Updated: Aug 9
Editors Note: Muriel usually writes about what is going on in the Bayshore Region, and happenings around Monmouth County, but this story has ramifications throughout the entire United States. Please read, consider the questions that the story poses, and most importantly, please share with everyone you know by word of mouth, Email, and social media ... you never know who has a disability and needs a little bit of help to participate in all aspects of society
Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Highlands. It is where I was married, lived a joyous life for more than 40 years, raised four children who love it as much as I and have written a couple of books about it. It’s the town where I and my husband, later our children, were deeply involved in volunteer work of all kinds, always eager to do whatever we could to continue to preserve it as a wonderful place to live and bring up another generation, or two.
So it would pain me to cost the taxpayers of Highlands the amount of money the Mayor and Council would have to spend because they continue to ignore and refuse to respond to questions, and further, refuse to make any attempt to resolve issues.
Simply put, the borough leaders and administrator whom they hired are begging for a lawsuit rather than simply getting matters resolved.
In one last attempt to prevent a lawsuit, that while it might change how municipal meetings are run throughout the state, would make Highlands the center of the action and would cost it thousands of dollars in lawyer fees the taxpayers would ultimately have to pay.
In short, I simply want Highlands to enable all people, all citizens, especially those with disabilities, all those who love Highlands, to be able to participate in municipal public meetings.
Having a disability that makes it extremely difficult to attend a meeting should not be a reason in any town to limit participation in what’s going on. Especially when the municipality has proven over nearly two years, that it is a very simply process to let even the disabled attend and participate in one of their meetings.
The following is a story that I, a professional journalist, hope, I never have to write about the town I love. It is a story that I hope never has to be written before disabled citizens have the same rights as abled bodied persons.
I do ask you Highlands readers, is this how you want your tax dollars spent?
When insurance companies pay out because the borough they insure doesn’t settle matters without a lawsuit, they naturally charge higher premiums in the future.
Paying Attorneys fees for something that could have been resolved in the normal course of business.
Is that how you want your tax dollars spent?
Readers from every other town. Do you want to see your municipality engaged in a similar litigation and costly attorney fees? Or would you rather the matter be settled, precedent set and lawsuits to protect the disabled are a thing of the past.
I do not know how many times Highlands has paid for lawsuits against the borough rather than enacting simple solutions that have actually been in place. Based on their history, it’s not a question I anticipate the borough leaders or administrator would answer. And I have not yet filed a request under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPRA) to find out. But Highlands remains, even without further litigation and attorney fees, a municipality with one of the highest rates in Monmouth County.
If the Mayor and Council decide it is necessary, the next story explaining the additional costs to Highlands taxpayers would be what’s printed below.
HIGHLANDS – Former resident and still active newspaper reporter Muriel J. Smith has filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Highlands and its administrator for the borough’s willful violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The suit was filed in Federal District Court which has jurisdiction over violations of federal law.
Named in the suit, in addition to the Borough of Highlands is Mayor Carolyn Broullon, and Councilmembers Kevin L. Martin, Linda Mazzola, Donald Melnyk and Jo-Anne Olszewski as well as Borough Administrator Michael Muscillo. Each is being charged both individually and in their official capacities with the borough.
The Mayor, Council Members and Administrator have been named individually because Smith believes the violations of clearly established statutory and civil rights are so egregious that any reasonable person would have known that ignoring her repeated requests for a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act was a violation of the law
In her suit, Smith is alleging all the parties involved are engaging in a pattern or practice of conspiring to violate, and violating the statutory rights of persons with visual disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the laws that protect those who wish to exercise civic entitlements including participation in Open Public Meetings of the Borough Council. She is charging the named defendants deliberately disregarded known disparities of service and treatment towards herself and all individuals with visual impairments.
In including Muscillo in the suit, Smith is charging that among his duties and responsibilities as an agent for the governing body, is integrating and coordinating functions of all departments, which includes referring to the appropriate department such communications as may require prompt action.
Muscillo has the duty of advising council on all background matters as an aid to the establishment of policy and the carrying out of the functions of borough government and advising the governing body and other officials on matters affecting the public interest. He is also obligated to receive, distribute and follow up requests for information and complaints from citizens on all manner of problems, and keep the council informed on such matters.
