Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Muhlenberg Advocates Demand Council Help

A push to get the City Council to sign an appeal against the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center got a little too pushy when shouted comments caused the council to drop talks and adjourn.

“Show you care,” resident Dottie Gutenkauf yelled as the council attempted to confer with Corporation Council Dan Williamson on the legalities of signing an appeal seeking a stay of the closing.

“Go visit that baby in Trinitas that is dying,” resident Nancy Piwowar shouted, referring to the Elizabeth hospital that is now trying to handle births no longer accommodated at Muhlenberg.

“You won’t even let us have a meeting,” Councilman Rashid Burney said as the gavel came down and the yelling continued.

Earlier, the “Save Muhlenberg” advocates had jammed the rotunda of City Hall while waiting for the agenda session to start. Holding signs, the protesters filled up City Hall Library and sat through more than two hours of other council business before seven of them were able to speak.

The Rev. James Colvin noted the group had met every Monday night since March, held nine or 10 rallies, took part in four hearings and now wanted stronger council support.

“It is tijme to do it,” Colvin said. “We have put our heart and soul into it. We want you to put your heart and soul in it.”

Josef Gutenkauf asked the council to “sign on and support Bennet Zurofsky’s appeal,” referring to an attorney who represents People’s Organization for Progress in the “Save Muhlenberg” movement.

“Our efforts are being noticed all over the United States,” said resident Brenda Gilbert, chiding the elected officials by adding, ”In November we will remember. In June, stay tuned.”

“We need you to stand up for us,” Piwowar told the council.

Piwowar alleged that Trinitas is being overwhelmed by Plainfield maternity cases, with 27 babies born on July 23 (correction: July 3) alone.

The protesters and other speakers used up the 30 minutes allotted for comment just as former Freeholder and Councilman Adrian Mapp came up to speak. Councilman Cory Storch called for a 30-minute extension, but then the council got into a debate over whether it should be 30 minutes or only 15. Then Councilman Don Davis heatedly defended the council's involvement and that of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Resident Gayle Jones stood waiting her turn as the council wrangled over extending public comment. When granted time to speak, she said, ”I think we all got to see fine leadership at its finest.”

“You’re not with us,” Jones said. “You’re not marching, you haven’t signed the petition. Who has to die for you to understand?

Dottie Gutenkauf closed the comment session with an impassioned demand for the council to sign the appeal and to put signing the appeal on the agenda.

“Make it happen and make it happen before it’s too late,” she said.

The council members then asked Williamson to explain whether the city could join the appeal.

“The short answer is yes,” Williamson said. But he cautioned, “Once you sign on, you sign on for the long haul, so there are some consequences.”

Councilman Elliott Simmons said he wanted city residents to make the decision on whether to join a legal appeal.

“Put it to them. It’s not our money, it’s their money,” he said.

Storch said, “We don’t know all the advantages and disadvantages of the appeal.”

Williamson said besides the legal issues, there were also political issues, but Storch said he just wanted to sort out the legal “upsides and downsides.” Williamson said the real question is how the city will deal with the consequences of the closing.

City Council President Harold Gibson said he did not want to subject the citizens to possible “massive amounts” of legal costs. As the council members voiced their views and concerns, the Gutenkaufs and Piwowar began yelling at them from the sidelines. Unable to continue, the council adjourned.

--Bernice Paglia


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