Opinion: Endorsements by Vellon and BVOTE are Troubling

 

Lately I find myself in the incredibly awkward and uncomfortable position of looking at people and public figures that I previously supported, had faith in, or even called friends, and saying, “Hey, what the heck are you doing?”.

This editorial is going to be one of those very awkward moments.

We’ll be going into excruciating detail so that there is absolutely no misunderstanding, and no ability for anyone to wiggle out of this with any further political doublespeak. There’s been quite enough of that in the past week alone to last a lifetime. The record needs to be set straight.

In the October 21st edition of the Belleville Times, current Belleville Board of Education trustee Mr. Ralph Vellon published an endorsement of BOE candidates Nelson Barrera and Thomas Grolimond.

The online version of the article can be found here:

Belleville letter: Barrera, Grolimond for BOE

 

Vellon’s endorsement in the Belleville Times is as follows:

 

To the editor:

My family has endured much during our struggles at the board of education. Most would have walked away and moved to a “better community.” We believe in Belleville, where our children were born and raised. I’m speaking to you as a father of two children in our schools. My wife, a past PTA president and consolidated member, also has been fighting for our children for many years.

Now, I’m not speaking for the board of education but rather as a concerned voter, resident and homeowner. During my short tenure as a board member I’ve been able better understand the dynamics. It’s been suggested I just remain neutral during the election. The problem is I care too much about my children and their friends to just do nothing.

Change for the better has just started, but don’t be confused. The struggles are not over. We are not finished yet. This is why I’m putting myself out here again. Our children and taxpayers should have more individuals working on their behalf at the board of education.

I’ve learn to trust teachers as a child and as a parent. They’ve always had our children’s best interest at heart. They’ve jumped into the political battle with us parents and taxpayers. The teachers have endorsed two of the five candidates. The teachers, through their BVOTE team, have interviewed all five candidates. They have endorsed two of the five. I respect the teachers. I trust them. They are some of the most educated members of our community and in many cases some of the most under paid, but there they are building our children’s future.

I’m backing BVOTE and our teachers. I know Nelson Barrera. He’s the real deal. I trust him. I know Tom Grolimond. We worked on the advisory board. I want to work with him. For these reasons and others, I’m also endorsing Nelson Barrera and Tom Grolimond for the board of education.

Ralph Vellon

Belleville Board of Education Trustee

 

 

Not Speaking as a Board Member?

Just for starters, in his endorsement, Mr. Vellon is quick to qualify that he is, “not speaking for the board of education but rather as a concerned voter, resident and homeowner.” Yet in the very next sentence, he immediately begins to use his “short tenure as a board member” to assure you that he understands the “dynamics” of the board.

Wait a second — how can you say you’re not speaking as a board member, then proceed to speak from your perspective as a board member?

To me, that comes off like you know you’re not supposed to do it, but screw it, you’re going to do it anyway.

For Pete’s (not Zangari) sake, he even signs his endorsement with, “Ralph Vellon, Belleville Board of Education Trustee”.

Hey Ralph, what the heck are you doing?

 

 

BVOTE

Please consider the following paragraph in Vellon’s endorsement, in particular the statement I have bolded:

I’ve learn to trust teachers as a child and as a parent. They’ve always had our children’s best interest at heart. They’ve jumped into the political battle with us parents and taxpayers. The teachers have endorsed two of the five candidates. The teachers, through their BVOTE team, have interviewed all five candidates. They have endorsed two of the five. I respect the teachers. I trust them. They are some of the most educated members of our community and in many cases some of the most under paid, but there they are building our children’s future.

 

Let’s forget for a second that Vellon is strangely repeating himself within the same paragraph. Looking at the latest political mailings this past week has convinced me that proofreading communications to the public isn’t a high priority around here.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t already know, BVOTE (Belleville’s Voice of Teachers in Education) is a PAC (Political Action Committee) comprised of teachers in the Belleville school district who wanted some say in selecting and supporting the candidates of their choice in Board of Education elections.

In the past I have fully supported BVOTE and its efforts, and helped spread the word of what they’re doing since they first got underway last year. They conducted themselves fairly and with honor in last year’s election, so there’s no reason that I wouldn’t. The teachers know that I have stood behind them, and have since the moment the the Watch joined their ongoing fight two years ago against the previous school administration, and the implementation of the $2 million Clarity Technologies security contract in the district. That was our primary issue campaign in Belleville, and it’s still not over yet.

