Will ‘Get Drained One Way or Another’;
Activist: Council, Manager Should ‘Resign’
By Douglas D. Melegari
MEDFORD—An apparent set of secret video recordings of members of the Carns family, their children, as well as some of their guests, in addition to one featuring an individual walking onto the Carns family farm for at least two minutes and filming the family’s belongings, buildings and vehicles, all of which were quietly sent to Medford Township Manager Kathy Burger, who in turn then “fed” them to Medford Council, as a fulfilled Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request reveals, has left members of the Carns family to declare such a pattern of behavior is not only an egregious “invasion of privacy,” but one that is something “that is really disturbing.”
And not only has a member of the family, following the discovery, declared that the “swamp,” as he put it, “will get drained one way or another,” but it has led a state First Amendment activist to call on both the township manager and all five township councilmembers to “resign,” maintaining that they are “all guilty of racketeering.”
“We want fairness and to be treated as though we live in Medford, New Jersey, United States,” declared Brendan Canavan, husband to Carns family sibling Heather Lou Carns-Canavan, both of whom live at the tree farm with their children. “We don’t live in Nazi Germany, or Communist China, or Putin’s Russia. We live in Medford, New Jersey, USA. We are proud of that and would like that to continue.”
The secret videos were sent to Burger about a week after this newspaper’s initial report detailing how members of the Carns family were the subject of multiple township actions in the span of a few days, all of which occurred after David Carns, one of several family siblings, pursued a payment from Mayor Charles “Chuck” Watson for two cords of firewood that the mayor had delivered to his home, but withheld payment on for some two months – that is until this newspaper contacted him about it, as well as a series of text messages he had sent to the sibling promising payment.
That initial newspaper report, as well as others, also detailed how the Carns have been feuding with their neighbors, highlighting allegations that the municipality was taking complaints being made by at least one neighbor and using them in some sort of an alleged attempt to harass and retaliate against the family.
During a May 24 council meeting, after David Carns declared “you know this is about firewood – this whole thing is about firewood,” Watson refuted that the circumstances have anything to do with it, with the mayor noting this (at the meeting) is now the “fourth time” he has “apologized” for not making payment in a timely fashion. The mayor also maintained that he did not ask for anyone to do anything in response to the payment request and revelation to the public about his lack of payment.
But the circumstances are now leading to new allegations that the neighbor who has filed recent complaints against the Carns, believed to have led to some of the notices of violation and two citations against the Carns matriarch, Carolyn Carns, as well as who provided the secret video recordings to the township, is being “employed” by the municipality.
The May 19 release of the secret recordings, as well as another batch of email communications, also shows that the neighbor at issue has been communicating via text message with Township Zoning Official Beth Portocalis, who initiated the majority of the actions taken to date against the Carns.
Portocalis, just hours prior to the May 24 council meeting, as reported by this newspaper last week, was removed from any further investigations involving the Carns, for reasons that have not yet been made public. But her removal follows complaints about how she has conducted investigations in town, particularly recent ones surrounding the Carns, as well as concerns that have been expressed about her impartiality, with other communications between the zoning official and the neighbor previously coming to light that appear to suggest a potentially greater rapport between the two individuals.
Burger and Township Solicitor Timothy Prime have now been tasked with handling investigations involving the Carns moving forward.
The neighbor who provided Burger with the secret videos, did so through multiple emails sent on April 1, as the records request revealed. Upon doing so, the neighbor advised the township manager that she was “free to edit them.”
The secret videos were then forwarded by Burger to every council member via email on April 4, with the township manager including a message that the individual who sent them to her “has requested this video be forwarded to you.”
Included in the batch of secret recordings was one in which an individual filmed Carns-Canavan, sister to David and Brian Carns, apparently driving a red pickup truck on the farm. The person making the recording captures the pickup truck from afar, through a tree line, with heavy vegetation apparently hiding the filming from Carns-Canavan’s view.