As a public entity who both receives and administers various federal grants and under numerous laws is required to answer to the people, the borough has a responsibility to fill the needs of citizens, Smith alleges.
Despite Smith’s visual problems that qualify her as a disabled person under federal law,
the administrator has failed to respond to a request first notifying him last May of its need for accommodations so the disabled could participate in council meetings.
That ability had been provided for more than a year, however, after the borough declined to continue virtual meetings enabling the public to participate and hear all the business transacted in a council meeting, the disabled faced a severe discrimination that council had already proven could easily be remedied.
Smith further alleges Defendant Muscillo failed to respond or acknowledge this communication, representing a deliberate indifference or discriminatory animus to the Plaintiff and her concerns; the borough clerk also failed to acknowledge or respond to a request e-mailed by her the following day, asking what accommodations were being offered.
Additional requests since May until the present have all resulted in a lack of response Smith said, leading her to believe the borough is acting either with a deliberate indifference or a discriminatory dislike for her and her concerns.
In June, Smith filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and sent a notice advising the borough of her actions.
Even then, the Highlands Borough Clerk failed to respond or acknowledge the communication, representing a deliberate indifference or discriminatory animus to the Plaintiff and her concerns Smith said. She also once again asked for reasonable accommodations to enable her to participate in municipal meetings.
Two days later, Smith received a letter from the claims administrator for the borough’s insurance company, denying the claim. She then responded to the claims administrator requesting an evaluation of their position and decision, again copying all parties involved.
“This should have been such an easy thing to resolve, “ Smith said, “ since in actuality, what Highlands did was take away the procedure they had had in place, namely virtual meetings. By re-instituting these virtual meetings, the borough could save itself a lot of money and time, and the elected officials would not have to answer personally why they refuse to accommodate a disabled person with a simple need they had already proven they could accommodate. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Smith said since she attends government meetings as a journalist for both Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, she had sent a similar request to Atlantic Highlands.
That borough administrator, Adam Hubeny, responded immediately with a letter acknowledging receipt and assuring the journalist he would investigate and report back. At the same time, several members of council also offered personal assistance should the matter not be able to be immediately resolved.
Hubeny responded later that Atlantic Highlands is now resuming its virtual meetings and has already approved purchase of new equipment which will make virtual meetings more efficient for all virtual attendees, regardless of a disability similar as Smith’s The matter was resolved through cooperative efforts and investigations that showed virtual meetings could be continued.
The lawsuit also charges a violation of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which guarantees all citizens protection from any practice of intentional discrimination. This act guarantees the same rights as the ADA, however, puts a stronger onus on non-profit organizations and municipalities who receive federal funding.
Rather than a large sum of money, Smith is requesting in her suit that the court directs each of the named persons halt acts and omissions and be required to take whatever actions will ensure the administration provide all programs and services that are provided to the non-disable, also be provided for individuals with a disability; the suit also demands admission that past acts, omissions and practices that constitute a pattern or practice of resistance to the citizens’ full enjoyment of rights, privileges, or immunities violate the laws of the United States and must be discontinued immediately.
Smith is further asking the named individuals conduct a self-evaluation of services, policies, and practices and make modifications necessary to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; she is asking that citizens and participants, beneficiaries, and other interested persons be notified of the Borough's obligations under Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; that a responsible employee be designated to coordinate efforts to comply with and carry out the Borough's ADA responsibilities under both laws and that a grievance procedure for resolving complaints of violations of the laws be established.
The suit notes that all programs, services, or activities when viewed in their entirety, are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, that services, programs, or activities be delivered in alternate ways to ensure they are effective in making the programs accessible for ADA persons, and that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others, including furnishing auxiliary aids and services when necessary.
Seems like a simple solution, a solution that has been in effect for nearly two years before it was discontinued. But so far, Highlands Mayor and Council have indicated they prefer to have a citizen sue for the right to the disabled they erased with a single action.
Editors Post Script:
Attached please read page 1 of Muriel's Lawsuit. Keeping with the tradition set by the Borough, the document is heavily redacted.