On a more personal level, a couple of members of the BVOTE committee also happen to be people that I respect and admire most in this whole crazy adventure. I also considered them friends.

However, I have an obligation to set aside my personal feelings here and continue doing exactly what I’ve been doing all along for two years, regardless of whom it may involve. This is not a joke, and this is not something I can simply overlook. This is a public official making a political endorsement to voters on the eve of an election. The public deserves to know the truth when making their voting decisions. Anything short of that, and we’re going to have something to say about it.

As such, I have an obligation to report that Mr. Vellon’s statement I have highlighted above is completely false.

BVOTE did not interview all five candidates before endorsing Grolimond and Barrera for this election.

 

 

The Endorsement

The five candidates currently running for two seats on the board this year are Christine Lamparello, Erika Jacho, Nelson Barrera, Thomas Grolimond, and incumbent Jeanne Lombardi.

In August, BVOTE announced their chosen candidates for the 2015 Belleville Board of Education election. The BVOTE committee gave their endorsement to running mates Barrera and Grolimond.

As it was in last year’s BOE election, BVOTE’s candidates happen to also be the same two endorsed by the Belleville Town Council. In that election, it was Ralph Vellon and his running mate Patti Dolan who were given the political backing by both parties.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it certainly does seem a little strange that both the BVOTE committee and the Council would happen to back the exact same candidates two years in a row, with no deviation whatsoever. Nevermind what is perfectly obvious to everyone, the statistical improbability alone is enough to dispense with the notion that these political bodies are making their decisions independently of one another.

Almost immediately reports and complaints began to come in regarding BVOTE and this latest endorsement, claiming that BVOTE never actually interviewed all five of the candidates for this election. They had only interviewed Grolimond and Barrera, whom they endorsed right alongside the Town Council.

As we constantly try to do with the Watch, we do the best we humanly can as volunteers to combat politically-relevant misinformation. We look into rumors or innuendos that are getting traction, and see if they have any actual merit. Then if there is a constructive reason, we work to either validate them for citizens, or squash them outright.

This is doubly true during an election, when the bovine excrement really starts flying by the metric ton.

So, after BVOTE endorsed Barrera and Grolimond and these complaints became increasingly prevalent, I finally made a phone call to an executive member of the committee. I was hoping to be able to squash the rumor once and for all.

The conversation did not go as I had hoped. To my surprise and dismay, the rumor was 100% true.

Grolimond and Barrera were the only candidates interviewed by the committee for the election this year. Then, both were subsequently endorsed by BVOTE and the Belleville Town Council.

Now both BVOTE and Vellon are engaging the public and soliciting votes based on the integrity of a process that did not happen as it is being represented to the public.

Now this is a serious problem for us.

 

 

Statements from the Candidates

Now that Vellon made his rather flawed endorsement in the Belleville Times, it was time to switch into journalist mode. The facts were not in dispute, so now it would be a matter of asking everyone to clarify their positions for the public.

Two days after the article appeared in the paper, I contacted Christine Lamparello, Jeanne Lombardi, and Erika Jacho to ask for their comments regarding Vellon’s assertion that they had all been interviewed by BVOTE. All three of them verbally confirmed that they had not been interviewed for this election, nor had they even been invited by BVOTE to do so.

I then asked all three if they would like to submit a written statement to the Watch. Here are the statements they each provided in the days that followed:

 

—————————————————

When I announced I was going to run for the Belleville Board of Education in 2014, I was interviewed by Bvote in the BEA office as part of their process to decide which candidates they were going to support in the election. I was not chosen.

When I announced I was going to run again in 2015, I was not invited to be interviewed for their consideration.

Christine Lamparello

—————————————————

Mr. Dorry,

I enjoyed our brief conversation and look forward to many more.

I would like to clarify a statement made by Mr. Vellon in the Belleville Times. Mr. Vellon stated in his Oct. 22, BT letter that “THE TEACHERS, THROUGH THE BVOTE TEAM, HAVE INTERVIEWED ALL 5 CANDIDATES”. I was never contacted by BVOTE for any such interview. His statement is completely false.

