Tensions exploded in a loud and animated argument when Gonnelli stood up in order to address assertions being made by Town Attorney Frank Leanza to members of two of Secaucus' five fire companies who were there to ask the council for money to upgrade the interior of the firehouses.
After members from Ladder No. 2 and Engine No. 1 presented their case to the council for additional funds to complete recent renovations, Town Administrator Anthony Iacono asked Leanza to explain why a recent fundraising ban is still in effect for the entire Secaucus Fire Department.
According to Iacono, a recent story in a local newspaper had misled town residents and members of the Fire Department by using an argument from the Attorney General's office that stated there is no conflict of interest between two auxiliary positions that Gonnelli holds - one as volunteer Battalion Chief of the Secaucus Fire Department and another as a volunteer commissioner at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC).
Gonnelli is a volunteer commissioner on the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), which oversees zoning in much of Secaucus. He also was recently named a volunteer battalion chief. Full-time, he holds a salaried position as director of public works.
Mayor Dennis Elwell and Town Administrator Anthony Iacono have said that if the NJMC is voting on any project that has donated funds to the firehouse, it will cause a conflict if Gonnelli votes. Thus, they said the Fire Department is not allowed to raise funds (rather than instead saying Gonnelli should recuse himself from those projects). Their argument was that they don't want the town's representative on the NJMC, Gonnelli, to have to recuse himself so often.
However, the state Attorney General's office recently ruled that there is no conflict. But Town Hall says that that's not the issue.
Members of the Fire Department, after having read the opinion issued by the Attorney General, believed that their fundraising activities should be reinstated. The town banned such activities on Jan. 28 because the administration feared they would lose Secaucus' voice at the NJMC if Gonnelli has to continue abstaining.
In a letter written to Gonnelli by Christine Sanz, chief legal counsel for the NJMC, she stated that Gonnelli's new position with the Fire Department "presents a conflict with respect to certain issues before the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. Specifically ...that Wal-mart has given a substantial grant to the Secaucus Fire Department...As a result of your new position and the grant monies given by Wal-Mart to your organization, it is my recommendation that you recuse yourself from any vote related to Wal-Mart or Sam's Club."
Caucus to chaos
The usually mellow and fast-paced caucus meeting slowed and turned raucous after Leanza finished giving his explanation as to why the fundraising ban is still in effect. His focus to the members of the Fire Department sitting before him was that "loss of representation" was at the crux of the matter.
Gonnelli then rose from back in the chambers and asked Mayor Dennis Elwell if he may address the council and Fire Department as to his opinion of why the ban should never have been instituted in the first place.
With some confusion as to who actually held the floor for speaking, Gonnelli began to asking questions of Elwell and council members.
"If I recuse myself from voting, then why can't these guys fundraise?" asked Gonnelli. He continued by asking council members if they themselves ever had to recuse themselves from voting on matters before the council.
Many of the council members submitted that they did indeed abstain from votes when a possible conflict of interest existed.
Before Gonnelli continued, the Elwell stood up and asserted that he still held the floor and told Gonnelli that the issue was that they did not want him abstaining from votes and that they had fought for a seat at the NJMC so that Secaucus could be heard.
Gonnelli responded that the issue was not votes at the NJMC but fundraising by the Fire Department. Gonnelli said that since he abstained from the Wal-Mart vote, the issue was over and fundraising should be allowed to continue.
Gonnelli then asserted that the mayor and council were really trying to force him to resign from one of the two posts.
Listen to me!
Councilman Robert Kickey then interceded and told Gonnelli that it was unfair for him to accuse the council of trying to strong-arm him and that it was not the council's intention to do so.
Gonnelli continued to try and get his point across but order in the chambers had subsided and he was largely unable to have his say. He did, however, pose one question and asked for an immediate response.
"Answer me this then - if I recuse myself can they fundraise?"
After a moment of silence, Gonnelli repeated the question.
"If I recuse myself, can they fundraise? Please, answer me at least that."
Leanza was the first to reply saying, "Yes, if you recuse yourself they can fundraise."
Elwell then immediately interjected.
"No! The answer is 'no,' Mike, if you recuse yourself from voting they still can't fundraise. We put you there to vote, not abstain."
Leanza added, "We want you to vote on these matters. If you're fire chief, you will have to recuse from votes pertaining to Hartz Mountain or any other entity that donates to the Fire Department."
Gonnelli maintained that such arguments were purely speculation.
"In eight years on the commission, I have abstained once, and it will probably be another eight before it happens again," said Gonnelli. "How can you assume that every issue before the NJMC that pertains to the town will pose a conflict of interest?"
Leanza responded that with 88 percent of the land is Secaucus controlled by the NJMC (in terms of zoning and planning etc.), that there is a good chance that a good number of votes before the NJMC will present a problem for Gonnelli to vote on so long as he is a fire chief.
Gonnelli's response was that the 88 percent of the land that Leanza was referring to was largely residential and would never have an issue related to it that would go before the NJMC.
Elwell then stated that other members of the Board of Commissioners for the NJMC had told him personally that had Gonnelli voted on the matter involving Wal-Mart in favor of approving the variance for a fuel station, which is what Elwell was fighting for, then they too would have sided with Gonnelli, figuring that he would know what was best for Secaucus.
Gonnelli responded by saying that the Commissioners of the NJMC do what they think is best for everyone in the Meadowlands District. He added that he himself did not just vote on matters pertaining to Secaucus but on matters involving all 14 municipalities within the district. In that regard, Gonnelli argued, his position was not to be the voice of Secaucus but to be a fair commissioner for all involved.
Elwell reiterated that the township had fought hard for representation and a seat at the NJMC and that he wanted Gonnelli to vote on every issue.
Then, with emotions in the room subsiding, Elwell sat back down and with a resigned look and calm voice asked the members of the Fire Department, point blank, what they thought he should do.
"I'll put to you guys, you tell me. What should I do? Should I do what is in the best interest of the Fire Department, or what is in the best interests of the town?" asked Elwell.
A bit shocked and half reluctantly, Captain Francis Prescioso spoke up and said, "What's best for the town," and then looking to his left at Lt. David Smentkowski added, "Right, chief?" which garnered a laugh from council members and effectively lightened the mood and all but ended the debate.
Later, after the caucus had ended, Gonnelli reiterated that he felt the fundraising ban was just a ruse to force him into resigning from one of the two posts that he put a lot of time and energy into.
So why doesn't Town Hall just ask Gonnelli to resign from the NJMC? The answer is, he was appointed by the state, not by the town.
Gonnelli said to them, "It makes no sense. The fire companies raise funds individually and independently from the town. They don't even use the funds they raise for equipment or firefighting - it is for social activities."
Gonnelli continued to insist that speculation on future votes is not cause enough for the ban to stay in effect.
"The only way I can see myself having to abstain again is if a donation is made [by an applicant before the NJMC] that goes directly into the operating budget [of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department] and affects the Fire Department as a whole."
According to Gonnelli, donations made to the Fire Department rarely go into the operating budget for capital improvements or for the purchase of new trucks and gear - the township covers those expenses.
Gonnelli said that if a situation arose whereby one of the other fire companies invited him, as chief, to a function that was funded by donations made to the Fire Department from a possible applicant to the NJMC, that he would simply pay his own way.
But what if a situation came about whereby a donation was made directly to his own fire company?
Of course, Gonnelli could recuse himself again.
"How can [the administration] even be sure that it will be an issue again?" asked Gonnelli. "I don't even know how it got to this point. It's just purely speculation on their part and it's not fair to the other 100 guys that serve on the volunteer fire department."
Nicholas J. Zitelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org