Public Fishes for Reason Native Fair Havenite Tossed from Volunteer Spot

Fair Haven residents and beyond are still fishing for an answer to an unprecedented rogue wave of a Fair Haven governing body decision to knock a volunteer out of a regional committee of his own resurrection designed to protect the Navesink River.

What was dubbed a “slap in the face” turned into some verbal fisticuffs when a wave of riled residents at Monday’s Fair Haven Borough Council meeting turned out to turn the tide of borough business by defending that volunteer, fourth-generation Fair Havenite and boat captain, Brian Rice. It became a full knock-out when the ousting became official with a contentious 3-2 vote with one abstention.

It’s an undefined “unbecoming” conduct that characterizes the oust of the volunteer, Rice, that he and many other residents objected to as the reason cited in a resolution to revoke his volunteer committee membership in a the Navesink River Municipalities Committee. The organization is a regional one, consisting of two representatives per town from Fair Haven, Rumson, Red Bank, Middletown, Colts Neck and Tinton Falls dedicated to the environmental health of the Navesink River, that Rice revived in 2016. There had been an original, smaller group that had gone defunct in previous years.

“Conduct unbecoming of a volunteer” was as specific as it got in the resolution as the full reason to remove Rice from his volunteer position as the 2024 borough representative on the Committee. The “unbecoming” was not substantiated by Mayor Josh Halpern, argued Rice, also a former longtime member of the borough’s Environmental Commission, before Monday’s meeting.

A few hours before the meeting, resident Tom Kirman, unsolicited and showing a copy of the resolution, summoned a tidal wave of residents to knock the move down with one question.

“I urge anyone that can go to this meeting go,” Kirman said. Raise your hand and ask, what is “conduct unbecoming a volunteer?” And there was a healthy show of hands at the meeting.

There was also a letter, pre-meeting, designed to drum up support for Rice and demand answers that was circulated via texts and social media. The letter, originated by Fair Haven resident Mike Criscolla, drew attention to the resolution on the agenda and delineated reasons why such a committee member revocation is a “mistake.”

“The Navesink River municipality committee has been working along with NJDEP, Clean Ocean Action and all the municipalities that boarder the river. Over the past 5+ years the committee has made great strides to clean up the river. Captain Rice has been the the one that re-established the committee and has been the leader of the committee ever since.

“This committee and efforts by the members have been instrumental in achieving the goals. Last year we saw record numbers of life between baitfish and migratory species. The quality of water has greatly improved. To the point where restricted shellfish areas will be opened which have never been opened to seasonal harvesting of shellfish. Bird life has been thriving as well. Brian Rice has been a huge part of this success helping to lead the charge with the clean-up efforts.

“Throughout his life and his long tenure on this committee Rice has been a staple as one of the biggest advocates for a quality Navesink River. Removing him as the Fair Haven representative would be a mistake.”

Frankly, a slap in the face to this group and the results he has led the charge in accomplishing. Please join me in supporting Brian at Monday night’s (5/13@7pm)Fair Haven Borough Council meeting. He deserves our support.

At the meeting, Rice read his own prepared statement in between comments from staunch supporters in the meeting’s public portion on agenda items.

He conceded that he can be overwhelmingly passionate for the cause, while defending his passion and asking that the proposed resolution calling for his removal be reversed.

“I believe I am here tonight because of recent disagreements as to future policies for Fair Haven. Things like the public dock and the river are my life and I am passionate about preserving these resources for future generations. I am an outspoken supporter of public access to the greatest assets of the peninsula — the water and the human and animal life that thrives around it. For that, I am not sorry, but proud for all that I do and have accomplished for our community. But I am here tonight because disagreements about new policies now threaten my continued right, as a passionate resident of Fair Haven, to remain actively involved in shaping those policies for the future. But just as I want to keep fighting for the river, I’m here to appeal to this council, to reverse course and permit me to remain active on these committees and the process of protecting these invaluable and irreplaceable public resources …”

Brian Rice

And the support for Rice continued with no explanation of the “unbecoming.”

“I need to make it clear,” Mayor Halpern said after a series of public comments supporting Rice and blanket responses of “Thank you” with no repeatedly asked-for explanation on Rice’s revocation.

“This has nothing to do with policy,” the mayor added. “No one has questioned Mr. Rice’s expertise. He later, after the vote, added, “I understand that the optics are bad … But it would be to my benefit and Mr. Rice’s expense (to explain the “unbecoming” behavior). And I’m not going to air dirty laundry in public.”