Thank you,

Jeanne Lombardi

—————————————————

Hi Lee,

As per our conversation last Friday I verbally told you that BVOTE did not interview me nor did they ask me. Sending you this email as confirmation of our conversation.

I believe Ralph contacted you with a correction to his erroneous newspaper editorial. Please let me know?

Thanks for your time,

Erika Jacho

—————————————————

 

Then to top it off, a few days later, a rebuttal article from incumbent Jeanne Lombardi that must have been submitted earlier appeared in the Belleville Times.

Belleville letter: Rebutting BOE member comments

 

Now I had all three candidates confirming that they were in fact not interviewed, in addition to the earlier admission from BVOTE itself. Now it was time to reach out to both BVOTE and Vellon in the hopes that they would want to get out in front of this issue and say something to the public, before it got any worse.

Boy, was that a mistake.

 

 

Seeking Clarification from Vellon

The very next day after speaking with Lamparello, Lombardi, and Jacho, I sent the following message to Vellon offering him the opportunity to explain the situation before I published my article:

 

Good afternoon Mr. Vellon,

I am writing to you to express serious concern over a statement you made in your recent editorial “Barrera, Grolimond for BOE”.

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/belleville-letter-barrera-grolimond-for-boe-1.1438069

In your endorsement of Grolimond and Barrera, you made the following statement:

“The teachers, through their BVOTE team, have interviewed all five candidates.”

Mr. Vellon, this statement is completely false.

BVOTE most certainly did not interview all five candidates for this election. They only interviewed Grolimond and Barrera, whom they subsequently endorsed. Lamparello, Jacho, and Lombardi were not even invited for an interview by the committee, much less sit for one.

This fact was admitted to me months ago by an executive member of BVOTE whom I challenged on this troubling scenario back when they first endorsed. I’ve also personally spoken to all three candidates who were left out of the consideration process, and they have confirmed it as well. I would not have said anything about it publicly to save BVOTE from any potential embarrassment, but for the fact that you have gone on the record about it just before an election in order to solicit votes.

What is the basis for your assertion that all five candidates were interviewed? How were you notified of this, and by whom?

Respectfully Mr. Vellon, you are a sitting public official in Belleville who has gone on the record to publicly endorse two political candidates in the town’s official newspaper. Your entire argument is predicated on the fairness and integrity of a process that simply did not happen as you have unambiguously represented it.

The voting public deserves the truth at all times, even if it involves people I respect or have supported in the past. Unfortunately I don’t get to selectively choose how and when I apply our mission statement. I hope you can understand my position.

If you would like to provide me with a written comment addressing this situation, you are welcome to send me something by tomorrow night. I will take it into consideration for a short article I will be publishing on Monday.

Regards,

Lee

 

 

To his credit, unlike his associates, Mr. Vellon wasn’t the least bit hostile or defensive. He simply indicated to me that he would be offering a response shortly.

The next day, I received the following statement from Vellon:

 

I’m standing by my endorsement and my comments, at this time. This is what I recall and why I said everyone was interviewed and why I feel it’s a fair process. Mrs. Lamparello and Ms. Jacho interviewed in 2014, as I did and could have been interviewed again. Nelson Barrera and Tom Grolimond interviewed in 2015. I agree its best when all the candidates go through the same scrutiny. However, a candidate could refuse to face the same panel as their peers. Secondly, if the panels’ proceeding disqualifies a candidate for legal, ethical, misconduct or other reasons surely one must consider this. The candidate can say whatever they want but they were part of the interview process or better yet, have been assessed in real life situations for years.

Every board member too was a part of the interview process and has been assessed. Sitting board members are assessed at every public meeting. BVOTE has had years to assess them and judge them based on personal experience and not just hear say. Only one candidate has had years to win over the teachers and to prove worthy of the BVOTE endorsement, as well as mine. In my honest opinion the old board has failed our children and taxpayers. How could people who put our community in a $4 million debit and force the state department of education to send a fiscal monitor now get to cry foul? I’m not moved.

It’s difficult when an individual is contending for an elected seat. The teachers through BVOTE have endorsed who they felt were the best two candidates to take a seat on the board. The others were not selected and it seems they or their campaign managers are disgruntled and trying to taint the process. Their past actions and efforts bring more questions about their integrity than ours. My focus is on the kids. People want change. The old guard is being asked to walk away but some can’t. Our children are held accountable for their mistakes. So too should board members who have failed our children, in a miserable, horrible and malicious manner, be held accountable for their mistakes. The attention is on me but it should be on those who have hurt the kids in the past. You know it’s not me.

