By Susan L. Rosenbluth
The Jewish Voice and Opinion
Of the six candidates currently running for three open seats on the Teaneck Town Council, only one spent this past year suing the very town council to which she hopes Teaneck will elect her for a second term.
After being censured by the Teaneck Town Council for making “unsupported, inappropriate, erroneous, and speculative statements” to the press against two long-term township employees, incumbent Councilwoman Barbara Toffler brought a civil rights lawsuit against the council, charging the body with denying her the right of free speech.
When the court dismissed her case, she filed an appeal. Finally, allegedly on the advice of her attorney, she dropped the suit, but not until she had cost the town more than $20,000 in legal fees.
“This was a waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Councilman and former Teaneck Mayor Elie Y. Katz, whose term does not expire this year.
Calling Dr. Toffler “a divisive obstructionist,” Mr. Katz said, “She should have issued an apology to those she had harmed and then spent her energy as an elected official trying to help Teaneck residents.”
On May 8, Dr. Toffler, a self-described “ethicist” whose relations with the observant community have been stormy at best, will be running against two incumbents, Monica Honis, who is seeking her third term, and Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, Teaneck’s first Muslim elected official whose close relationship with the observant-Jewish community has been highlighted as an example of interfaith relations at its best.
There are also three would-be council newcomers in this race: Alexander Rashin, a biophysicist and teacher from the former Soviet Union and member of Teaneck’s Russian-Jewish community; Mark Schwartz, a member of the Planning Board, president of Congregation Shaare Tefillah, and treasurer of Yavneh Academy in Paramus; and Henry Pruitt, a past president of the Teaneck Board of Education, during whose tenure education budgets were overturned by Teaneck voters for being too high.
Castigating the Orthodox
Many members of the observant community first became aware of Dr. Toffler in 2007, when she told a New York Times reporter writing about diversity issues, “People worry that there’s a group that wants [Teaneck] to become an Orthodox community like some of the ones in Rockland County, and, from my perspective, I don’t want it to become any one thing.”
Although Dr. Toffler tried to find ways to spin her statement, its anti-Orthodox sentiment was hard to miss.
She maintained that her quote to the New York Times referred not to Monsey, as everyone believed, but rather to the Chassidic Satmar-runvillage of Kiryas Joel. Her explanation fooled no one.
“First, Kiryas Joel is in Orange County, not Rockland, and, second, it really doesn’t matter. Her implication is that because Orthodox Jews are moving intoTeaneck, they’re trying to take over, and that is outrageous. It would never be tolerated if she had spoken that way about any other community, and her anti-Orthodox bigotry should not be tolerated either,” said a Teaneck resident who asked for anonymity.
Several months later, in an apparent attempt to sooth ruffled feathers in the community she had offended before running for public office, Dr. Toffler sent an email to Yitz Stern, a well-respected member of the observant community who has served as mayor and currently sits on the Teaneck Town Council.
In her email to Mr. Stern, Dr. Toffler asked for his suggestions on how to make amends. He proposed that she begin by apologizing and then viewing with an open mind some of the issues that are important to the observant community, such as considering variances when synagogues seek to expand.
Evidently outraged by his recommendation, Dr. Toffler, the ethicist, proceeded to take Mr. Stern’s thoughtful, well-reasoned email to a town council meeting, where she read it aloud as if Mr. Stern had written it as an unsolicited demand.
Dr. Toffler’s current legal problems with the Teaneck Town Council began in January 2011 when she struck a parked car in a parking lot and then left the scene without reporting it, offenses that carry a mandatory court date.
Her involvement in the incident was documented by a security camera, and police came to her home in Teaneck.
When a report about the incident appeared in local papers, Dr. Toffler publicly accused Teaneck Police Chief Robert Wilson, Township Manager William Broughton, and Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen of leaking the information to reporters. She claimed they had tried “deliberately” to embarrass her as “payback” for her having opposed a failed plan to hire Mr. Wilson as Teaneck’s public safety director.
Mr. Gussen, who is now running in the Democratic primary for Congress in the 5th District, said the charge that Dr. Toffler had left the scene of an accident was serious. Further, he said, she should have contacted the authorities if she felt she had been a victim of “retaliation.”
“She leaves the scene of an accident and then she wants to change the story so that it becomes an issue of who reported it to whom,” said Mr. Gussen, calling it “a flagrant attempt to draw attention from herself and her dramatic lack of judgment.”
When the ethicist admitted she had no evidence to support her charges against Messrs Wilson and Broughton, who are long-term paid employees of the town, they were cleared of any wrongdoing.
In February 2011, after giving her five days to prepare and the option to have the matter discussed publicly, the Teaneck Town Council voted to censure Dr. Toffler for her “unsupported, inappropriate, erroneous, and speculative statements” made to reporters about Messrs Wilson and Broughton.
The censure, which passed by a vote of 5-0, with one abstention, also accused Dr. Toffler of sending unsolicited emails to Messrs Wilson and Broughton, telling them “in no uncertain terms that they would suffer ‘painful consequences’ for their actions.”
A third issue contained in the censure concerned Dr. Toffler’s “interference” with an Open Public Records Act request from Teaneck merchant Emil Lebovich who was seeking information about her police report and security-camera footage of the hit-and-run incident. Dr. Toffler said all she had done was ask the then-acting township clerk, Mr. Broughton, if there were a way to determine whether Mr. Lebovich had a criminal record.
Dr. Toffler said her concern was prompted by the recent murder of a Teaneck activist as well as the hostile tenor of council meetings. But even if the individual seeking material had been a convicted criminal, he would have been denied by law only personal information about Dr. Toffler, not her public record.