A public fishing for answers …

Former Councilwoman Jacquie Rice, Brian’s wife, said at the meeting that both she and her husband repeatedly requested verbally and in writing an explanation of the proposed removal from the Commission and Halpern “never answered. He is being removed without any kind of a conversation or full understanding. I would urge every member on council to not vote for it (the resolution) … Now we’re not given the respect of a response — no clarification.”

Halpern countered that he believed that Jacquie Rice knew the reason. She responded, “No, I do not.”

“Out of respect to your husband I would not like to share the reason,” Halpern said.

None of the mayor’s brief, unsubstantiated comments appeased residents. Mike Criscolla at the meeting reaffirmed his message that, as a 12-year Fair Haven resident who lives on the river and has a lot invested in its health, losing Rice on the Commission he sees as a loss detrimental to the borough in many ways.

“What Brian has done for the group … some of it goes unrecognized,” he said before the vote. “He has stepped up to keep river accessible for all of us. I sit on an international board. I spend a lot of time protecting fisheries. Brian is as dedicated as people I meet all over the world.” He went on to say that Rice has forged and continues to forge connections for the cause like no other.

The lack of explanation, again, troubled Criscolla, who added that whomever Rice’s replacement will be, he doubted they’d have the same connections and knowledge as Rice.

The resolution on the agenda that followed the one to remove Rice, proposed his replacement, Sean O’Sullivan, a Fair Haven resident who, later, the mayor had not much to say about regarding qualifications other than that “I find him to be a good representative of character and skill who has a deep affection for the river.”

When asked by Councilwoman Tracy Cole about experience, Halpern did not offer specifics, adding “I don’t want to misrepresent what he has and what he doesn’t have.”

Several others, some on the Navesink River Municipalities Committee, kept fishing for a specific reason for Rice’s removal, calling it not just a Fair Haven loss, but a regional one.

“What Brian has done with this committee has benefitted all municipalities that border on this river,” said Gerry Zagorski, founder of, “If you move forward with this, you are penalizing all of us, not just Fair Haven … The amount of time he puts in and the research … you don’t find volunteers like that every day. He has been THE driving force behind this committee for past five years (at least).”

Others cautioned that the dialogue between local and state and federal leaders charged with environmental protection will be seriously compromised with the loss of Rice, who has cultivated many contacts.

And the fishing for answers before the vote persisted and culminated in a confrontation between longtime Fair Haven resident Ruth Blaser and Mayor Halpern.

“You shut people down at the end (of their comments) and thanked for input but you have not given them a reason,” Blaser said to Halpern. “Are you going to shut me down, too, without an answer? I think you owe it to everyone to let us know why the decision was made and who made it.”

No reason was offered to Blaser, who persisted with “Why? I’d love to know what the borough council and mayor are doing to defend this decision and who you have in mind that could be more qualified than Mr. Rice. You owe us an explanation.”

The vote …

With the mayor sticking to the vague “unbecoming” conduct reason, the vote was taken, not without questions and concern from Councilwoman Tracy Cole, particularly.

Cole, who was absent from the executive session in which the removal was discussed, said it is “rare and unusual to discuss a volunteer who is not personnel. Our fellow volunteers are not our employees. I cannot support it (the removal).”

Cole was cautioned to not speak about anything said in executive session. do not speak about anything in exec session. “Having not attended, it’s impossible for me to discuss. But, in the best interest of residents, volunteers are different … I’ve been (involved) for more than five years and I have never seen a resolution to revoke a volunteer. I think its bad form. We rely on our volunteers. That’s how Fair Haven functions.

“I’ve been working with communities for years,” Cole, who is the former director of Red Bank RiverCenter, continued. “We happen to be rich with volunteers (in Fair Haven). I think we need to be very careful about how we care for and nurture that.”

Councilwoman Tracy Cole

There is no due process. There is no recourse for such a decision, officials verified, saying the “conduct unbecoming” needed no public verification.

Whether or not it was one or a few officials’ opinion only didn’t matter. The borough Volunteer Handbook justified such decisions as volunteerism at will, saying that the borough “may terminate any volunteer’s service with the Borough of Fair Haven with or without good cause.” All volunteers sign a copy, officials said.

Still, the move to oust any volunteer, much less Rice, to the best of anyone’s recollection, seemed to be an unprecedented one.

Cole voted “No” along with Councilwoman Michal DiMiceli. Councilmembers Brian Olson, Drew LaBarbera and Kristin Hoey voted “Yes.”