 

 

If you read this flowery and meandering response carefully, he’s basically arguing that BVOTE unilaterally “evaluating” people by watching them from afar is somehow remotely the same thing as actually conducting an interview with them.

Ralph. How on earth is that an interview, in any sense of the word?

Further, exactly how is BVOTE evaluating two people who aren’t even public officials in the first place? How do you know their views and perspectives if you don’t ask them any questions? How have Lamparello and Jacho “been assessed in real life situations for years”?

Do members of BVOTE also moonlight for the NSA, and report their findings to the committee? Are they operating on wiretaps, agency intelligence, and overhead drone surveillance?

Vellon’s finale is wrapping this entire tapdancing act in the political go-to blanket of bringing up “the children”, as if mentioning children four additional times somehow justifies this alarmingly bizarre explanation.

Rest assured, you don’t even need to delve too deeply into this and try to make any sense of such inane doublespeak. The bottom line is right in the very first sentence he wrote — Ralph Vellon stands by his statements to the public. He’s still standing by his assertion that all five candidates were interviewed by BVOTE. Yet whether he realizes it or not, though in evasive fashion, he is actually admitting that they were not all interviewed.

Frankly, I was stunned by this response from Mr. Vellon.

In the message that accompanied his response, Vellon said that he would make himself available for any clarifications if needed. I didn’t hesitate to tell him that clarification was definitely needed.

Shortly after reading his puzzling statement, I sent him this follow-up message:

 

Mr. Vellon,

Thank you for your response. If you don’t mind, I’m going to take you up on your offer to provide further clarification.

The dictionary meaning of an “interview” is as follows:

[noun] A meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation.

[verb] Hold an interview with (someone).

Just so that I’m clear, your position is that BVOTE’s unilateral “assessment” by watching what people do over the years — whether public officials or private citizens — somehow constitutes an actual “interview”. Therefore, in your opinion, your statement is not a factual misrepresentation to the public.

Am I understanding you correctly?

Lee

 

 

Rather than respond to the above question, instead Vellon invited me to call him. I reiterated that I had offered him the opportunity to submit a written statement for my article, and that I was not willing to subject this very important issue to my personal interpretation of a phone call between us. If he didn’t clarify in writing, then that would be his own choice.

Vellon did not provide any further clarification. He simply requested that I use the previous statement he had already given me for this article. I kept my promise.

Therefore, when all is said and done, ultimately Board of Education trustee Ralph Vellon unapologetically stands by an endorsement he made that is predicated upon an outright lie to the public. He claimed that all five candidates were interviewed for this election, and it simply never happened.

And we’re expected to trust in him? Trust in the endorsement of someone who is willing to be complicit in deceiving the public in order to secure your vote?

Sorry, I don’t think so.

 

 

Seeking Clarification from BVOTE

Although I already had the full confession by an executive member of BVOTE and the facts were not at all in dispute, I still thought it would be fair to offer the committee the opportunity anyway to directly address Mr. Vellon’s misrepresentation in the Belleville Times. Perhaps if they provided some clarification or a correction, they could avoid some potential embarrassment ahead. So, in addition to Vellon, I reached out to two executive members of the BVOTE committee last weekend.

Let’s just say the response I got was anything but a desire to provide an explanation to the public. We’ll leave it at that.

BVOTE had no official comment to offer. Nothing on the fact that they did not interview all five candidates, as asserted by Vellon. Nothing to clarify his grossly misleading statement about their own process that the committee knew to be a blatant lie to the public.

How can BVOTE or any political organization tell anyone with a straight face that their two candidates are best for the job, when they did not give all of the candidates fair, equal, and contemporary consideration in their process?

Evidently BVOTE’s leadership is unapologetic and perfectly fine with deceiving the public in order to secure your vote. They did the wrong thing.

But, we as voters should place our trust in them? In their candidates who were endorsed without equal consideration given to the rest? And all while they preach about the integrity of their “screening process”?

Sorry, I don’t think so.

 

 

The Deception

To be clear, I don’t believe that BVOTE as a committee initially set out to deceive anyone.

