NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As the seasons changed during this morning's autumnal equinox, most folks might not know it but something will be very different this fall in New Brunswick.
This season will be the city's first since the 1960's without community leader Charles Renda.
Renda was a respected attorney who was actively involved in local government and politics, an advocate for the city's public library, an avid photographer, and a proud gardener who shared the fruits of his backyard fig tree and tomato plants with friends and neighbors.
"He didn't like tomatoes or figs, but he grew them all the time and gave them to everybody," said his cousin and close friend Angela Burtenshaw, who also lives in New Brunswick.
Sadly, Renda passed away in his Harvey Street home on the morning of August 12 at the age of 69. The official cause of death was pnuemonia.
Born to an Italian father and Hungarian mother in New Brunswick, Charlie grew up in homes on Suydam and Guilden Streets. He graduated from New Brunswick High School around 1960 and was the second-oldest of four children.
At the August 15 New Brunswick City Council meeting, the first since his death, a half-dozen members of the public, including the author of this article, took time in their remarks to address the loss of Renda.
City Council President Robert Recine called Renda, "a caring, civic-minded person who was well-known to all of us in the city." Recine said volunteering in the city would be a good way to honor his memory.
"The last time I was here, Charlie Renda asked me why I hadn't said anything in the meeting," said Jenny Fischer, President of the Friends of the New Brunswick Library.
"So today I'm going to say that he's been a very active, vocal, valuable member of the Friends of the Library and I'm going to miss him very much," Fischer said before the audience burst into applause.
Yolonda Baker, a Democratic Committeewoman from the Fourth Ward said, "He was a really really special man. When I first met him, I was already moved by the things that he said and the passion that he had."
AN HONEST ATTORNEY
After matriculating at Rutgers University and the highly-respected Georgetown Law School, Charlie left the east coast for a brief stint in California. But after a few years, Renda returned to New Brunswick, where he would make his home for the remainder of his life.
He opened a law practice at 91 Bayard Street, which stayed in business for over 40 years, according to his obituary in the Home News Tribune.
After supporting a group of local candidates that famously swept into power in 1967, Renda was appointed to serve as the attorney for the New Brunswick Planning Board, a powerful paid position. But he left the job after a disagreement over ethics and mostly avoided local politics while he practiced law.
A friend described Renda as "too honest to be a lawyer."
Renda slowly wound down his caseload as he began taking care of his father, who passed away in January 2007.
Renda had always looked up to his father, also named Charles, and proudly upheld the legacy of his family name. Renda's father had a simliar reputation as a man of the people.
The elder Renda, who died at age 90, was nicknamed "the Mayor of Guilden Street," according to his own obituary. It also said that Charles Sr. was a lifelong city resident who was "active in civic affairs."
A COMMUNITY ADVOCATE
Despite his bold stand against the city's politics, Charlie remained a dedicated advocate for the community, and was very involved in promoting the city's library. He served as the secretary for the Friends of the New Brunswick Public Library organization.
"His favorite cause was the Friends of the Library," said Burtenshaw.
Without fail, each year he helped with the organization's annual book sale in April and maintained small gardens on the library's property.
He also supported good causes like the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rutgers University, according to Burtenshaw.
"He loved Rutgers," said Burtenshaw. "Whenever I'd complain about the students making too much noise, he'd always defend them."
Charlie was among the most well-known individuals in the city and was well-liked by his neighbors. And while he was known for being a stickler for rules and process, he even earned the respect of New Brunswick's notoriously standoff-ish city council.
As he transitioned into life as a retired attorney (he preferred the term "recovering attorney"), he began to get even more involved in his local government.
A PROLIFIC CIVIC PARTICIPANT
Over the final decade of his life, Renda became perhaps the most prolific and consistent citizen attendee of the New Brunswick City Council's regular meetings, showing up at more of them than at least four of the five current council members.
Local government meetings usually feature large fluctuations in attendance as controversial issues and proposed laws come and go from one meeting to the next.
For most, the city council is just a place to go when you have a complaint about something in your neighborhood, or need to earn the council's approval to host an event, obtain a business license, or otherwise secure a permit or approval. Most people only attend when they are needed, and then never return.