“Here is Heather, mom!” said an individual heard on the recording. “It is Heather! … That’s Heather!”
The person heard on the footage acknowledges that Carns-Canavan was simply “driving extremely slow” on the property border.
Another video taken through the tree line, from afar, shows more than dozen vehicles parked on the 30-acre tree farm, with individuals walking to an apparent gathering, which Carns-Canavan described on May 24 to council as a “fall church function at the farm,” describing it as a “hayride” for “less fortunate families.”
The neighbor who sent the secret video of that gathering to Burger referred to what was depicted as an “annual hayride at their house.”
Yet another secret video taken from a distance, this one not only through a tree line, but a fence line, shows individuals, said to be the Carns’ children, riding their quads, but the neighbor informed Burger that the footage depicts the riders when “they patrolled my road on quads.” As the individual is filming, a dog starts barking, with the individual uttering “shhh” to the animal, appearing to do so to avoid detection.
There is also a secret video in which Brian Carns is filmed while sitting inside his vehicle parked at a local Wawa. The person filming apparently did so from another vehicle parked in a space that was behind his vehicle. That latter footage, however, is described to Burger by the neighbor as one featuring Brian Carns “stalking me from the police station.”
In one other secret video, in which the neighbor and Brian Carns interact with each other through their car windows (but unbeknownst to the sibling, right before the windows were opened, a child of the neighbor was directed to “videotape” the encounter), after coming upon each other on a dirt lane, Brian Carns puts a question to the neighbor if she contacted the township about his family’s dilapidated barn that the Carns have received a recent notice of violation over and was the subject of unannounced municipal inspections (including one involving allegations that the family was intentionally misled about its purpose by township officials), maintaining he will file an OPRA to prove it was her who filed the complaint.
The neighbor responded by asking a question, “Did you clean up the wood pile you promised to clean up for me?” It was a question that led to tense moments, including an allegation over a goat being stolen by the neighbor.
That same neighbor told Medford Council in April that her troubles with the Carns began over a real estate offer for her property with the anticipated sale falling through when the Carns made an offer lower than an initial one after being given a tour of the parcel.
One of the longest videos in the set depicts an individual heard stomping their feet as they walk onto the Carns farm, filming the dilapidated barn, as well as some of the commercial tree trucks belonging to David and Brian Carns, co-owners of Cornerstone Tree Service, in addition to various other equipment and trailers belonging to the tree service (the subject of the citations to Carolyn Carns), as well as a family RV, and two other barns.
The individual conducting the recording then gains entry inside one of those two red barns on the parcel through an open, unlocked door, and begins filming the interior of the structure before the video is ended.
A First Amendment activist, Patrick Duff, who is now speaking out publicly against what has happened to the Carns, slammed both the township and council on May 24, contending there are indications that the barn entry video was in fact “altered,” requesting that the full video be “turned over” by the township.
Carns-Canavan, who pointed out she has remained on the sidelines so far and stayed out of the now three-month fray involving the township and family (even though her grooming business was the subject of a township action initiated by Burger over an observed Facebook group posting), noted that she was breaking her silence on May 24 because of the “very disturbing and concerning videos brought to my attention of us going about our normal routines on our property,” or what amounts to an alleged “invasion of privacy at farm.”
While David and Brian Carns do not live at the farm with their mom, Carns-Canavan, along with her husband, Brendan Canavan, and children, do.
“Videos of us doing nothing wrong,” she declared on May 24, have been sent to the township, leading her “especially over these past few weeks” to “feel like I have to look over my back.”
The emergence of the secret videos follows an email previously obtained by the Carns in which Portocalis apparently emailed to herself photographs she took of the commercial tree trucks on the farm around 8:15 a.m. one day in April from a vantage point purportedly not accessible from the public road, with David Carns pointing out that the zoning official had to take the photographs by “hiding in the woods,” with that incident alone having already led to a previous charge of “invasion of privacy,” as reported by this newspaper last week.