I do however believe wholeheartedly that their leadership is compromised; mired in highly questionable political conflicts, personal vendettas, and more alarming, an unholy alliance with the Town Council. This is a select few making decisions for everyone based on their own political agendas and ambitions, not for the greater goal of education, and not to the benefit of either the students or the taxpayers. Some may be misguided, others know exactly where this is going.

Regardless, when an elected official like Ralph Vellon goes on the record trying to convince the public to vote by telling them to place their trust in BVOTE as an organization, and trust in the integrity of their process, it is BVOTE’s obligation to make sure the public is not being misled by his statements. It’s BVOTE’s obligation to clarify the matter.

Mike Mignone and BVOTE came up with their own skewed, rather loose justification for not bothering to interview Jacho, Lamparello, and Lombardi. It is a justification that I find utterly ridiculous and inexcusable for a political action committee that is publicly endorsing candidates and actively campaigning in the township.

Feel free to ask BVOTE and inquire about their rationale yourself. Clearly they didn’t have enough confidence in their position to be fully transparent about it. Be sure to ask them how their “screening process” for candidates doesn’t involve actually speaking to the candidates.

Ultimately, neither BVOTE nor Vellon stepped up publicly when given the opportunity to explain themselves, or apologize for the misrepresentation. Responsibility for the deception falls on all of them collectively. In fact it continued this weekend with a robocall to residents by Mignone, again promoting BVOTE’s “screening process”. I’m not sure how they can even use that phrase in good conscience.

Whether by evasive wordplay, a fanciful imagination, self righteousness, or a simple lie of omission, they continue to further obfuscate the truth and perpetuate this deception.

Of course, by asking them to clarify these outrageously misleading statements for the voting public, somehow they’ll conjure a way to label me the villain. Just watch.

 

 

In Conclusion

BVOTE and the teachers can do whatever they like within the boundaries of the school district. I don’t think anyone would begrudge them that.

However, the moment you form a Political Action Committee, and you suddenly step outside the confines of the school district to actively campaign and solicit votes from the public, you are no longer teachers — you are political activists.

If you want to engage the public and ask for our votes, that’s fine, but you and your process had better be able to hold up under public scrutiny.

If not, you risk losing all credibility when your initiative appears to be yet another political ploy to game the system in your favor. Unfortunately it’s always the Belleville taxpayer who is on the losing end of these political games year after year, and at great cost.

For this election cycle the game looks like one giant smokescreen to obscure a rubber-stamp endorsement of the Town Council’s own candidates. When you consider the current state of the township, is their track record supposed to be some kind of glowing endorsement for allowing the Council to meddle in the governance of the school district as well? A school district that just pulled itself out of a smoking crater, and has already made more progress in 8 months than it has in the last 8 years? A school district that finally places the value of education over politics?

No thanks, gentlemen. Fix the town first before you try to convince anyone you actually care about the children living inside of it.

Let’s get real here. The enormous power void that is left over from the previous regime — along with the school district’s $65 million purse — have become a tempting prize for political opportunists who want to seize control for themselves. They are now circling like a mangy pack of starving, drooling hyenas.

If we don’t learn from our past mistakes of letting local politicians get a foothold in our schools, not only will we be right back where we were three years ago, things could get arguably much worse.

It’s up to you, the voter, to break this cycle of poisonous destructive politics in Belleville. We need you at the polls tomorrow, in force.

Please watch the BHS and BUC candidate forums before you vote tomorrow. Pay attention to the facts, not the innuendo or the misinformation. Consider who has been running a clean, honest campaign of positive ideas and forward thinking, and who has resorted to baseless accusations and deceiving the public. If these people don’t conduct themselves with honor and integrity before the election, do you think they’ll do it after they’re elected?

Above all, judge for yourself who is qualified and the best fit for the school district. Listen to the candidates speak. Ask yourself who is really in this for the kids, and who is simply in this for further political gain at your expense.

Then, do yourself and the rest of your community a big favor — tell anyone who endorses candidates in this election exactly where they can shove their “endorsements”.

Belleville deserves better.

Please get out to vote tomorrow, and choose the better candidates for yourself.

 

~ Griff

 

 

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About Griff 320 Articles
Lee "Griff" Dorry - Founder, watchdog, and public advocate. ♫ They've got strings, but you can see, there are no strings on me. ♫

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