But in New Brunswick, Renda was the one man not on the city payroll or seeking elected office who consistently attended every city council meeting. After learning the ropes in the late 90's, Renda began to ask questions and make statements during the public portion of the meetings.
An old friend, Daniel Torrisi, who serves as the City Clerk, is one of the few people who might have been at more council meetings. He remembers when Renda started attending the council meetings, but can't remember exactly which year it was.
According to Torrisi, Renda began attending the meetings at some point in the late 1990's, but stayed silent for about a year. The clerk and council often wondered what he was doing there, Torrisi said.
He said Renda later revealed to him he wanted to get a grasp on "the lay of the land" at the meetings, which can often be confusing even to the council members, before he began contributing.
And contribute he did, speaking out on behalf of homeowners, renters, taxpayers, small businesses, seniors, immigrants, college students, and just about anyone who couldn't make it to the meetings themselves.
He was aided by his argumentative but friendly nature, and by his thorough knowledge of both New Jersey law and the city he loved.
Renda's was often the only voice of reason in the room, and his comments helped defeat, delay, or improve countless pieces of flawed legislation that the council was considering.
A GOVERNMENT WATCHDOG
At the council meetings, Renda served as a watchdog for the thousands of residents who could not or did not attend the public meetings. And he did a damn good job, frequently appearing to know more about the city and the legal system than the elected members of the council.
At the August 21, 2002 council meeting, the council did not know that ordinances to borrow money require a two-thirds vote and their attorney did not notice the mistake. But Renda raised a point of order and informed the council a law they thought they had passed had actually been defeated by one vote.
The meeting minutes reflect the rare occurrence of a citizen catching such a major mistake:
"THE VOTE ON THIS ORDINANCE WAS 3 TO 1 AND ORDINANCE WAS DECLARED TO BE PASSED. LATER IN THE MEETING A POINT OF ORDER WAS RAISED BY CHARLES RENDA, THAT THE ORDINANCE REQUIRED FOUR (4) AFFIRMATIVE VOTES. THE CITY ATTORNEY DECLARED, THE ORDINANCE HAD BEEN DEFEATED."
As council members came and went, Renda was a constant, always watching out for the interests of the city and its residents. He wasn't always successful in his struggles against the administration, but he was always entertaining.
In August 2005, the council held a hearing on a law that would essentially give away a piece of city property to a well-connected executive at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, who also happened to serve as the chairman of the New Brunswick Parking Authority's board of commissioners.
Renda objected vehemently to the proposal.
The next day's Star-Ledger described his plea to the council: "He even offered council members cash – $2,500 – for the small strip of street, and implored the council not to pass the ordinance, but they did so unanimously and with little comment."
"I don't understand it. We're giving property away," he was quoted in the paper.
In 2008, he joined a campaign to implement a ward-based system of elections and served on the legal committee for the organization backing the campaign, Empower Our Neighborhoods (EON). The group won in court five times against the city's attorneys, who were fighting to keep the proposal from being put to voters.
Renda helped devise a strategy that secured a public vote on the issue by withdrawing a petition that had become invalid after the 2008 election and submitting a nearly identical one a few minutes later.
Renda was one of several residents to speak out against a proposal to end bulk garbage collection services during the time of year they were most needed: May and June. The law targeted students, who typically move in and out of apartments and houses en masse at that time of year.
The effort to defeat that law proved successful and resulted in the creation of a collaborative partnership between Rutgers University and the city government.
The partnership, "Project Moveout," helped 333 households dispose of 45 tons of moveout watse and 5 tons of electronics, some of which were recycled.
As we reported in December, Renda single-handedly defeated the "draconian" fines the council was preparing to implement for the crime of riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. But for Renda's detailed argument against the law, it would have likely passed unanimously and provided a maximum fine of $2,250 for violators.
Renda, who loved to walk and bike around town, was also a strong advocate for the installation of bicycle lanes. He said plans for lanes had been in the works for nearly twenty years.
Just weeks after his death, the council approved a $106,680 contract to create the city's first public bicycle lanes.
