Exactly six years ago on February 27, 2014, late at night during a snowstorm, I sat at my desk in my home office with a glass of wine, and quietly launched a website called “Nutley Watch”.
The reason why? My neighbors and I were fed up with our town’s elected officials ignoring a serious issue we were having on our street for many months.
It didn’t take long before the Watch got the attention of town officials. Long story short, that issue was resolved almost immediately.
Little did I know that not even a full week later, I would hear some wild stories from my politically-active neighbor about rampant corruption next door in the Belleville school district. He told me story after story about teachers being harassed and retaliated against for complaining to the administration about not having even basic school supplies. Meanwhile, the school board trustees somehow found plenty of money to spend on a new $2 million surveillance system that nobody asked for.
Children in the Belleville school district didn’t even have enough textbooks to go around. But, they now had more than 900 cameras installed in their schools, monitoring both them and their teachers like they were inmates on Riker’s Island.
That was all I needed to know.
In March 2014, the highly questionable Clarity surveillance system contract in the school district became the first issue campaign undertaken by the Watch in Belleville.
That’s an even longer story, but most of us know how that fiasco was ultimately brought to a swift end by the State of New Jersey, thanks to the hard work of vocal citizens and public advocates. And, our work on that campaign is not yet complete.
I started the Nutley Watch as a simple social experiment to help citizens be heard. The idea was to be an accessible touchpoint between residents of the town and their own elected officials, as well as local law enforcement.
One year later, the Nutley Watch became the Essex Watch, monitoring and covering issues in multiple townships.
Six years later, I’m getting calls and messages from all over the state from citizens asking for guidance on how to get organized, how to tackle a particular issue with their local government, how to raise awareness, and in some cases, how to navigate the giant labyrinth of state and federal law enforcement with the information they have in hand.
Sometimes I wonder how on earth I got here. This is a side hobby on steroids. This model of public advocacy has taken on a life of its own, and evolved into something efficient and effective. It can be chaotic and unwieldy at times with the sheer volume of information passing in and out, but it’s a well-oiled machine, and can be replicated anywhere in New Jersey.
And, for the last two and a half years, I’ve been working on doing exactly that.
As we now move into Phase III of the project, I’m very pleased to announce the launch of the Belleville Watch.
Part of our model for each municipality is to establish a Watch run by civic-minded, non-partisan residents who have shown an extraordinary level of courage, passion, integrity, and dedication to their township. People devoted to serving their community by protecting taxpayers from bad politics and greed, and holding their public officials accountable for their actions. Neighbors looking out for their neighbors, and who ask for nothing in return.
Belleville resident and civic activist Frank Fleischman is precisely that sort of individual. As such, we are honored to have Frank be the Lead Editor for the Belleville Watch.
Frank has been with us since the battle in 2015 to stop the Belleville Council from approving a berserk plan to build multiple 50-story high-rises on the 24-acre Kidde-Finkelstein property in the Valley, which would have added more than 4500 families to Belleville’s already over-stressed population.
Concept art from the 2015 Second River Station proposal to build several high-rise apartment buildings on the 24-acre Kidde-Finkelstein property. This is likely what would be under construction in the Valley right now if not for citizens battling the Belleville Council and residents opposing the plan.
Now thanks to the Finkelstein family coming forward with their own incredible proposal last year, a giant 325,000 sq. ft logistical warehouse operation is in the process of being built on that property that will bring hundreds of jobs into the township. It places virtually no additional demand on municipal services, nor will it put any more children into the overburdened Belleville school district.
Contrary to what local politicians have been trying to push on that site for years, the Finkelstein’s proposal creates pure tax revenue and jobs, with no residential housing, as any responsible development in the Valley should.
Citizens helped make that possible by battling a preposterous high-density residential proposal that was unsuitable for the town, holding their elected officials accountable for trying to push it through, and forcing them to defeat the plan.
Frank Fleischman was an integral part of that two-year battle to stop the Second River Station project, and has been with us ever since, fighting for Belleville taxpayers on a wide variety of issues.
As a former journalist, to say that Frank is a master with a pen is a gross understatement. Over the past 5 years Frank has made countless contributions to the Watch, and has become a formidable advocate for Belleville residents. Don’t let his nice exterior fool you….when it comes to standing up for what he believes in and doing what is right, Frank is a tenacious and fearsome opponent.
I can think of no better individual to represent us locally as Lead Editor of the Belleville Watch.
You can follow the Belleville Watch blog at:
Also, the Belleville Watch has a Facebook page you can follow for updates:
Belleville Watch Facebook page
Not to worry, I won’t be going anywhere. However, my role in growing the Essex Watch Project, offering guidance for other volunteer groups, and being the liaison for law enforcement agencies doesn’t afford me as much time for publishing content for our audience to follow.
Having a dedicated arm of the project like Belleville Watch allows people to hear other perspectives from residents of their own town, and probably more often. While there will always be crossover between Essex Watch and Belleville Watch (that’s the point of collaborating and sharing resources), residents now have another independent source for information on what their elected officials are doing around town.
More importantly, it gives me more time to focus on the most critical aspects of our work as a watchdog organization.
We will have more expansion announcements later this year. We also expect to make a big announcement this coming September or October. Just like the theme song to one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, The Jeffersons, “We’re movin’ on up!”.
Thank you all for following us these past 6 years. We’re deeply grateful to have so many people continue to support and encourage us on this insane crusade to create an effective citizen-driven system of checks and balances for local government.
It’s been a wild ride so far, and we’re very excited about the days ahead.
We are The Watch.