that. She sets the tone. She is the one trying to exert total control over this village, I suspect because that is her true nature.

————————–

In addition to these ethical and moral transgressions, I also question Knudsen’s mismanagement of Ridgewood’s finances. I mean, let’s face it; during her almost 2 years as our mayor, taxes and fees have gone up, while services have gone down and money has been wasted on parking “experiments” to no good result. Just drive around town and count the increasing potholes and shoddy roads that are rattling our cars. This alone serves as a powerful symbol about how she is destroying our community.

    Beyond all of this, there are many unanswered questions that people in town have been talking about lately, including:

  • Questions about the appropriateness of the Knudsen family running a tire business out of their home on Circle Avenue.
  • Questions about the appropriateness of Knudsen (who does photography for the annual RHS Jamboree) reportedly profiting from the non-profit event by charging participants for her services, while everyone else donates their time, services and money for the annual fundraising event for college scholarships.
  • Questions about the appropriateness of Knudsen developing and distributing to Ridgewood school children a coloring book with her image on it. And this during her re-election campaign?
  • Questions about how the mayor and village manager handled the request from students for a march in town to raise awareness of gun violence. They were told that they would have to raise thousands of dollars to pay for village services. I don’t recall that the right to peaceful assembly in our Constitution comes with a price tag! How about encouraging student civic involvement rather than pouring cold water on it? How about we don’t waste $23,000 in parking experiments?

Clearly, we need better representation on our village council, and clearly, we deserve it. My hope is that we will vote her out of office on May 8 and elect new people to serve on our Village Council, people who won’t hire family members, engage in unethical behavior or further divide our community.

Hans-Jurgen Lehmann
Ridgewood Resident

Leave a Reply