"THE MAYOR OF HARVEY STREET"
Try to park on the block of Harvey Street between Hamilton and Somerset and you can thank Charlie Renda if you find a spot. Not only did his advocacy greatly improve the quality-of-life on that block, but he saved two parking spots from being illegally eliminated by a developer.
In the mid-1990's, Charlie bought a home at 62 Harvey Street, roughly across the street from Kossuth Park.
Renda volunteered to lead a committee to address the problem the serious parking problem in his neighborhood, crunched between a fast-growing Rutgers student population and a rapidly-expanding medical center,
Renda was named chairman of the committee and presided over the 30 meetings held by the group. Eleven city professionals testified at the committee's meetings, and an additional 23 participated in public forums hosted by the committee.
Another 31 members of the public filled out a questionaire devised by the group.
Two years later, the New Brunswick Ad Hoc Parking Permit Advisory Committee (PPAC) was ready to issue its formal recommendations to the city council. Based on their own research, the group made 33 specific recommendation to improve the city's parking policies in a 26-page report.
Renda frequently lamented how few of the committee's recommendations were implemented as the parking problem in his neighborhood worsened.
In 2009, Pennrose Properties earned approval to build a new 53-unit senior housing building across from Renda's house, despite his vocal opposition. Renda opposed the project on the grounds it would make the parking problem worse. For all the dozens of new units to be built, the new design only added two parking spots.
And the devil was in the details. As it turned out, numerous aspects of the project did not conform to the official plans, leaving Renda with a laundry list of headaches. But he rose to the occasion and fought for the people of his neighborhood.
First, there was the pole. Renda discovered in his examination of the plans that utility work associated with the project would place a new power pole directly in front of his house.
Unhappy with the prospect of an obstructed view, Renda asked city officials to help change the plans. They were unable or unwilling to help, but Renda took a different path and called in a favor at PSE&G's Newark headquarters. The power company did Renda a solid favor and moved the power pole in their plans
Then there was the gate.
Renda was surprised to see an automated metal gate guarding the previously unregulated parking lot to the senior complex. The gate loudly beeped twelve times each and every time it opened and then twelve more times as it closed.
The gate was pointless because it only required a car drive up to open it—no credentials needed. Not only did it nearly drive Renda insane, it also caused major traffic back-ups on the one-way street.
For months, Renda dutifully updated the council on the situation as he pressed them for help with the problems. Eventually he prevailed and the company disabled the gate. It has been left permanently open since 2011.
Renda also noticed that the Philadelphia-based developer had eliminated two parking spaces to create a vehicle access to the side entrance. He ultimately prevailed in that situation as well and the illegal curbcut was restored, creating the two on-street spaces once again.
A PLEA TO FACE THE PUBLIC
Charlie was not one to keep his opinions to himself, especially at city council meetings where he was known for his complaints, though they were almost always presented constructively.
One of his biggest pet peeves about the meetings was that the city council sits around a table perpendicular to the public. That means that only one elected member of the council, the President, actually faces the public. It also meant that it was difficult to see for council members and meeting attendees alike.
At least once each year, Renda asked the Council to "turn the table" so that all five elected officials could face the public.
"Charles Renda offered his congratulations to the Council Members and asked them to reconsider changing the position of the Table," it said in the minutes of the January 3, 2001 meeting.
Towards the end of his life, he even told the council "When I die, turn the table at least once," on multiple occasions.
But in typical New Brunswick City Council fashion, after his death, the council's leaders gave bizarre excuses instead of turning the table in his honor.
"I thought about it. It's not something I'm going to do. I think it's a little bit– on our part, would be a little bit disingenuous because we didn't do it while he was alive and I didn't want to do it just because he passed," said Council President Robert Recine.
Council Vice President Rebecca Escobar recalled telling Renda, "Don't worry, it's going to happen. I don't know when, but it's going to happen."
"I want to see this table turned around also, so just keep in mind that that's something that we've all been working on and it's going to happen. It's going to happen," said Escobar.
She said the council intends to "resolve this whole table situation to the best of our abilities," hopefully by January or February of next year.
City Administrator Thomas Loughlin said last week that the new design being considered would allow two members of the council to face the public directly, and nine others to face the public "at a slight angle."