Mr. Broughton responded by filing a complaint accusing Dr. Toffler of creating a “hostile work environment” for him.
In a prepared response, Dr. Toffler said she recognized her request was “viewed as interference, and for this I am distressed, because that was not my intent.”
According to Mr. Hameeduddin, Dr. Toffler’s censure was necessary to protect Teaneck from a serious libel suit which could have been pressed by Mr. Wilson and/or Mr. Broughton.
“From a liability standpoint, it is dangerous for public officials to make these types of allegations against long-term public employees without any basis in fact or evidence,” said the Teaneck Town Council’s attorney, Thomas Hanrahan.
Civil Rights Suit
In June 2011, four months after she was censured, Dr. Toffler filed a civil rights suit against the council, alleging her rights to free speech—presumably the right to make the charges against city employees—and due process were violated.
Dr. Toffler maintained she had not received adequate notice of the council’s intention to vote on censuring her and, she said, she had not been given the opportunity to review the claims the council had formulated against her.
Defending itself in court, the town council produced a written notice from Teaneck Township Attorney Stanley Turitz showing that Dr. Toffler had received five days to prepare. Further, the council maintained that its members’ expression of “disapproval and outrage” at her behavior was “merely a reprimand” that carried no consequences for Dr. Toffler’s “misguided comments to the reporter, and lack[ed] any real force or punishment.”
In addition, they said, the ethicist was not censured for speaking to a reporter, but rather for making statements about city employees she later admitted “were unsupported by fact or evidence, and were both inappropriate and erroneous.”
The council said Dr. Toffler’s comments were “detrimental to maintaining the proper management” ofTeaneck.
Six months later, in December 2011, Superior Judge Charles E. Powers dismissed Dr. Toffler’s bid to have the censure overturned. He also ruled against her request for legal fees. She had not asked for damages.
Mr. Hameeduddin said the council was “vindicated” by the judge’s ruling.
“From the beginning, I said Councilwoman Toffler’s lawsuit was frivolous. We only reacted to what she did. We didn’t go after her,” he said.
After losing in court, Dr. Toffler announced that she planned to appeal, explaining that she feared the council’s censure would be used as a tool to silence dissenting political views.
“As people in Teaneck know, I am committed to free speech, truth, and justice, which are denied by this judgment,” she said.
Mr. Hanrahan said the ethicist’s claim that she had sued in the first place to vindicate her reputation was “ironic” at best.
“She seems to have no concern whatsoever for the reputations of Wilson and Broughton, to whom she has never apologized,” he said.
Asked about her charge that her right of free speech had been interfered with, Mr. Hanrahan said there was no violation of free speech because she had made her derogatory comments about the Teaneck employees as a public official, not as a private citizen.
In early February 2012, before the appeal was heard, Dr. Toffler withdrew her suit completely. Although her attorney Erik Hassing said she would issue a statement to explain her decision, none was forthcoming.
Although pleased with the result, Mr. Katz deplored the waste of the city’s resources. He accused Dr. Toffler of taking “a small personal motor vehicle accident and exacerbating it into a major event.”
“I would hope that she would spend her energy and time on helping the Teaneck residents with their problems and not creating new ones. Teaneck taxpayers lost a lot of money defending her lawsuit against the council,” he said.
She has, however, continued to send out emails, usually to multiple people, some of whom have forwarded them to The Jewish Voice.
After her suit was initially denied, she sent an email accusing the judge of not dealing “with the facts of the case” and issuing a ruling that “the council’s actions did meet the standard of violating the constitution.”
“The only people who won today (and we will all work hard to see that they do not succeed in the future) are [former Councilman] Elnatan Rudolph, Adam Gussen, and Yitz Stern, masters of the dirty political tricks. Fortunately, more and more people are on to them,” she wrote, singling out three of the four observant-Jewish members of the council.
Mr. Katz, the one other observant councilman, who was not named among her alleged “masters of dirty tricks,” responded to her email telling her that he found her message “confusing.”
“Are you threatening to do something to [Messrs Rudolph, Gussen, and Stern]? What do you mean,” he said.
Dr. Toffler answered that “you, I, and many Teaneck residents know perfectly well that…Gussen engineered this entire censure ‘thing.’”
“Leaking confidential council information to the media is very serious, and, if proven, usually requires the leaker to resign from the council,” she said, adding her belief that Mr. Katz was guilty of sending out a “horrible racist glossy flyer” during the 2008 campaign.
She then suggested Mr. Katz find time to see the British series, “The Enemy at the Door,” which is about the German occupation of Guernsey, one of the English Channel islands, during World War II.
“I think you will see how close we in Teaneck have gotten to the nightmare,” she told Mr. Katz.
Asked if she was equating Teaneck to occupied Europe during the Second World War or was comparing any Town Council personalities to British collaborators in the film or, worse, members of the German SS, Dr. Toffler said, “I was only expressing a concern that Teaneck’s political discourse had become too caustic which threatens an open and free political discourse.”
Asked if “free political discourse” referred to the issues surrounding her censure or if “caustic political speech” could be compared to the “nightmare” of German occupation, Dr. Toffler had no response.
But it was not the first time she had used literary or cultural references to Teaneck’s disadvantage. At a council meeting in 2010, Dr. Toffler was accused of comparing racial tensions in Teaneck with South African apartheid, as described in Alan Paton’s novel “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
On that occasion,Teaneck resident Helen Ickowitz called Dr. Toffler “a race-baiter” who had belittled Teaneck’s council members and “all citizens of Teaneck.”