West Orange just might have a little public relations problem. Make that a Public Relations Commission (PRC) problem. When an ill-conceived cease and desist letter was sent out by West Orange’s township attorney Richard Trenk to website owner Jake Freivald, owner of the site Westorange.info, it ended up in the hands of lawyer Stephen B. Kaplitt, who wrote back with what may be the best response to a cease and desist letter ever.
Freivald, who also ran for West Orange’s town council (and briefly created another website expressing dissatisfaction with a Weichert realtor a while back), tried to find out why his WestOrange.info website was being targeted by the town. Freivald gave a speech about his website and his surprise at receiving the letter, at a town council meeting on June 11. He expressed concerns about why the town didn’t address the “confustion” they were worried about through other methods, other than sending the cease and desist letter. Then Freivald asked for transparency.
The morning after the meeting, Freivald received this email in response to his questions about the letter from West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi:
Good morning… the Administration authorized the sending of the cease and desist letter at the request of members of the Public Relations Commission that believe the sites and the confusion they arouse, undermines the efforts of the Commission and the work they do in promoting the Township. As the Commission is officially sanctioned and funded by the Township, the Administration respected their concerns and agreed to send the letter.
There’s just one problem. Freivald is a member of the Public Relations Commission (PRC), along with Prakash Khaitan, Chair; Michelle Cadeau; Cynthia Cumming; MaryEllen Morrow; Jonathon Ridley; Josefina Velez, Vice Chair; Patrecia West.
When asked about any or all PRC members’ involvement with the cease and desist letter, West Orange public information officer Jessica Glicker, who is also (per the town’s website) a liaison to the PRC, said yesterday “Well, I usually can’t comment on a pending legal matter, but it doesn’t seem like this is a legal matter anymore.”
When asked if actions are usually taken by the PRC without the knowledge of other members, Glicker said that was not usual practice.
Glicker described the situation with the PRC members as “muddled and mucky,” but said she would call back after she found out what she could say on behalf of the township (we await her response as well as Mayor Parisi, who we also reached out to earlier this week).
Just to confuse things more, Freivald isn’t the only member of the PRC connected to a website publishing information about West Orange. Cynthia Cumming, another PRC member, is also the licensee of The Alternative Press (TAP). Cumming covers West Orange for the TAP, acting as its town editor.
We asked Alternative Press publisher Michael Shapiro whether Cumming’s spot on the PRC was a conflict of interest.
“As to Mrs. Cumming’s volunteer position on the Public Relations Commission, a position Mr. Freivald also holds, Mrs. Cumming was appointed by a member of the West Orange Township Council and serves as a volunteer to improve the town. The Alternative Press is not involved in any way with the Commission’s work,” says Shairo. “That said, she has sought an opinion by the Township as to whether it is a conflict for her to serve and will step down if such a conflict does exist.”
According to Freivald, as well as Shapiro, Cumming has publicly denied any involvement in efforts by PRC members (per Mayor Parisi) to send the cease and desist letter to Freivald. (Freivald says five PRC members, including Cumming, answered ‘no’ to his questions of whether they knew about the letter or raised concerns about the site to the mayor).
Shapiro had this to say about Freivald.
“TheAlternativePress.com is an independent news organization accredited by the New Jersey Press Association. Mr. and Mrs. Freivald have way too much time on their hands. While we respect their right to freedom of speech, we refuse to allow them to trample on our freedom of the press.”
Why all the bad blood between Shapiro and the Freivalds? Shapiro says Freivald has been unfarily critical of the Alternative Press in the past, including his description of the site on WestOrange.Info:
The Alternative Press of West Orange: An “alternative” paper whose editor doesn’t understand basic journalistic principles, and whose CEO apparently doesn’t mind. Be careful. (Yes, of course I’m willing to back that up. It’s a really funny story. You have no idea. Email me if you like.)
Freivald, who describes himself as “a pain in the ass,” believes he has annoyed Cumming with his criticism of her coverage on The Alternative Press. The conflict between the two in the past includes a long heated email exchange which started when Cumming wrote to Freivald’s wife, who is involved in the organization, PASSE (Parents Advocating for Special Services in Education; according to this link, Freivald himself is a trustee and webmaster for PASSE ) and stated the following:
I heard you and Jake had a new forum going. I found this on your forum[sic — it was on the home page of westorange.info, not the forum]:
The Alternative Press of West Orange: An “alternative” paper with a non-journalist for an editor — be careful.
I’m sorry you feel this way about the Alternative Press, and especially about me. I figured since you have no respect for me and consider WoTap unsafe, that it would be in your best interest if I delete articles and Press Releases pertaining to Passe.
That would also go for all future news and any other organizations you wanted PR for.
Please feel free to send me your thoughts on the matter.
Freivald responded to Cumming and Shapiro with:
Seriously? This is an “editor”? Of a “news organization”? And she still has a job because….?
What’s funny is that she’s threatening Sue — someone who has restrained me from giving her the treatment I actually think she deserves. Sue who talked to the managing editor instead of going public with how bad she is. And now she wants Sue to send her “thoughts on the matter”? What does that mean — that Sue should grovel at her feet so that a special-needs advocacy organization can continue to get coverage?
Clearly, my online warning to “be careful” wasn’t strong enough. You have the First Amendment right to print anything you want, but while she’s still an “editor”, please refrain from calling it “news”.
Very, very sincerely,
Shapiro, who tried to resolve the issue between Freivald and Cumming without success, says that although he knows Cumming did not mean her email as threatening, “I can see how it can be read that way.”
Since the letter going viral, Freivald has added the following points to his website:
No, this is not the official web site of West Orange, New Jersey.
Nor is it the official or unofficial web site of the West Oranges of FL, TX, or CA. Nothing against those guys — just not what I’m here for.
I’m not putting up advertising. This kerfuffle isn’t about money, and my traffic will slow to its normal bucolic pace in a few days, so there’s no need to put up ads..