Council President Betsy Koch abstained, but not before an explanation of the decision being “one of the most difficult votes I have had to make from this side of the dais. I took an oath to represent residents to best of my abilities.” She commended Rice’s “interest and expertise” as making “Fair Haven a much, much better place to live. No one has ever questioned his loyalty or passion for the river.” But, she said, Rice has even conceded that he can sometimes express himself with too much misunderstood passion.

The vote didn’t stop the fishing for a more concrete answer.

The “unbecoming” conduct, Rice has surmised, is rooted in his very vocal objection to the borough’s new ordinance regulating activity of crabbers and fishermen more specifically at the Fair Haven Dock that he says clearly discriminates against the group, the activities of which are supported by the Public Trust Doctrine, ensuring the rights of the public to use the water, as it is not a private entity.

The dock was obtained with NJ DEP Green Acres Program funding. When Green Acres funds are used to secure property, it becomes municipal property, but must never be developed and must be maintained and preserved for public passive or active recreation purposes.

The ordinance — that the mayor has said can be revisited, and, if need be, rolled back — specifies, via a newly-erected sign on the dock, laws for those fishing and crabbing.

It says that they, particularly, for one, cannot bring more than one cooler per person not to exceed 10-quart size on the dock. It also restricts only those fishing and crabbing from bringing lawn chairs, tents or mattresses while other groups may, and do, bring chairs, namely for the concerts on the dock. The claim from the mayor, who maintained at meetings that existing dock benches were sufficient for any activity, was that the chairs scratch the dock, which is made of resin. There is also to be no fishing or crabbing while events are taking place on the dock.

Rice has conceded, along with other residents, that there have been problems at the dock, less, if at all, by fishermen and crabbers and more by teens horsing around on it after hours, something that has happened since the dock’s existence. He posted on social media a video of such horsing around recently. Garbage and noise issues that were brought up, more specifically around the time of the pandemic and since, Rice has contended, are already covered via basic borough ordinances.

These particularly new restrictions, he has repeatedly asserted, discriminate against fishermen and crabbers and aim, rather, to keep “certain out-of-towners” off the dock. Residents, particularly a few from Fair Haven Road, have voiced at meetings that it makes them uneasy seeing license plates from other states and hearing car doors slam at night. There had been one proposal floated at meetings to generate permits only for Fair Haven residents, which, by Public Trust and Fish and Wildlife rule, would violate the rights of the public’s use of the brackish water.

Rice has voiced ample, staunch objection to the borough’s new ordinance at many meetings. He also reached out to his own federal and state contacts in an effort to research the legitimacy of such an ordinance. One such contact, NJDEP Fish and Wildlife Assistant Commissioner David Golden agreed with Rice, sending a letter and saying he’d be reaching out to the governing body.

Here’s the letter …

“Antagonistic” was the word used in the letter to describe how the ordinance was biased against the “fishing community.”

And antagonistic is how Rice has presumed the mayor saw him as “unbecoming” in his fight for what he believed to be right for the public. Though, Rice maintained that he did not know, nor was he ever told, of any specific “unbecoming” conduct in any incident or incidents. He said he could only guess it was his overall passion that was the culprit.

“… I promise to work harder and do better in managing my passion and channeling my efforts in only positive ways that will be a benefit and a model for others in the community. I regret whatever has upset the council and the misunderstanding as to my motivations and presumably, my words,” Rice said in his initial address to council at the meeting before the vote. “I’m happy to explain myself in greater detail if there are specific questions as to how we got here. And otherwise, I ask you to please stand down and let me continue to stand up for the river and the resources we all hold so dear.”

And, on Tuesday afternoon, he found that he was right in his assumption. He and the mayor talked, Rice said, and he said he understood the mayor’s stance. There was no particular incident cited, still, by the mayor, he said, but he believed the mayor was right in doing what he had to do as mayor to quell concerns of a few residents over Rice’s tenor.

“We were able to have a very nice and civil conversation and went over the issues that brought us to this point,” Rice said. The two apologized to one another, accepted one another’s apologies, he said, and “have come to a shared idea on how Captain Brian should move forward so that he can continue to do his work to ensure that the river has the reduction in coliform as well as the other challenges that the river faces. It was an amicable conversation and we will move forward and learn from this.”

Still, “unnerving” and “unsettling as a volunteer for the town” is how yet another resident voiced objection to the conclusion and vote on the matter, with the mayor reiterating after the vote that “this has nothing to do with policy. Zero.”

There was zero satisfaction among residents supporting Rice and trying to reel in a reason.

Rice said he now hopes to cast a line of better communication and community action going forward in his capacity purely as a resident with some expertise to share.

The ordinance on dock and crabbing and fishing restrictions, with ties to the past, will be further explored in a future series of stories.


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