“What is more disturbing is not just her (the neighbor) recording, but that (the videos are) being sent over to the township manager, and are then being fed through to the council,” Carns-Canavan declared. “It is beyond anything I could have ever have imagined when I heard this – and I have proof to back it up.”
That proof, she maintained, has left her “kind of speechless,” calling the discovery “so upsetting.”
And there are concerns about even more videos being taken after a recent incident, according to Heather Carns-Canavan, in which David Carn’s daughters, ages 10 and 12, purportedly ran up to the house, exclaiming, “‘Dad, dad – a lady is down on the lane recording us,’” describing that the individual “poked her head out with her phone to get attention.”
“That’s weird and very disturbing,” Carns-Canavan said. “How do I know she is not videoing my daughter and sending this to you? Kathy, as a mom – you are a mom, wouldn’t this be concerning to you? I think anyone listening to this, as a mom, would find it kind of disturbing.”
Carns-Canavan maintained that the township manager “has the authority to squash these videos as soon as they come in, but instead sent them to the entire council.”
“If you guys don’t see anything wrong with this, I’d just like to request going forward that you discourage accepting videos like this from this crazy woman,” Heather Carns-Canavan declared.
Canavan, who also spoke to council on May 24, asserted that he was “equally dismayed that a neighbor stood up here a couple weeks ago and suggested to council that she was approached by someone in your administration to collect information on their neighbor.”
“I think that is really disturbing, and the fact that that it actually happened, with the videos of little girls driving an ATV and of bible school children on a hayride – these are the types of videos that should be shared with the council?” Canavan asked. “I think you should explore your own good conscious and figure out maybe something is not right with this picture.
“Maybe there is a vendetta being playing out here. Maybe there is a vindictive administrator who is really overstepping her authority, who is recruiting nosy neighbors to video and trying to get dirt and deliver it to her, so she can then deliver it to you. I don’t think taxpayers want that sort of people working in their township.”
Canavan, who “a couple weeks ago” had asked council “to drain the swamp,” declared, “it is going to get drained one way or the other.” He maintained, “I don’t think the people of this town are going to stand for that sort of action,” particularly in light of the written exchange in which the neighbor asks Portocalis to review her council speech on the Carns, in addition to the existence of the email sent to Burger by the neighbor informing her that she was “free to edit” the videos at issue.
“It is setting a bad precedent,” Canavan added. “I think it looks ugly.”
While Watson later replied to Carns-Canavan that he “heard what you had to say” and “feels really bad you don’t feel comfortable with your kids out on your own property,” Duff took the mayor, as well as his council colleagues (all Republicans) and the township manager to task, maintaining this is a situation with a “person employed by your township to trespass on the Carns’ property,” pointing out that “you all actually received that video.”
“You received an illegally acquired video!” Duff contended. “And you wrote citations based upon an illegally acquired video, and you did nothing about the illegal act the woman did! You are all guilty! You are all guilty of coercion, conspiracy and if you ask me – this is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charge! This is FBI material folks! Think about that – you allowed a woman to trespass on a person’s property and then utilized that information to harm them.”
Duff then compared the mayor to a “mafia boss,” declaring, “That’s disgusting man!”
The activist then pointed to the mayor, asserting, “You should resign,” before pointing to each of the remaining council members, telling them to do the same.
“You should resign surely,” declared Duff as he pointed to Burger.
The activist further maintained that the council and township manager “are walking embarrassments to your community,” and that “you allowed a person to trespass – then utilized that video to harm them – and did nothing, and actually you did something, you went ahead and harmed them further.”
Duff also excoriated the officials for an email exchange (as previously detailed by this newspaper after being unearthed by the Carns) in which Burger sent Watson and Deputy Mayor Frank Czekay, the day after a council session, the names and addresses of two residents who spoke out against a proposal to ban commercial vehicles in the municipality, and within minutes of doing so, Czekay replied asking for an investigation into one of the resident’s garages, which was then initiated and carried out by Portocalis.
