Suburbanite: Election Tempest in Teaneck Teapot

Democracy is a delicate entity that can be broken by politicians who act like bulls in a china shop. We don't want that in our sleepy little towns.
Poll watchers
by Howard Prosnitz - June 17, 2008

Council requests due process for fired workers

The council approved a resolution asking the County Board of Elections to give due process to two Teaneck women who were fired from their jobs as election poll watchers. Albertha Shumpert and Pansy Grossman were fired by Board of Election Commissioner Eileen DeBari following a May 13 incident at the Bryant School polling place. The council’s action came near the end of a long and contentious council meeting on June 11 attended by more than 100 residents, including many from the northeast, who spoke in support of the two women, and a large number of Orthodox Jews.

According to Board of Education president Dr. Henry Pruitt, a resident of the northeast, an anonymous flyer had circulated in the West Englewood section, where many Orthodox Jews live, urging residents to attend the council meeting to support Mayor Elie Y. Katz because a (verbal) attack was being planned against him. Katz is an Orthodox Jew.

"Something is going on that is organized to divide the black and Jewish communities, and the council needs to show leadership to stop it," Pruitt told the council.

But most of the residents of the northeast spoke not to attack Katz, but to support Shumpert and Grossman.

Carbone explains incident

The poll workers were fired after New Milford resident Keith Carbone, a town-wide challenger for Councilman Elnatan Rudolph, who was up for reelection, was denied permission by poll watchers to look at the vote tally registered on the voting machines in district 14, at Bryant School.

Carbone said he had driven to the polling place with Rudolph, who waited outside in his car while Carbone went in.

In an interview, Carbone said that he had acted in compliance with the law. He said the poll watchers were rude and hostile to him and did not have the right to refuse him permission to look at the vote tally.

Carbone said that challengers are prohibited from interfering with voting. While some challengers are assigned specific polling places, others are authorized to visit them all. Carbone said that challengers have the legal right to know the number of votes cast in a specific district.

Although he said that he was holding his challenger badge in his hand when speaking to the poll watchers, he acknowledged that he had left his certification as a challenger in the car. Only the certification had his name, he said.

When he initially entered the polling place, he spoke to neither Grossman nor Shumpert, Carbone said, but to an unidentified male poll watcher who refused him permission to read the tally. Carbone said the poll worker threatened to call the police.

Carbone said he then left the building and returned to the car, where he explained the situation to Rudolph, who then went into the building. Carbone remained in the car and called DeBari, one of the four County Board of Election Commissioners, who assured him that he had acted properly. However, Carbone said that when he attempted to re-enter the building, he was met by a poll watcher who told him that Rudolph had left and that the police had been summoned.

Township police were soon joined by DeBari and Charles Zisa, who is listed in county documents as one of the commissioners, although, according to attorney Martin Cramer, who is representing the two poll workers in a suit against the board of elections, Zisa is disqualified to serve because he has filed an application to run for state assembly.

When DeBari spoke to the two women, they were "cold and suspicious" said Carbone, who by this time was in the building.

"The women were nasty to her. She told them that she was their boss. They said they had never heard of her," Carbone said.

DeBari went over to the machines and provided Carbone with the tally.

But Cramer in a press conference last week at Shumpert’s Van Buskirk Road home, said that after Rudolph entered the polling place, he became loud and had used his cell phone to call DeBari. Use of a cell phone is prohibited in polling places.

Shumpert has been a Teaneck poll worker for 17 years and Grossman for 13, Cramer said.

Residents/Councilmembers react

Speaking at the June 10 council meeting, Shepard Avenue resident Mildred Tucker said that Carbone, Rudolph and the commissioners had been disrespectful to the poll workers.

"The incident is a direct attempt by the Bergen County Democratic Organization to interfere with our nonpartisan government. It is a shame that loyal poll workers are being used as sacrificial lambs," Tucker said.

Councilwoman Jacqueline Kates noted that the majority of the challengers were not Teaneck residents and that many were county employees.

"We were always a diverse community but our elections were not determined by money from Bergen County Democratic Organization," Kates said.

The May 13 election was not the first time there was a complaint against Shumpert.

In a letter to Board of Elections Chair Peter Incardone dated April 21, 2008, Township Clerk Lissette Aportela-Hernandez requested that Shumpert be prohibited from working in polling places in the township. The letter alleges that Shumpert had been verbally abusive to Jennifer Hodges, an employee of the municipal clerk’s office, during the school board election on April 15.

Hodges had visited the Bryant School polling place as a representative of the clerk’s office. Aportela-Hernandez wrote that it is customary for her office to send a representative to every polling place in the township on election days.

"When Ms. Hodges…arrived at District 13 and introduced herself, Ms. Shumpert abruptly demanded to see an identification from her. Ms. Hodges advised Ms. Shumpert that she did not have a name tag, at which time Ms. Shumpert refused to speak with Ms. Hodges."

Hodges went to her car and returned to the polling place with her election official placard. Shumpert then telephoned the clerk’s office, using her cell phone, and spoke to employee Jaime Evelina.

"Ms. Shumpert began to direct her verbal abuse toward Ms. Evelina," Hernandez wrote.

After Hodges informed Shumpert that it was improper to use the cell phone at the polling place, Shumpert went outside the building, Aportela-Hernandez wrote.

"Ms. Shumpert should be advised that her behavior was unacceptable, inappropriate, harassing and will not be tolerated," the letter concludes. Grossman was not mentioned in the letter.

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