Infighting halts progress at abandoned Newark cemetery

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on May 10, 2016

The latest campaign to cleanup Woodland Cemetery in Newark finally had some starch in its backbone.

Organize Change Inc., a Newark community group, stoked the neighborhood's interest in getting the abandoned cemetery up and running again.

The volunteer cemetery board was eager, its members looking forward to working with the group after a Feb. 27 community meeting.

By mid-March, the momentum was gone. The cemetery board wanted no part of this past Saturday's cleanup and both sides blamed each other for their fractured relationship.

They bumped heads over the cemetery's future, including its governance and finances, plans to raise revenue and requirements to fill seats on the board.

The tension erupted March 16 with a physical fight – at the cemetery of all places – between Warren Vincentz, a cemetery board member, and Horatio Joines, an Organize Change member. Joines also is the boyfriend of Karima Jackson, the leader of Organize Change.

This is not good, but first, some background on how we got here.  Jackson, a Newark native, has been passionate about cleaning up the cemetery that is also home to Civil War veterans.

"The community has been dying for this,'' she said.

She has called on Newark residents who have relatives buried in Woodland to join the board after past efforts to clean the cemetery failed.

Board President Rosemary Hilbert said Woodland's problems hinge on money. It doesn't earn enough annual interest from a trust fund to cut the grass, reset fallen headstones and install a new fence around the 37 acres.

Hilbert explained this at the February meeting, along with the board's five-year plan to sell graves and generate additional revenue.

Jackson has questioned the strategy, saying it's not workable. She also believes the board is a barrier to cleaning the cemetery, accusing the members of refusing to release financial records to proprietors, who are people with family members buried in the cemetery. She said the board has not to held an annual proprietor meeting to bring on new board members and that it has added stipulations for people to join, such as submitting biographical information and agreeing to a background check. 

"There is something wrong with this cemetery board in the way they're doing business,'' Jackson said. 

Hilbert said the board's financial records are public information that Jackson can obtain from the New Jersey Cemetery Board. She also said the board member requirements are policies that it had in place before Jackson came around, and she disagrees with her assertion that the board has not been cooperative.

"That is the spin that she puts on everything,'' Hilbert said.

Enough.

This is a sad, disappointing situation, made worse by the physical confrontation.

According to a police report, Jackson and Vincentz had a conversation – about trash being dumped in the cemetery  which escalated into an argument.

She said he pointed his finger in her face and that he poked her in the chest.

Vincentz, who is also a Ridgefield councilman, said he couldn't comment on the incident. In the police report, he acknowledged the argument and said he left afterward to continue working in the cemetery. 

Jackson said she tried to take a picture of Vincentz's license plate as he drove off. She then called Joines and the police.

After Joines showed up to check on Jackson, he said he then left in his own his car and saw Vincentz inside the cemetery, talking on a cell phone near his automobile.

The two men get into a fight after a dispute, with Vincentz alleging that Joines punched him in the face.  Joines said Vincentz rushed at him while he tried to take a picture of the councilman's license plate. The two wound up wrestling on the ground and a police report indicates there was some redness on Vincentz's cheek.

Both men filed assault charges against each other. Jackson also filed assault charges against Vincentz, and has registered a complaint with the New Jersey Cemetery Board about Woodland's management practices. The state Division of Consumer Affairs said it's reviewing Jackson's complaint and that it could not comment further on matters under review.

Because of the two investigations, Hilbert said the Woodland board has postponed its annual meeting to fill three empty seats on its nine-member board and to appoint two advisory members from the communit

"It's Karima who is causing the problem,'' Hilbert said.

Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins is not pleased, placing the onus on the board for things not progressing.

"This is unfair to the people who have family members buried there,'' she said. "This is unnecessary flexing of muscle by the board.''

The board revoked its right-of-entry agreement with Organize Change to do the cleanup. Jackson's group held it anyway, doing what it could with limited volunteers. 

The board didn't  stop them, although rescinding the agreement caused  a large volunteer group from Jersey Cares to not participate.

Jackson says she is not deterred. The board still has to answer to her at some point. 

When a new date is scheduled for the annual meeting, only the proprietors  who have family members buried in the cemetery can attend. 

Jackson is a proprietor.

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