There are five elected members of the council, but other professionals including the Loughlin, and two city attorneys usually sit at the table, which has been turned in the past to accomodate meetings of other city boards and commissions without incident.
A SHARP CRITIQUE OF THE STATUS QUO
Renda was a critic of many city policies. But he was also quick to praise positive decisions, and always a good sport whether he won or lost arguments with the council.
Charlie presented the city council with sidewalk chalk last summer after they amended a proposed law that he said could have inadvertently criminalized the use of it on city sidewalks.
Yes, Charlie was always good for a laugh. But, perhaps the most valuable thing he offered others was his honesty.
"He always told you how it was whether you liked it or not," said Angela's husband Dave Burtenshaw.
And that he did. A heavy user of the internet, Renda frequently communicated at length about the city on various email lists.
His biting sarcasm was only matched by his insightful critiques, as evidenced by one email sent he sent in 2009.
One user had emailed his views in support of an insurgent slate of candidates for the city's Democratic Committee. But two well-intentioned sentences in his endorsement caused Renda to respond with a diatribe.
"While I like the work the council does I think there's a disconnect between them and the people. It's almost like the goal here is to turn this city into a rich people's city and forget the everyday citizens that live and work here," the user said.
In response, Renda sent this sarcastic masterpiece:
Given that you recognize the "rich people's" goal for the city and the council's disconnect with the needs and wants of the citizens that live and work here, please tell us what exactly is it that you like about the "work the council does"?
Perhaps the traffic congested streets?
Maybe the garbage-strewn, filthy streets and sidewalks?
Or the lack of parking spaces and the lucrative fines to the city for parking tickets?
Possibly the frequent street crime and residential thefts?
The lack of foot patrol police?
The constant construction without any consideration to pedestrian and vehicular traffic impact?
The widening footprints of new construction and the narrowing of sidewalk width?
The loss of mom-and-pop businesses that nurtured this city for hundreds of years?
The lack of downtown movie theatres and food markets?
The missing community pool?
The prohibitive costs of new apartments that are out of reach for ordinary families?
How about the un-televised council meetings?
The appointed school board and the resultant poor school system?
The jail terms for a former mayor and numerous employees?
The lack of "pay to play" legislation and the resultant financial gains of favored developers?
The dismissive attitude of the council at public meetings?
The rubber-stamp boards?
Other than expensive restaurants and impressive theatrical programs that are out of reach for many of the city's residents, please tell all of us what it is that you like about the work the council does?
"A TREMENDOUS LOSS TO OUR CITY"
"He loved New Brunswick," said nearly every person we spoke to for this story. It was undisputed.
"He was too honest to sell out so they told him he would never work for the city again and they fired him. But he did continue to work for the people of the city," said Sean Monahan, the publisher of this online newspaper.
"Charlie was for me a trusted advisor, late-night drinking buddy and a true friend," said Monahan, who lived on Renda's block for four years.
"He was honest, intelligent, very funny and was always there for anyone who needed him. We will miss him very much."
Renda, never shy with his digital camera, proudly permitted NewBrunswickToday.com the rights to use his photographs of the July 5 City Council meeting.
That day, he snapped a great shot of Mayor James Cahill standing in the audience for the first time in years. Charlie was very proud of that image, and the two other photos of his that we used in our story.
The night before he passed, Charlie notified NewBrunswickToday.com of a fire at the Hampton Club condominiums via text message, just 12 minutes after the blaze had been reported to authorities.
All told, Renda was one of New Brunswick's most beloved characters. He was all about New Brunswick and its people, connecting with people of all ages and backgrounds every day with the same positive spirit and energy
Renda's wake at Boylan Funeral Home was attended by a very diverse and eclectic group of friends, family, and former colleagues. Among those in attendance were New Brunswick Judge E. Ronald Wright, City Councilwoman Elizabeth Garlatti, and her mother, Patricia Shehan, the former mayor who Charlie helped elect in 1967.
Like his father's funeral, Renda's service was held in the early morning, at New Brunswick's historic St. Peter's Church on Somerset Street.
Rest In Peace Charles L. Renda
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.