An open letter to the community from Gotto and the Township Council posted on Howell’s website on Tuesday morning — as a followup to the remarks he made at Monday's Township Council meeting — expressed concerns about social media perpetuating “misinformation and half-truths” about the issues and projects going on in town. Town officials trying to give correct information, in many cases, have been blocked from posting on those pages, Gotto said.
Social media activity on two Facebook groups, Howell Happenings NJ and West Farms R9 Housing Project, has intensified since a controversial affordable housing project became the hot issue in town. Citizens have been using Facebook to share information, voice opposition and mobilize to try and stop the development. But included in some of those discussions have been harsh comments about low-income families and people who practice Orthodox Judaism.
“What I don’t get is, as a community, the level of discourse that’s arisen is a very short period of time with some of the absolutely disgusting, anti-Semitic, racial, class-separating comments that I’ve seen by so many residents in this town, predominately on social media,” Gotto said at the council meeting.
“It’s not just a small group of people who are doing it anymore,” he said. “It’s a growing number of people.”
The land that will become Howell Family Apartments, if given final approval by the Planning Board, is owned by the Rabbinical Seminary of America, a national Orthodox nonprofit organization.
The 72-unit project, planned for the southeast corner of the intersection of Fort Plains and West Farms roads just west of Route 9, is being developed by the Walters Group, a Barnegat-based developer.
Walters Group attorney Joe Del Duca said the company would have bought the property outright, but deed restrictions prevented its sale. The company has signed a 55-year lease with the Rabbinal Seminary, after which the property will revert to the Walters Group. He said the landowners have nothing to do with the development.
But residents have said that if the project comes to fruition, they’re afraid that Orthodox communities will take over neighborhoods and eventually the whole town, according to Facebook comments.
Some have said Howell will become the new “Lakewood North.” Lakewood, which borders Howell, has a large population of Orthodox Jews.
One Facebook commenter, who posted as Teresa Boyer Puccio, said she's "really sick" about what's happening here. "I want to stay here because my kids are local and I want to be close to my grandchildren, but not sure how much longer... We know they have been ringing bells in other developments. They want to take over Howell now. Look at all the businesses they have opened here in the past year or so."
Carmine Longo, who also posted on Facebook about the development, wrote: "I work in a Hasidic neighborhood and (I'm) constantly called a "Goyam" by children as young as seven or eight. Where are they learning this from? Parents, Rabbi or school? Low-income housing or a Hasidic community will absolutely drag property values down. This is not a racist or derogatory comment by any means, but a simple fact."
Joanne Puglisi Liverani said the town should be "focused on forbidding a low-income housing project to infiltrate our town," and that if they mayor is concerned about residents' feelings on social media, then he should show Howell that he will "help fix these issues and prevent our beautiful town from going to crap!"
Since Monday’s comments from Gotto, there’s been even more outrage from residents on the Facebook pages, some accusing Gotto of attempting to restrict people’s First Amendment rights to free speech. Some posters wrote that they have a right to criticize their public officials and voice their dissent.
Others, though, defended Gotto and criticized the discriminatory comments by residents.
Others complained that Gotto singled out the two site administrators, Tina Smilek and John Gazire, from the Howell Happenings Facebook group. Gotto said they were the ones allowing people to post on their page “the most disgusting, vile comments I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“The statements made on the Howell Happenings Page are those of the individuals,” Smilek told the Asbury Park Press. “We just provide a forum where others can express themselves. (We) don’t want any more embarrassment to come out of this than has already been done.”
Smilek said the mayor owes Howell residents an apology.
Gazire told the Press Friday that he's been running the page for five years, and they're constantly monitoring the types of comments being posted. He said he's taken down a lot of "bad stuff" and issued a lot of warnings to posters over the last few months.
"We monitor the page inside out, We've done that since day one," he said. "It's hard to delete every single comment, but if there's a nasty or hurtful comment, we take it down."
Gazire said he took personal offense to the mayor's assumptions that the administrators don't want to do anything good for the town, and are fueling hatred and lies.
"I don't hate this town," Gazire said. "I love this town. He's holding us personally liable for what other people are saying and judging our character as people. If he made a general statement, fine, but he singled us out."
On the Howell Happenings page, Gazire posted that Gotto should be removed for conduct unbecoming of a public employee.
"HHNJ is constantly fielding questions about what is happening with certain plots of land and we just presented it to inform the members of our page," Gazire wrote. "The only reason they are now sharing this information with the residents is because people are finally asking, what is going on in our town? There might be a little negativity on projects, issues and taxes, but there by no means are the accusations and content he claims is on here."
On Thursday, Gotto said residents are mad at him for things he didn't say.
"I never said don’t go on social media, or don’t use social media,” Gotto said. "My comment was that when you hear something you don’t like, or if you’re not sure you’re being told the truth, reach out to the people who are ethically and lawfully required to give you the truth.”
Gotto said criticism comes with being an elected official, but that he is more upset about discriminatory comments and misinformation being spread about the township’s projects. He said he understands the fear people have of living conditions in Lakewood coming to Howell.
“But if you’re nervous about something, tell me what it is and have an open conversation with me,” he said.
Annmarie Lopez, a Howell resident and an active member of the Howell Happenings group, said the vast majority of people aren’t anti-Semitic or against affordable housing.
“We just want to make sure taxes are being paid in a fair and equitable manner,” she said. “We want to make sure resources are being provided and aren’t going to be abused. We’re maxed out from the development.”
If given final approval, the developers are going to pay the township 8 percent of annual rental income in lieu of taxes. The town negotiated a payment in lieu of taxes, which is allowed under state law, because the apartments will help fulfill the town’s affordable housing requirements.
Gotto, who said it's his responsibility to set the record straight when it comes to misinformation that's posted on Facebook, said he’s going to monitor what’s being said and take time to address the issues during council meetings. On Monday, he gave a rundown of the developments in the works, and refuted the idea that the Council is “selling the town out to a certain group of people."
“As a society, we believe what we read without checking or asking for facts because we want instant gratification… Whether you like the elected official, disagree with his or her policy of support a different political party, none of that should dismiss the quest for the truth,” the letter said.
“We have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to provide factually correct information,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, social media is not held to the same standard.”