“It was a U.S. Marine (the resident investigated) who fought for this country to have the freedom of speech and you utilized it against him,” said Duff as he pointed his finger at Czekay. “You should be ashamed!”
Then pointing to Watson, Duff recounted the past words of the mayor when the Carns dispute first began, that he could not “‘compel a zoning officer to not write a ticket as it would be illegal.’”
“So can you compel a zoning officer to write a ticket?” asked Duff as he pointed to Czekay. “No, you can’t as that is also illegal. What has happened in this town?”
Duff also called on the officials to “say they are sorry,” and thereby teach the kids a lesson who may be listening to what is happening, but reiterated that since they all “saw” the video of trespassing on the Carns property, “you are all guilty of racketeering,” which solicited a round of applause from the audience that gathered for the latest council session.
“I do want to thank everyone for coming out, we have heard your comments over the past several meetings,” said Councilwoman Lauren Kochan in a later rebuttal. “I do want to reassure commenters that we hear all comments and take all feedback under consideration. I know I have heard from several commenters that that is not perceived to be the case. But we do.”
Donna Symons, the newest member of council who began her term in January of this year, later maintained that during that time “I have never seen any video with any children whatsoever.”
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I never have seen any video at all with children,” she declared.
However, Symons, nor the rest of the council members notably did not deny being sent the videos, or seeing the one involving the apparent trespassing.
“You know this is about firewood – this whole thing is about firewood,” maintained David Carns when it was his turn to speak on May 24, with Watson immediately shaking his head in denial. “It is! All the dates – they are right there with firewood. It is as simple as retaliation for me asking for my money! And everybody knows that in this town.”
In further maintaining that this all has to do with the firewood issue, David Carns maintained that the neighbor dispute has been going on for some 25 years and is “nothing new.” He then pointed to “letters I got through OPRA” in which the neighbor wrote to Portocalis, in part, that the “‘cat is now out of the bag’” after learning that her emails were discoverable through OPRA requests and not private as she apparently thought they would be, also writing “‘it will be a war moving forward,’” and to “‘let me know what I can do with the zoning issues.’”
“Hmmm … that is interesting,” David Carns declared.
Brian Carns, who was previously told by Prime to attend a zoning board meeting to seek clarification on the parking of the commercial tree trucks but was then subsequently told by the zoning board chairman he knew nothing about the issue at hand and couldn’t advise, maintained that it was simply “mindboggling” that his family “is going through this right now.”
“Our tree service is being targeted, our farm is being targeted, and it seems like there is nothing to pump the brakes here and slow you guys down,” Brian Carns asserted. “There is one tool or one play in your playbook and that is retaliation.
“You are trespassing on my property and using my neighbor as a zoning officer.”
Watson later contended that although he knows David Carns “is not going to believe me,” the issue at hand “has nothing to do with firewood.”
“I never asked anybody to do anything,” the mayor maintained. “I never asked anybody to go against you. There were several times I met your brother and said, ‘I had wished I brought the check. I didn’t know you were going to be here.’ I have apologized numerous times for it – how long it took me to pay you. And I am just telling you face-to-face this has nothing to do with firewood. I always had the intention to pay you and I am going to have to stop apologizing. That is like the fourth time I apologized, and I guess you are not going to accept the apology.”
Despite the serious allegations at hand, Councilman Erik Rebstock maintained that public comment “is my favorite part of the meeting” because “it’s America.”
“Just the comment ‘Nazi Germany, Communist China, or Putin’s Russia’ – and I understand your point and purpose of that – but case in point we are here, and we are all able to share our opinions and viewpoints equally, and calmly” Rebstock said. “So, there is value in this. We do hear. We do listen. We are paying attention. And I just want to say thank-you for taking your time.
“We know that Medford is essential and important to each of you. Medford is essential and important to each of us. We care about this town. … We don’t care for this moment. We would all love to be on great and easy terms. And I know there have been challenges. I will just say there are reasons for these challenges. So, we look forward to getting this behind us, certainly.”