UNION, NJ — Controversy is brewing in Union as one resident who is a campaign worker for an independent candidate for town council says that Union officials are not playing nice.
Austin Thekkumthala took to Facebook on Oct. 3 to inform members of the Township of Union Community forum that someone in the township was allegedly told by township officials to remove a political candidate’s campaign signs. “I heard a very unfortunate bit of information today that the township has instructed its employees to remove any visible Jason F. Krychiw for committee signs,” Thekkumthala wrote in his post. “Even if they aren’t breaking any ordinances. They would do it citing ‘quality of life’ and remove them. If you have already been given a sign and it goes missing, contact Jason Krychiw and he will get you another one ASAP. It’s a shame that type of censorship is what this election has come to and it’s an insult to the very nature of our democratic process.”
But according to township officials, the accusations are far from the truth. Township Administrator Ron Manzella told LocalSource that when the township heard the allegations regarding the sign removals, they looked into it immediately.
“The township of Union takes the concerns of our residents very seriously,” Manzella said in an email. “As a result, when we were made aware of the allegations that were being made on Facebook regarding the removal of lawn signs, we looked into it immediately. Many people don’t know that we actually have an ordinance in town regarding such signage.”
Krychiw, a Union resident and independent candidate, and one of the organizers of last month’s Unity Block Party, is running for a seat on the town council.
There are currently four candidates vying for seats on the council: two Democratic incumbents, a Republican candidate and Krychiw.
Thekkumthala, who has been a friends with Krychiw since third grade and who went through the Union school system with Krychiw, told LocalSource in an email that he was a part of his friend’s campaign before it went public. “I’ve been a part of Jason’s campaign before he publicly announced that he was running for township committee,” Thekkumthala said. “Since that time, we’ve had numerous in-depth conversations on the current state of Union.”
According to Thekkumthala, he has been campaigning door to door with Jason almost every weekend since July 4 and has spent much time with the candidate helping with the campaign.
Thekkumthala said that he was dismayed when the person he encountered told him that the township had instructed its employees to take down Krychiw campaign signs. “I can’t really get into too many details here, just because there is a very high chance of retribution from the town and this individual has a livelihood that can be risked,” said Thekkumthala. According to Thekkumthala, the individual who spoke to him told him that “the town told us to take down Jason signs.” When he asked for clarification regarding whether this applied only to signs that broke town ordinances, according to Thekkumthala, he was told something that shocked him. “When asked to clarify if this just applied to signs that may have broken ordinances, he responded, ‘No, just any sign. They can claim quality of life and take down whatever they want,’ Thekkumthala said, quoting verbatim the individual’s response.
Thekkumthala said that this was not the only issue that Krychiw has had with the township. According to Thekkumthala, during the Unity Day Block Party, a friend of his asked members of the Channel 34 team, the township’s TV station, who were present at the event, if they could interview Jason from a non-political perspective. “Jason had done a considerable amount of work on helping organize the event,” said Thekkumthala. “They were told ‘no’ on the grounds that the reporters were given a specific list of individuals to interview. Having been there, I noticed that the vast majority of this focus went toward the current members of the township committee, including members who are currently up for re-election.”
According to Krychiw, the Unity Day event was supposed to be apolitical, yet two incumbents running for re-election — Union Deputy Mayor Suzette Cavadas and Union councilman Clifton People, Jr., — got up to speak, while Krychiw, who was on the steering committee for the event, was not invited to speak, he said. “Two Union officials up for re-election got up to speak at Unity Day and they weren’t supposed to because they are running,” Krychiw said.
Krychiw said that he has seen signs of his political challengers clearly breaking town sign ordinances, but that his signs are the ones being targeted. “It’s ironic that they have signs breaking ordinances but they’re taking my signs down,” Krychiw told LocalSource in a phone call. “What bothers me is that they are putting a quash on people.”
According to Krychiw, township employees have told him privately that he has their support. “That happens a lot, where township employees will tell me privately that they support me but that they can’t say anything openly,” Krychiw said.
Krychiw said that he has been careful to place his signs at least 15 feet from the curb, as per township sign ordinance. “Now to hear that if they see a ‘Jason sign’ that they’ve been instructed it take it down is disturbing,” he said.
Per the ordinance, lawn signs must be set back at least 15 feet from the street right of way, and anyone in violation of the ordinance is issued a Notice of Violation and given a certain amount of days — set by the construction official — to correct the placement of the sign. “If you don’t comply, the normal procedure requires the offender to be issued a summons,” said Manzella.
According to Manzella, the township has been more lenient about the issuance of summonses this year. “The township has been very accommodating and lenient this year, and instead of automatically issuing a notice of violation, our officials have been knocking on doors and asking residents to move the signs back to comply with the ordinance,” said Manzella. “They are never instructed to remove any signs. In addition, the removal of signage from private property is considered theft and is also a criminal trespassing issue. As such, we immediately followed up with our police department to inquire if there had been any complaints.”
According to Manzella, the township has received no complaints regarding sign removal. “To date we haven’t received any — even after our Community Relations officer, Mike Boll, actively went into Union-based resident forums and actively requested that any complaints be reported immediately.”
LocalSource can confirm that Boll did post in the forum, asking residents to reach out if they noticed any incidents like the one Thekkumthala experienced.
Manzella said that the accusations are baseless. “At this point, we find these secondhand accusations to be baseless, as no one has come forward with any concrete information to even bolster the original claim, i.e. no location, no mention of the name of individual who made the claims etc.,” he said. “We do, however, encourage residents who may not have come forward to file a report with the Union Police Department.”
Union Police Director Dan Zieser told LocalSource that the UPD will address any concerns regarding the accusations. “Our doors are always open to our residents,” said Zieser in an email. “However, we need to emphasize that the filing of a false police report is punishable up to and including to the full extent of the law. Expending police resources and manpower on falsities is something that is not taken lightly.”
Krychiw said that if the alleged sign removal issue continues, he will act. “I’ll probably try to take some action against them if they illegally take them down,” Krychiw said.