by Carol Castellano
From the Editor: Carol Castellano is a founder of the Parents of Blind Children of New Jersey. This article is very similar to one which appeared in the spring edition of The Sounding Board, the official voice of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey. Here is what she says:
My first inkling of concern came in December after the election of our new governor, when I saw the makeup of his Transition Committee on Human and Children Services. I recognized several names from the past when there had been movements to dismantle the Commission for the Blind of New Jersey and combine it with other state agencies. I wondered if there might be any such push this time. It appeared that there were no blind people on the committee. The only person on the committee who we thought would be looking out for the interests of the blind and blindness services was Mildred Crump, the Newark Municipal Council president, who for many years was a teacher of the visually impaired at the New Jersey Commission for the Blind.
At that point Joe Ruffalo, president of the NFB of NJ, and I wrote letters to the governor and the transition committee expressing the strong support of the blindness community for Dan Frye to continue as executive director. We didn’t say anything about concern over dismantling the commission because we didn’t want to give them the idea if they hadn’t already thought of it! We knew that Dan, along with other heads of departments and divisions, had been asked by the new administration to submit a letter of resignation. These positions are all appointed ones—appointed by a former governor.
We weren’t too worried because never in anyone’s memory had the executive director of the commission been removed by a new governor. The commission position had never been political and was always occupied by someone with blindness knowledge and expertise. And then the first bombshell dropped. Dan’s letter, along with those of others appointed by the previous governor, was accepted and he was asked to leave.
We immediately mobilized—spreading the word to the blind of New Jersey and to parents of blind children to write, email, and call the governor’s office asking for the reinstatement of Dan Frye. Our aim was to have 100 calls in two days. I am quite sure we exceeded that number.
But then just a short time later, the transition committee report came out. There they were—phrases like “fragmentation” and “multiple, overlapping departments” and “duplication of services” and “better alignment of programs,” that we knew were code for dismantling the commission and folding the pieces into other agencies.
Again we went into action, creating a fact sheet and sample messages to educate consumers and families and ultimately state legislators, the acting commissioner of the department of human service, and the governor about why we need the commission to be preserved as a stand-alone, blindness-specific agency. Several of our students and young people were able to get meetings with state legislators. Congratulations to Amy Albin, Vee Gaspa, Michael Halm, and Kristin Panaro for their excellent work on this. We inundated the commissioner’s and governor’s offices with phone calls—and they heard us. Thanks to each and every one who sent a message or made a call.
In February we got word that Mildred Crump was able to secure a meeting in Trenton with Acting Commissioner Carole Johnson. Two minutes before I left the house for the meeting, an email came in from the commissioner’s office saying, “the Murphy Administration is committed to CBVI’s important work...and has no intention of dismantling or eliminating CBVI.” We had won the day—the commission would be preserved. At the meeting we did ask for Dan to be reinstated, but unfortunately this was not to be. My guess is that if they reversed one decision, they would be pressed to reverse others, and that simply was not going to happen. We did request that the search for a new executive director be made nationwide and that the search team consult with leaders in the blindness community.
The commissioner seemed impressed with the level of our mobilization. She was very gracious and expressed her desire to work with us in the future. We will certainly be inviting her to our next convention, and we hope you can all meet her there.
We plan to nurture our relationship with the new commissioner, continue our cordial and productive working relationship with the commission for the blind, and remain vigilant for any signs of threat to blindness services. We can accomplish great things when we work together. Congratulations, team!