Despite council complaints, litter lines Hillside’s streets

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HILLSIDE, NJ — There is a problem in Hillside, one that Councilman Gerald “Pateesh” Freedman has said is hardly new: litter and trash on the township’s streets. For Freedman, who has served on the Hillside Township Council for 24 years and is now in his sixth term representing the 4th Ward, this is a situation that should have been resolved a long time ago.

“The ones in the pictures are from the same location that your paper ran a similar story years ago,” said Freedman in a phone interview with Union County LocalSource on Friday, March 25, after he had sent several photographs to this newspaper documenting the issue. “This is not a problem that has crept up the last month or year or two years. Those two properties just happen to be on North Broad Street, a main thoroughfare. I could blame a hundred properties. We have a vacant lot on Maple Avenue that has been a perpetual problem for 20 years. That’s the gist of the problem in the town.”

The problem can also be found in the solution, said the councilman: code enforcement, something he said is simply not getting done.

“We have two code enforcement guys in the town,” said Freedman. “One has been out on sick leave. You can speak with the mayor, and she’ll say it’s a budget problem that we don’t hire more guys. The one that we have, he writes tickets, and he doesn’t write them right. We’ve asked for accountability. All we get is that code enforcement is not a fund generator, and I agree. After you give a couple of tickets, the problems should just go away.”

The councilman insists it wasn’t always so, adding that, at one time, code enforcement used to get the job done. Unfortunately, he says, those days are long gone.

“We used to have a guy who gave out tickets and he was a terror, but the place got cleaned up,” said Freedman. “Now, this guy who actually gives out tickets, nothing gets done. I go on periodic walks, and, whenever they bring in a new person, I take them on a walk and show them the problems, and I’ve cautioned everybody. I’ve tried to ridicule code enforcement. I’ve asked for terminations. I’ve said when the mask mandate is over, continue to wear your masks, because when you walk down the street, you’ll catch something.”

He insists that the problem is endemic to Hillside, not anywhere else, even neighboring communities.

“When you walk down Broad Street, you don’t see filth on the Elizabeth side of the street,” Freedom said. “Those pictures I sent have been like that for 20 years.”

What’s worse, he said, is that residents are sick and tired of the condition of their township and are actively complaining wherever they can.

“If you were to go on Facebook or listened to the average person in town, this is not just coming from me,” said Freedman. “This has been a cry for years and years. They blame the judges, because they throw out the convictions.”

For the councilman, however, the blame needs to be placed at the top, starting with Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese, who was first elected mayor in November 2017 and narrowly avoided a runoff when she was elected to a second term in November.

“The mayor would never answer questions about how many tickets have been written,” said Freedman. “We have a property that has been in the courts for about eight years and it’s never been adjudicated in court. It’s unbelievable.”

“This mayor came in with an understanding she was going to do something” about the problems in Hillside, insisted the councilman, who is not alone in voicing his concerns.

“We need better code enforcement, obviously,” said Councilman Donald DeAugustine of the 3rd Ward in an interview with LocalSource on Friday, March 25. “We need more and better officers.”

DeAugustine, who has been on the council for almost 11 years and is in his third term of office, said he has lived in Hillside for most of his life and it has never been this bad.

“I’ve been getting complaints that properties aren’t kept up,” said the councilman. “Things haven’t been enforced. We’ve only got one court session, so it’s kind of crazy to get everything done.”

Freedman’s complaints are very specific.

“I sent you pictures of the dollar store with racks and racks of cardboard. When they got approval to build there, it was on the condition that anything recyclable has to be placed behind their building, behind fences. You can’t keep laying that stuff out until it’s picked up by their hauler,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a week, sometimes it’s two weeks, sometimes it’s more. Plus, their property is filthy. The (business administrator) has said that she’s spoken to the management.”

Freedman offered what he said is an easy solution: “Up the fine. Make it a $500 fine once a week. They’ll hire a kid once a week, for $15 an hour. There’s no excuse.”

“We don’t get the enforcement that we should,” agreed DeAugustine. “The pandemic didn’t help either. We lost people, and we’ve never recovered. Our town hall is still closed, and people call and don’t get answers. These are the complaints that we get from the residents.”

Freedman had complaints about the current administration as well, although he first targeted a different department: Public Works.

“We’ve got signs on telephone poles,” he said. “(Public Works says) they can’t reach them to take them down. Now, I go through town, and those signs are able to be reached by hand. I say, ‘Come on. We just brought in a new director of Public Works. If you’re going to make up stuff, all I ask is that you be creative. I’ve heard every cockamamie excuse imaginable why you can’t take those signs down. All I ask is you make better excuses.’”

“You would hope they’d be more proactive,” DeAugustine said, speaking of the current administration. “We ask at the meetings how many tickets are being written, and they tell us, ‘We’ll get back to you about this.’ It doesn’t happen.”

Both councilmen were clear as to how local government was structured and where the responsibility ended up.

“The business administrator would be the immediate supervisor of code enforcement,” said Freedman. “But the business administrator is under the auspices ultimately of the mayor. It’s only recently that we got a business administrator. The responsibility was the mayor. This is inexcusable.”

“These are longtime problems,” he continued. “We don’t just give out a ticket, we give out a warning. So no one gets tickets right off the bat.”

Freedman pointed out that they got rid of the business administrator, so now everything goes back to the mayor and what she is or isn’t willing to do. He insists she is dodging the responsibility.

“The mayor will say that the council refuses to hire more people,” said Freedman. “If we had another half-dozen code enforcement people, then she’s going to blame the judges. They throw the tickets out. But how many tickets do they write? She won’t say.”

DeAugustine insists council has been trying to work with the mayor, to no avail.

“From my end, I see that we’ve been trying very hard to work with the administration,” he said.

Freedman agreed, adding, “We have two brand-new councilpeople. I’m nonpartisan. I’m not answerable to anybody. The people in the 4th Ward voted me in because they appreciated it.”

But for all council’s concerns, nothing changes. Tickets are written, and trash continues to build up. For both councilmen, this is unacceptable.

“We had high hopes for the new administration,” said DeAugustine. “Her running mates said, ‘We’re committed to working for the mayor.’ It’s like ‘Groundhog Day’; it keeps happening again and again. It’s back to finger-pointing.”

LocalSource reached out multiple times to Vertreese and then to Craig Epps, the council president and councilman at large, who was on the mayor’s ticket in November, for comment, but neither responded by press time.

Photos Courtesy of Gerald ‘Pateesh’ Freedman