By JOHN T. WARD
Three Red Bank council members were silent Wednesday in the face of accusations that one of them had smeared a resident by accusing her of using “racist” language last month.
Sue Viscomi, a member of the borough school board and regular attendee of council sessions, continued to deny that she intentionally referred to Business Administrator Ziad Shehady as “Mr. Jihad” at the council’s February 10 session.
“I apologized publicly for flubbing my words and mispronouncing Z’s name,” she said, referring to social media postings she made immediately afterward. “There was no other malice intended, period.”
At the February 10 meeting, Councilman Hazim Yassin said that “intent” of Viscomi’s word choice was “not lost” on him as a person of Middle Eastern descent, like Shehady.
“No matter what your opinion of us as people, as elected officials, I would ask that we refrain from using racist language,” he said at the time.
Mayor Pasquale Menna followed the next day with a post on his personal Facebook page “denouncing the shadow of Islamophobia,” and said he had been “advised that this person has done it in the past.”
Menna’a post generated dozens of “likes,” including endorsements by Yassin and council members Kate Triggiano, Erik Yngstrom, and Kathy Horgan. Horgan called the purported slur “outrageous.”
Wednesday’s council workshop was the governing body’s first meeting since the incident, following a cancellation due to lack of quorum on February 24.
In an unsteady voice, Viscomi said during public comments that she was a victim of a “rush to judgment” by the same officials who caution a belief in “process” on other matters.
“Over the last several months, we have been listening to four councilmembers asking all of us to ‘believe in the process’ – a direct quote – because they do not want to make a rushed decision about the future of the Senior Center,” she said. “Yet ironically, these four members were the first to rush to judgment and label me as a racist.”
Menna, she said, had “fanned the flame,” and Yassin “is still trying to convince neighbors and the public that I would do such a disgusting thing and utter a racial slur. We all talk about not being bullies, but this is a lesson of how to stand up to bullies.”
Viscomi said the attack had been levied “for political gain,” and was an example of disrespect residents are subjected to that she intends to compile into a video.
An immigrant from Ecuador, Viscomi said last month that she sometimes gets “tongue-tied” and stammers when speaking. In a printed version of her statement Viscomi sent to redbankgreen, Yassin’s name is rendered repeatedly as “Yazim.”
Sean Di Somma, of South Street, said everyone on the dais had either “piled on” or stood by in silence as Viscomi was “smeared” by an allegation they should know to be false.
“Why was everybody so excited and intoxicated to smear just a resident, and perhaps our most civically minded resident?” Di Somma asked. He demanded they “show some leadership and humility” by apologizing to Viscomi.
“I never mentioned anyone’s name,” Menna responded. “I mentioned an idea. That was it. And if anybody thought that I was referring to that person or considers it inappropriate, I’m sorry. It was inappropriate of me to editorialize on something, but I never mentioned anyone’s name.”
Horgan told Viscomi that she was “willing to give you the benefit of the doubt,” but offered no apology.
Yassin, along with Triggiano and Yngstrom, said nothing.
Though all the borough’s elected officials are Democrats, Menna, Horgan, Triggiano, Yassin and Yngstrom have come to constitute a bloc that is often at odds with councilmembers Michael Ballard and Ed Zipprich.
Zipprich, who is the local party chairman, and Ballard did not join in Yassin’s and Menna’s characterizations of Viscomi’s intentions last month. Each said Wednesday that he had spoken directly to Viscomi after the February 10 meeting.
Triggiano and Yassin topped Viscomi, running as an independent, and Republicans Allison Gregory and Michael Clancy, to win council seats in 2018. They are now seeking second terms, with support from Monmouth County Democrats, while the borough Democratic organization is planning to back two newcomers to electoral politics, Bruce Maida and LeRoi Royal Jones, face them in a June primary.
Neither Yassin nor Triggiano responded to a redbankgreen request for comment sent late Wednesday.
See redbankgreen‘s report of the February 10 session, which includes an audio clip of the disputed pronunciation.
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